Terry McLaughlin: Efforts at alleviating affordable housing crisis gone awry?
April 11, 2018
As the exodus of taxpaying residents from California continues, the state is waking up to the fact that our housing market is in crisis and much too expensive for many people.
Legislation aimed at alleviating both this affordability crisis and housing shortage is moving through the state legislature, but these proposals may be just another example of good intentions resulting in questionable outcomes.
A signature piece of this legislation, California Senate Bill 827, is currently working its way through committee. Introduced by State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill is aimed at increasing the amount of housing built near public transit stops. The bill defines a transit-rich housing project as "a residential development project the parcels of which are all within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop or a quarter-mile radius of a stop on a high-quality transit corridor."
The bill would exempt "an eligible applicant … from various requirements, including maximum controls on residential density, maximum controls on floor area ratio … minimum automobile parking requirements, maximum height limitations, and zoning or design controls …" This bill would essentially exempt qualified "transit-rich housing" projects from local zoning ordinances and permit construction of four- to eight-story buildings free from minimum parking requirements.
Legislation that overrides local zoning controls is rarely popular in California.
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Proponents of the bill see it as a way to increase the supply of housing and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the need for private transportation. Opponents see it as an overreach of state power that would destroy the character and autonomy of local communities, displace long-established residents so developers could build more luxury condo towers, and at the same time discourage the building of new mass transit systems.
How much area in major California cities would actually fall under this bill? A preliminary analysis by the San Francisco Planning Department shows that, due to the prevalence of SF Muni, basically all of San Francisco except Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and Lake Merced Park would be effected — a full 96 percent of San Francisco land.
"SB 827 would rezone the entire city", Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards complained at a March 15 meeting.
According to the Los Angelese Times, local zoning control of over 190,000 parcels in Los Angeles would also be lost. A more rigorous analysis of how this bill would apply to smaller California cities has not yet been conducted, but the potential effect is huge.
While building housing near transit centers is a smart idea, it must be accomplished in a manner that does not threaten existing communities nor discourage the building of new transit.
While many environmentalists do support this bill, California's Sierra Club voiced strong opposition in a Jan. 18 letter to Wiener, stating "SB 827 would marry transit development to a loss of local zoning control, and promise to up-zone to eight story buildings areas near a transit corridor and major transit stop. This approach would surely increase opposition … to sorely needed transit investments … We believe that your bill is a heavy-handed approach … that will ultimately lead to less transit being offered and more pollution generated, among other unintended consequences. … Some of these areas consist of disadvantaged communities that already face extreme pressure from gentrification. By imposing much higher density and taking over zoning from local governments, the bill could result in these communities losing protections that prevent economic pressures from driving people out of their homes, replacing single-family homes with luxury units … The increase in the cost of the land from new luxury units can increase rents that further displacement."
The Sierra Club is not alone in their concern about the displacement or demolition of existing housing near transit hubs. A recent study by housing economists at the University of California, Berkeley concluded that there is no guarantee market-rate housing will become more affordable as it ages, which calls into question one of the key premises upon which SB 827 operates.
Market-rate housing is the most profitable for developers, and SB 827 would deregulate the building process in some of the most desirable areas in California. Highly dense, market-rate buildings can cause the surrounding land prices to surge, leading to even greater displacement. The UC Berkeley study found that government-subsidized housing is twice as effective at stemming displacement as market-rate housing.
Legislation that overrides local zoning controls is rarely popular in California. Homeowners in many regions of the state do not favor the idea of apartment or condominium towers with little or no parking, going up next door to them. Mayors, city council members, and county supervisors up and down the state have come out against this bill, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA Councilman David Ryu, who told the LA Times that the "well-intended bill would accelerate displacement of renters and spur a housing boom for a privileged few and eviction notices for everyone else."
Opposition to state interference in local zoning and planning decisions has been particularly fierce in Marin County, and if SB 827 is to receive a full vote of the Legislature, it will first have to clear a committee controlled by Marin County State Senator Mike McGuire.
McGuire, a member of Weiner's own party, could singlehandedly squelch this legislation by preventing it from even moving past his desk and receiving a vote. The California Sierra Club, among others, apparently hopes he does.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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