Bill Boyarsky
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SB 50: It will be a fight to remember

bill-300.jpgOne of the most wrenching battles of the turbulent 1960s was over the Rumford Act, a bill to ban racial discrimination in housing. The legislature passed the bill in 1963, the voters repealed it a year later and then the State Supreme Court reinstated the measure. The fight was incredibly furious because it affected something extremely personal and valuable, a person's home.

Senate Bill 50, to a lesser extent, touches the same emotion--a homeowner's belief in the sanctity of the home. Aimed at California's shortage of affordable housing and its related homeless crisis, SB 50 would open up single family neighborhoods to construction of high rise apartment houses and other multiple dwellings near transit lines and stations and in areas that produce a lot of jobs. Think how you would feel if a big apartment house went up next door or if your neighbors converted their home to a fourplex?

That is why the measure by San Francisco Democratic Sen. Scott Weiner is likely to end up as one the year's most controversial and hotly contested bills. There are others dealing with housing affordability and homelessness. They include Gov. Gavin Newsom's plans to spend more than $2 billion for homeless housing and a bill exempting low-income housing projects from state environmental laws. While these will no doubt concern homeowners worried about the homeless near their neighborhoods, none promise more wrenching change than Weiner's bill.

A thorough Los Angeles Times series on Orange County’s homeless explores the opposition to efforts to build affordable housing. The five-part series ran from December 30 through January 5. It was by Luke Money, Faith E. Pinho, Hillary Davis and Priscella Vega.

The team of Times Community News reporters interviewed officials and service workers helping the homeless to find out what the county, the famous heartland of California conservatism, is doing in the face of homelessness that has reached such once-sheltered places as Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. There's too much material in the series for it to be adequately summarized in a comparatively short LA Observed column. But two points that will figure in the coming SB 50 debate struck me.

A powerful factor is how people feel about the homeless in their neighborhoods and around their work places. "Do you know much money they can make by just begging on the street?" a Huntington Beach woman asked the reporters. "I'll tell you it's more money that I can make."

Another important part of the series dealt with the difficulty of getting the elected council members of these fiercely independent cities to cooperate on a solution to a problem that extends beyond municipal boundaries.

Should cities allow homeless shelters? Don't council members have an obligation to protect single-family neighborhoods? Should the state penalize cities that will not go along with legislation such as SB 50? Such penalties are being discussed in Sacramento. Should residents of a city like Newport Beach residents be asked to pay for a shelter in another city?

The reporters put it this way: "Who should determine a city's fair share? And what consequences should there be for cities that don't meet it."

As a young reporter, I covered the Rumford fair housing fight. The impending dispute over SB 50 doesn't compare with that volatile mix of race and home ownership but it will not lack for passion. This conflict will occur behind the scenes. Pro-housing builders and developers, their projects already on the drawing boards, are prepared to exert their considerable lobbying and campaign contribution clout to influence legislators. They will be pitted against those who don't want apartments anywhere near their backyards, the NIMBYs.

Add to this the fate of the homeless and those being forced onto the streets or into their cars by increasing rents. And there is the political fate of Governor Newsom and the legislators, whose careers will be affected by the fierce emotions to be generated by SB 50. It will be a fight to remember.

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