Capitol Alert

California housing showdown draws key interest groups

Look at what Sen. Scott Wiener wants to do with his controversial housing bill

Senate Bill 827 by Scott Wiener of San Francisco is aimed at encouraging a large amount of new construction across California.
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Senate Bill 827 by Scott Wiener of San Francisco is aimed at encouraging a large amount of new construction across California.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, faces his first major legislative test today on his controversial housing bill that has split special interests in Sacramento.

Opposition has grown more intense over the past three months, with major California cities resisting the proposal that would strip local governments' land use authority in transit-rich areas. San Francisco and Los Angeles are against it, along with the Sierra Club, tenants rights' groups and influential housing advocacy groups including Housing California and the California Housing Consortium.

On the other side, a new political coalition has emerged amid California's unprecedented housing affordability crisis. Backed by wealthy Silicon Valley tech CEOs, California YIMBY, the chief sponsor of Wiener's Senate Bill 827, has made the proposal its biggest priority this year. Development interests also are backing the agenda, and the Natural Resources Defense Council supports the concept, as do professors of urban planning in California's major universities.

"It's always been within the power of local governments to alleviate this crisis, but they have consistently failed to act. (Wiener's bill) can break the gridlock and put housing where it belongs," wrote 22 mostly University of California professors in a support letter last month.

But tenants' rights activists say the bill could lead to the displacement of low-income people and communities of color, and note that support from the California Apartment Association and the California Association of Realtors means they will gain financially under the bill at the expense of affordable housing.

Damien Goodmon, executive director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition who is also working on a pro-rent control statewide ballot initiative, said in response to the urban planning professors that real estate interests are supporting the Wiener bill are the "chief financial beneficiaries of the crisis that most impacts the working class throughout the state."

Wiener has made several amendments that significantly water down his initial proposal. He has scaled back the height and density allowances near transit, narrowed the transit zones to which it could apply by excluding some bus lines, removed the ability for developers to construct buildings up to 85 feet high (one of the most controversial parts of the bill), strengthened protections for tenants of rent-controlled buildings and significantly delayed implementation of the bill.

Should it pass and clear the governor's desk, developers wouldn't be able to propose new housing in the transit corridors until 2021 or later, a change aimed at giving skeptical cities and counties more time to develop and implement their own land use policies focused on increasing housing near transit.

Brian Hanlon, executive director of California YIMBY, said the changes were made to give the bill a better chance of passing its first committee hearing today.

"We want to work with local governments in order to ensure SB 827 is a success, and they asked for a delayed implementation period, so we thought that was a reasonable ask," Hanlon said. "Obviously my preference would be to take immediate action, but there are many local leaders saying 'We appreciate what you're doing but we really just need time to plan.'"

California has attributed its housing problems to high demand coupled with a severe shortage that has grown worse for decades.

Hanlon, who started lobbying for pro-housing bills last year, promises to continue pushing an ambitious housing agenda for California no matter the outcome of Wiener's bill. He said what's needed is a bigger more diverse coalition of housing, environmental and social justice groups pushing for more development, including of affordable housing for low-income and homeless people.

"We've been underbuilding for 40 years. We have people dying on our streets. Every day, millions of Californians think to themselves, 'Is this the day I plan my exit' because they cannot make it here," he said. "Elon Musk isn't going to save us. We can't just EV our way out of this crisis. We need to change how we use land."

The Senate Transportation and Housing committee hearing begins at 3:30 p.m. in Room 4203 of the Capitol.

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