Curbed: One legislator’s solution to California’s housing crisis

January 24, 2018

By Patrick Sisson  Read the interview on

“Over the 20 years I’ve lived in San Francisco, I’ve seen the human carnage caused by our bad housing policy,” says California State Senator Scott Wiener. “This isn’t an academic exercise. This is real. This is about people who are struggling and who are at risk. And we need to pull our heads out of the sand.”

Sen. Wiener’s isn’t shy about raising a battle cry for better housing policy. A long-time city legislator who now represents the 11th District, covering parts of San Francisco and San Mateo County, Wiener has put forward a bill that’s become a talking point in California’s current housing crisis, a rallying cry for many urbanists, as well as a prime example of overreach and bad planning, according to its detractors.

Known as the Transit Zoning Bill, SB 827 would allow new housing near major transit hubs to be built up to eight stories tall, overriding local zoning restrictions. By linking denser development with transit, Wiener argues it’ll add more affordable, sustainable units to a state desperately in need. A recent McKinsey study underlines the scope of this “chronic” housing crisis: the shortage costs the state $140 billion a year in lost economic output.

“Small changes aren’t going to change housing in California,” Wiener says. “That’s what motivates me.”

Curbed spoke with Senator Wiener about SB 827, the feedback he’s received, and why this bill is about the environment, as well as housing. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

“Housing is a really touchy issue in many communities, my own included. Any time you propose a change to housing and land use, you’re going to get a lot of pushback. Some will be very thoughtful pushback, and some will be hyperbolic. But the reality is that California is strangling itself and has been for a long time. People get almost immune to hearing about the housing crisis, it’s just words. Look at the real human cost of what’s happening, homelessness being the most visible sign. Look at the number of people who are leaving, middle class families who just can’t make a go of it, seniors struggling to stay in their homes, young people who just can’t make it.”

“It’s just not acceptable for rents and housing costs to be as high as they are. At the heart of all of this is that as a state, we under-produce by about 100,000 housing units every year, and we have a housing debt that’s growing. We can’t just do little changes and nips and tucks. Building dense housing around transit is one of the most pro-affordability and pro-sustainability things we can do.”

How do you see SB 827 impacting your district, city, and region? There have been lots of calls by other local leaders and writers such as Becky O’Malley in Berkeley to oppose the bill. How will this help your district?

“It will absolutely impact my district, and I will take heat in my district. I already am. I have one of my regular town halls coming up, and there are already people telling me they need to come to the meeting to tell me how terrible the bill is. The west side of San Francisco is low density, lots of single-family homes with lots of public transportation. The west side of San Francisco will definitely be zoned with more density, based on this bill. But not just the west side. My own neighborhood will have increased density, something I already pushed for when I was on the Board of Supervisors.”

“This bill is an aggressive bill, and is already generating a lot of debate around the state, which I think is a healthy discussion. There will be give and take. I’m very actively listening to voters, local elected officials, environmentalists, and affordable housing advocates, and taking in as much input as I can get.”

You’ve mentioned, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle editorial, that the bill isn’t in its final form. What do you see as potentially changing and being amended going forward?

“We’ll put explicit language about demolitions and displacement. The goal of this bill, and my housing work in general, isn’t to demolish housing, it’s to add to the housing that we already have. SB 35 last year, my housing streamlining bill, had strong demolition controls so as not to destroy rent-controlled housing. In SB 827 we initially didn’t put those controls in because the bill does not in any way change local demolition controls. But, we are going to put anti-demolition language in the bill and are crafting that language now.”

“We also will be having discussions about inclusionary housing and zoning. To be explicit about this, this bill doesn’t change any local inclusionary housing requirements. This bill will lead to more affordable housing. People assume this bill changes all local control, and it doesn’t. All it does is allow people to create more density around public transportation.”

Critics have said that without adding more affordable housing mandates, SB 827 won’t accomplish your goal of adding more affordable housing, it’ll just spur on additional development. Some from West Hollywood have said that 99 percent of their neighborhood will be impacted by this bill, and without more explicit language, this will just allow more pricy condos, densify the area, and overwhelm local infrastructure. How would you address their concerns?

“In two ways. One, I believe West Hollywood has an inclusionary zoning ordinance. In cities with inclusionary requirements, building more units creates more affordable housing. If you have a parcel that was zoned for a smaller number of units, and with SB 827, you can build more units on that parcel, it’ll lead to more affordable housing. Local communities make their own decisions about inclusionary requirements, and they’ll 100 percent apply to any units created under this bill. “

“I take deep issue with this idea that any housing unit that isn’t income-restricted is automatically a luxury unit. That is absolutely bogus. Clearly, there is such a thing as luxury housing. But the reason new housing is expensive in California is that all housing is expensive. A 100-year-old unit is expensive. It’s like that because we’ve shot ourselves in the foot, and have made it impossible to build enough housing. That’s what makes it expensive. The type of apartment building built under this bill isn’t luxury housing. Just old-school, small apartment buildings, the missing middle of 4-, 5- or 8-story structures.”

How vital is it for the state’s environmental goals to couple transit and housing?

“It is absolutely essential. Forty percent of carbon emissions in California are from transportation, and a big reason for that is because we’ve prohibited housing and density near public transportation and urban areas, and have created sprawl. If we have more people living closer to public transportation, so they’re not driving or driving less, it’ll give us a much better chance of meeting out climate goals. We’ll never meet them with current land-use patterns.”

Across the nation, there’s a large discussion about state versus local control. Many progressive cities complain about states holding them back or restricting certain actions. Why, in this case, should the state be able to overrule local zoning and housing policy?

“Many policy areas are balanced between state and local control. Take public education: it’s under local control, but states set parameters because education is a statewide issue. The same needs to be true of housing. We’ve been very out of whack where the state has had almost no role. For many years, we’ve taken the view that’s it’s almost exclusively a local issue.”

“Communities can decide if they want to add housing, or very little housing, or just high-end housing and no low-income housing. We’ve allowed this to happen. Even when the state has had laws on the books, such as the Housing Accountability Act, those laws either have no teeth or haven’t been enforced. What we’re seeing with this proposal isn’t a state takeover of housing. It’s simply a rebalancing. SB 827 doesn’t take over all local zoning. It just sets a baseline, and says if you’re near public transportation, you must allow some degree of density.”

What comes next for SB 827? What are the chances of passage?

“It’s a hard bill, there’s no doubt about it. It’s been getting a tremendous amount of support, as well as tremendous pushback. We have another two, two-and-a-half months before bringing this to its first committee hearing. It’s a heavy lift and isn’t guaranteed to pass. But this is a critically important topic and I’m committed to this bill. If it doesn’t pass this year I’ll be back next year.“