Capitol Alert

Cheaper California housing? One idea to lower costs makes candidates for governor uneasy

It’s a controversial idea that advocates say could help alleviate California's worsening housing crisis: strip cities of some of their zoning authority to unleash an enormous amount of new construction.

State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco wants to give the state more power over land use within a half-mile of major transit stops or a quarter-mile of bus lines to create a more developer-friendly environment for new housing.

But the proposal isn’t finding its footing with California’s candidates for governor this year. Both major Republicans flatly oppose it. Even Democrats who were initially favorable are clarifying their position or walking back from previous comments as opposition heats up from mayors and other local elected officials.

"You have to be as bold as the problem is big – encourage the kind of work that Scott Wiener is doing," Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom said earlier this month. "All of that I think is inherently a requirement...for the next administration if we're going to get out of this rut and get serious about this crisis in this state."

Newsom at the time said he admires Wiener's "ingenuity and resolve" on pushing aggressive housing bills. "I think it's required at this moment," he said.

But Newsom spokesman Nathan Click emphasized to The Sacramento Bee this week that he has not formally endorsed the measure. Asked to explain his position, Newsom said in a statement that he supports "the intent" of the bill but did not specify his concerns.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the race have pledged a massive wave of new construction if elected in an effort to bring down housing costs – or at least slow the increase. Yet the debate around Wiener's bill, which he acknowledges might not reach Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk this year, underscores the thorny political environment they'd be forced to negotiate to accomplish their goals.

Senate Bill 827 would establish a uniform statewide standard for housing in transit-rich zones and prevent cities from blocking construction of new multifamily apartment buildings based on height or density.

Early in March, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that "too many communities...too easily push back and say 'no.'"

"We're going to have to address that," he said. "I want to start out with incentives...but if necessary, in order to deal with this man-made disaster, we're going to have to push back and do by-right,” a speedier approach to housing that removes some local authority over land-use regulations.

He said in back-to-back debates this week that he'd like to see part of the bill strengthened to apply to areas not well-served by transit. But he is opposed to its major component – giving the state more authority over housing development near transit in cities and counties.

"It goes too far on the zoning," Villaraigosa said about the bill at a debate in San Diego Sunday. "I don't think any mayor in the state wants the state government – the governor and the Legislature – to tell them what they need to do."

Former state schools chief Delaine Eastin said this week she thinks the bill "needs some work" to "ensure some more local control than it's giving right now." Earlier the Democrat supported it, saying on March 8 that "I think it's time and it's over past due."

State Treasurer John Chiang, also a Democrat, had not said firmly where he stands until Monday night.

"I would veto it, as of today," he said of the Wiener bill. "I want to build around transportation centers...but we need to make sure there's local control."

Both Republicans in the race have said unequivocally that they're against it.

"I'm opposed to a one-sized-fits-all solution from the state," Cox said Sunday. "The only way to get more housing is to reduce the regulations. The only way to bring down the cost of housing is more supply."

Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, thinks Wiener's whole concept is misguided.

"What Californians want are more single-family homes. What Californians want is a front yard and a backyard," Allen said. "We have to return more power to our local jurisdictions, not take the power away from them."

Where the candidates fall on the issue could be a signal for the future of home-building in California and how the state addresses its housing challenges.

After a report last year found California needs 3.5 million new homes in the next seven years to meet demand, Newsom and Villaraigosa adopted the aggressive target as part of their campaign platforms.

But local opposition could kill, or significantly water down current and future ideas for new housing. Berkeley's mayor, for example, has blasted Wiener's bill as "a declaration of war against our neighborhoods." San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim, running for mayor, has characterized it as the "Manhattanization" of California cities. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is against it.

"This bill is too blunt for our single-family home areas," Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar told The Bee in a statement this week.

But Wiener says his own upbringing in local politics in San Francisco – the epicenter of the state's housing affordability crisis – is driving his thinking. California has more homeless people than any other state in the country, and rents are climbing higher than $4,000 per month in desirable places like San Francisco. Over the past decade, the state's high housing costs drove 1 million people out of California, according to a February analysis by the state Legislative Analyst's Office.

Still, California's population is expected to climb by nearly 7 million people over the next two decades, according to the state, with that growth concentrated in cities. The projections are creating an urgency for Wiener, who worries stagnant housing construction will further intensify the crisis and hurt the state's economy and environment.

"We need to get back to the way we used to build housing in California, to accommodate a growing population," Wiener said. "We stopped doing that."

In a recent interview, Wiener surveyed his surroundings as he walked the streets of San Francisco's Duboce Triangle, lined with upscale Victorians and mid-rise apartment buildings. Situated on the outskirts of the city's Castro District, the neighborhood is bisected by a major light rail corridor and is walking distance from several major bus and train stations used by the city's residents as their primary form of transportation.

A train zipped by as he turned onto Noe Street. On one side, the city forbids new construction larger than three-unit buildings. On the other, the city allows more dense apartment construction.

"Today, that lovely apartment building that houses five, maybe six families would be illegal," Wiener said, pointing at a roughly 40-foot high building. "We want to allow those kinds of apartment buildings."

There are no official projections on how many units the bill could generate, but a data analysis by Urban Footprint found in three areas of the East Bay, new zoning allowing for higher, more dense apartments could dramatically increase construction around Bay Area Rapid Transit centers.

In one scenario, housing within a half-mile of the Orinda BART station climbs from 731 current units, to a staggering 12,090. Around Rockridge BART in Oakland, units would increase from 4,096 at present to 25,500. At MacArthur also in Oakland, it's a similar increase — from 4,447 units now to 27,156.

The polarizing issue has mobilized lobbyists in Sacramento and housing activists across the state. Some see it as a threat to low-income people and black and Latino neighborhoods, while others see it as a chance to do something big on housing for a second consecutive year.

"I really hope this is the direction that we go as a state," said Micah Weinberg, president of the Bay Area Council's Economic Institute. "Without building enough volume to accommodate the demand, all this talk about building housing is just empty promises and we're going to end up as a country club with extraordinary income inequality across regions of the state."

Pro-growth housing activists pushing for major change in the state Legislature say the state must stop "local obstructionism" in cities.

"For decades now, we've had this slow-burning housing crisis because local governments have refused to permit sufficient's time for the state to step in," said Brian Hanlon, executive director of California YIMBY, a pro-growth housing group pushing Wiener's bill. "The longer we delay solving this crisis, the more Californians will be living on the streets, more will be displaced, more will have to flee California and more will suffer from rent burdens and never realize their dreams of home ownership."

Jason Rhine, the lead housing lobbyist with the League of California Cities, said the organization opposes the bill because it "sidelines" existing local housing plans.

"We see it as giving our land use authority...over to developers within a half-mile of transit," Rhine said. "It lets developers choose 'McMansions' or 10-story buildings."

Anti-displacement groups are also denouncing the measure.

"We don't just oppose this bill, we are offended by it," said Shanti Singh, a spokeswoman for Tenants Together, a statewide tenants' rights organization based in San Francisco. "It's a massive giveaway to land owners and developers that will cause a tsunami of mass gentrification of communities of color and low-income residents while giving nothing back to local communities."

Wiener is familiar with the criticism.

"I could care less how much money developers make," he said. "That is not my concern. My concern is having enough housing for people."

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