A major triad of housing bills from SF’s State Senator could resolve some long-standing tensions amid a statewide crisis.
State Sen. Scott Wiener remained undeterred after this year’s unceremonious demise of his controversial transit density bill, SB 827, vowing almost immediately to bring it back. As the next legislative session gears up, some key revisions to his approach could signal fairer political winds ahead. Senate Bill 50 places tenant protections and union labor requirements front and center, but as with last year’s legislative battles, other bills in the Democratic housing strategy could pack an even greater punch.
Wiener raised the stakes for the next session’s housing legislation agenda with two key proposals: Senate Bill 48, which would introduce a “right to shelter” similar to a longstanding policy in New York City, and Senate Constitutional Amendment 1, which would repeal a requirement for local voter approval of low-income public housing.
SB 827 exploded like a landmine into the national housing conversation in January of 2018, as soaring home prices in virtually every urban region forces lower-income workers into ever-longer commutes, exacerbating income inequality and climate change. Wiener’s approach directly targeted a root cause of the crisis: increasing allowable density around public transit hubs to ease the supply shortage and encourage shorter, car-free commutes. More affluent, suburban-dwelling representatives were inflamed by the perceived attack on local municipal sovereignty—at times flirting with outright xenophobia and classism as in the case of Beverly Hills Vice Mayor John Mirisch or Marin County blogger Stephen Nestel.
But Wiener was also outflanked by broad opposition from tenants’ rights groups, particularly in Los Angeles, concerned that a broad increase in density would encourage demolitions and evictions. With faltering support from construction labor interests, and disdain from Senate Transportation and Land Use Committee Chairperson Sen. Jim Beall (D – Campbell), Wiener’s effort was doomed.
Senate Bill 50 evinces Wiener and his allies in the legislature back in action, with many of these concerns anticipated and incorporated into its core structure. For example, SB 50 outright prohibits the use of its zoning changes to demolish properties that renters occupied in the past 7 years, and extends this prohibition for owner move-in evictions enabled by the Ellis Act to 15 years. The bill more explicitly targets higher-income neighborhoods and “jobs-rich” areas with high employment and well-performing schools even in absence of reliable public transit, while offering more local control and delayed implementation for “Sensitive Communities” with concentrated poverty and minority populations. Additionally, the bill would enforce new affordability requirements for “inclusionary housing” statewide for qualifying projects.
While SB 50 remains in its early drafting stages, enough details have been worked out to win over key stakeholders who opposed Wiener’s earlier effort, including organized labor. The State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, which opposed SB 827, now endorses SB 50, as the bill includes a provision that would preserve statewide labor standards.
“We believe that working together will significantly advance transit-oriented development policies that provide residents, especially working families, access to affordable housing, services, and reliable and clean modes of transportation,” stated Cesar Diaz, Legislative and Political Director for the group. “We look forward to working with Senator Wiener to promote policies that will build more affordable housing while protecting workers and communities.”
Michael Lane, Policy Director for the Non-Profit Housing Association of North California (NPHANC), also emphasized that increasing density in high-cost urban areas was essential to providing nonprofit affordable housing for households who are unable to afford soaring market-rate prices.
“Multi-family sites are among the rarest, particularly in suburban jurisdictions, and our nonprofit developers are competing with market-rate,” Lane said. “It’s important to open up more sites for affordable housing, we think, and it could hopefully put downward pressure on real estate prices.”
Lane also stressed that even modest density, so long as it didn’t restrict land to single-family dwellings, is a basic condition for developing affordable housing. “It could just be a two-story walk-up structure, but obviously single-family zoning doesn’t work for that,” he said.
In an interview with Streetsblog, Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of the transportation equity group TransForm, expressed much warmer sentiments over Wiener’s current effort. “While there are still details in the bill to be worked out, such as affordability requirements, it looks like a tremendous improvement over SB 827 (which TransForm did not support),” Cohen told Streetsblog. “One of the biggest improvements is in the area of tenant protections…The last thing we need is a new round of displacement.”
Cohen added that the bill should be considered as merely one piece of a bigger puzzle: “The bill is much stronger and TransForm will be considering whether to support it in its current form. But importantly it does not address all aspects of the housing crisis— no single bill could,” he said. Cohen pointed to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Committee to House the Bay Area, which recently released its CASA Compact policy framework, as an example of a broader approach.
While many social equity advocacy groups have not yet weighed in on the bill, Sen. Wiener earned support from previous critics both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including Los Angeles’ once-skeptical Mayor Eric Garcetti. In a joint statement with Wiener, Garcetti wrote: “This bill is a good first step, and I will continue working with him to make certain that these statewide solutions are the right fit for Angelenos.”
Wiener’s announcement came with endorsements from major Bay Area mayors including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Emeryville Mayor John Bauters, and El Cerrito Mayor Gabriel Quinto.
While advocates in San Francisco’s Mission District have frequently opposed Wiener’s housing platform, representatives from the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) remained cautious at a recent rally against the bill, noting that tenant protection provisions were “good features” that should remain and be strengthened. “We need to make sure that adding density doesn’t increase displacement. It’s a very interesting idea, but we need to be careful of any unintended consequences…that could harm the most vulnerable,” said Norma Garcia, Policy and Advocacy Director at MEDA.
Garcia also urged a greater emphasis on lower-income populations, such as the Latino community in the Mission that MEDA primarily serves. “Prioritizing those hardest-hit by the housing affordability crisis is paramount,” Garcia added.
Although the bill already has more staunch opposition, some of these criticisms have largely focused on the reforms targeting single-family zoning, despite exemptions for any renter-occupied property. Tim Redmond, editor of San Francisco-based 48 Hills, excoriated Wiener in a recent editorial because the bill “has no such protections for commercial property or for owner-occupied single-family homes.” However, California voters passed Proposition 99 in 2008, prohibiting the use of eminent domain for demolishing and redeveloping owner-occupied housing. At press time, Redmond has not yet responded to questions regarding what additional protections homeowners would need.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D – Berkeley), a coauthor of the bill, lambasted Los Altos Vice Mayor Lynette Lee Eng on Twitter for saying the bill would “Manhattanize” the Bay Area, though the density increases in SB 50 top off at 5 stories near train stations and ferries.
Separately, Senator Skinner also introduced Senate Bill 18, which would provide state funding for legal representation in eviction cases, as well as rental assistance to prevent evictions. (Senator Skinner informed the Beacon that this bill is also in very preliminary drafting stages.) San Francisco’s Proposition F, passed this June, remains the only policy statewide to fund civil counsel for tenants.
On some aspects of these reforms, a few cities have already gone farther than Wiener’s bill has proposed. While SB 50 would cap allowable parking requirements at 0.5 spaces per dwelling unit, Berkeley passed an ordinance in 2015 repealing minimum parking requirements for new development, and a new ordinance from Supervisor Jane Kim would do the same for San Francisco.
Even Wiener has acknowledged increasing density isn’t enough, hence the opportunity for a comprehensive package. California’s spate of homelessness and poverty—the highest in the nation—is inextricably linked to its overall shortage of housing and lack of public investment in shelter, but often require discrete policy solutions.
Enter Senate Bill 48, a “right to shelter” modeled after New York City’s policy, which the city was forced to adopt in 1981 after a consent decree issued by the New York State Supreme Court interpreted a provision in the State Constitution as an affirmative mandate to provide shelter. The policy has greatly reduced New York’s unsheltered population, preventing deaths on the street due to the winter cold—but for decades, observers have blamed coastal California’s relatively temperate climate for putting off similar policies. No longer.
“Shelter isn’t the ultimate goal—permanent housing is the goal— but shelter is a critical step in helping people get back on their feet,” Sen. Wiener wrote in a statement. “Access to shelter shouldn’t depend on where you live, yet in California today, it does. Too many parts of California either have no shelters or inadequate shelters.”
Under its current intent, SB 48 would require more comprehensive shelters than what many California cities provide, including shelter and storage without a daily sign-up queue, and an ability to store possessions and remain with partners. Though the bill remains in its earliest stages, it could have wide-ranging impacts on a state where cities such as Irvine have fought tooth and nail against county-mandated homeless shelters.
That’s far from the only tectonic shift on the horizon.
Together with State Sen. Ben Allen (D – Los Angeles), Wiener also introduced a constitutional amendment to be placed on the 2020 ballot that would repeal Article 34 of the California Constitution, which requires a local referendum to approve any “low-rent” housing funded primarily by one public source.
“Article 34 is a racist provision in the California Constitution— designed to keep people of color and poor people out of certain neighborhoods— and it needs to be repealed,” Wiener wrote in a statement. Passed by voters in 1950, Article 34’s design was explicitly rooted in racial segregation motives, and Wiener cited the Beacon’s own research in support.
Additionally, Wiener’s office estimated that Article 34 compliance costs affordable housing developers between 1% to 15% of the total cost of each unit built. This time, Mayor Garcetti offered full-throated support:
“L.A. fought for—and won—billions of new affordable housing dollars in the last three years, but Article 34 inflicts unnecessary and costly burdens on cities, delaying the construction of housing in the communities we need it most,” Garcetti wrote in a statement. “I am proud that we’re co-sponsoring a bill that will cut red tape, and help eliminate housing discrimination in our State’s Constitution.”
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