Construction Cranes Housing
Sean MacEntee

State Senator Scott Wiener has never been far from the contentious fray of California’s housing crisis. Last year, his housing streamlining legislation, Senate Bill 35, drew as much public outrage as praise, and squeezed by in a last-minute vote in the Legislature. This year, his proposed SB 827, which would incentivize greater housing density near public transit, has drawn exponentially more ire and support from entrenched factions.

A contentious March 12th meeting at the Land Use and Transportation Committee of the Board of Supervisors pitted supporters and critics of SB 827 over a resolution by Supervisor Aaron Peskin—a residential landlord in San Francisco—to publicly oppose the bill. Citizens and activists contended that the bill would either ameliorate or accelerate the City’s housing crisis, respectively.

For example, a recent San Francisco Planning Department study held that the bill “would likely result in the production of more affordable housing due to overall significantly greater housing production under SB 827 than under existing zoning.” The Planning Department study also noted that local control over demolitions would remain intact, and would potentially be strengthened, while Sen. Wiener’s “Right to Remain” amendments were in fact stronger than “Right to Return” policies for tenants facing home demolition. “Right to Remain” includes provisions requiring property owners to pay for tenants’ temporary moving and relocation costs if they invoke SB 827 to redevelop any rental property, including single-family homes.

Supervisor Peskin, poring over a point-by-point critique, contended that Wiener’s bill was over-broad in its definition of proximity to transit, and not broad enough in its definition of “eligible displaced persons” in its most recent draft. Drawing comparisons to the history of widespread displacement and demolition after the City's redevelopment of the Western Addition neighborhood—a pattern that recent amendments aim to prohibit—Peskin even suggested exploring the possibility of suing the State if the bill were to pass.

Supervisor Jane Kim, a member of the Committee who is running for Mayor, was absent from the hearing. However, she has voiced similar concerns about the bill throughout her campaign.

Committee Chair Katy Tang proposed tweaking Peskin’s resolution to explicitly offer amendments (Peskin himself had called for “substantial, meaningful amendments” as well), rather than categorical opposition. Supervisor Tang explained that she shared many of Peskin’s concerns, noting that her HOME-SF legislation passed last year enabled public “value capture” by trading greater density for higher affordability requirements. The resolution advanced to the full Board of Supervisors with her amendments.

But elsewhere in the Bay Area, several pivotal announcements last week could shift political winds in Wiener’s favor once again.

On Thursday, March 8th, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors voted narrowly in favor of endorsing SB 827, with Directors Josefowitz, Dufty, Simon, Saltzman, and Raburn in the affirmative. The Directors opposed to the bill represent more peripheral suburban stations such as Walnut Creek, Dublin, and Fremont, whereas those voting in support all represent San Francisco and the inner East Bay. In a move parallel to Supervisor Tang’s, the BART Board also conditioned their support on further amendments.

Under SB 827, land adjacent to BART stations could receive a state density bonus at a minimum of 45 feet in height, regardless of local zoning ordinances, and contingent on tenant protections for existing rent-controlled apartments.

“SB 827 would allow necessary transit-oriented housing near BART stops, which is consistent with BART's transit-oriented development goals,” said Louis Mirante, spokesperson for housing advocacy nonprofit California YIMBY, which is sponsoring the bill. Other supporters have argued that the bill could help BART mitigate its declining ridership.

On the same day, developer Blake Griggs Properties announced a proposal for the first project invoking streamlined permitting under SB 35, at 1900 Fourth Street in Berkeley. The proposed project would provide 260 apartments, with 50% reserved for households earning at or below 80% of Area Median Income, on what is currently a parking lot in West Berkeley. Previously, the project had been stalled for several years due to unsubstantiated claims that the site may contain artifacts of archaeological significance from inhabitants of the Ohlone tribe.

The project at 1900 Fourth Street would provide almost as much Below Market-Rate housing (130 units) as Berkeley has built in the past decade. Between 2007 and 2014, just 22 homes in the “Moderate Income” bracket were built, or 4% of its state-mandated goals. Adding the income brackets below that, a mere 185 in total were built.

“Affordable housing is a major beneficiary of SB 35, since the law streamlines affordable housing in almost every California community,” Senator Wiener wrote in a statement. “SB 35 ensures that all communities add new housing. This goes to show that if we push the envelope on housing – which we did with SB 35 – good things will happen.”

SB 35 can only be invoked in a municipality that has not met its state-mandated housing production goals for a particular income level that a project would provide. A recent report found that 97.6% of cities, including Berkeley, had failed to meet those targets.

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