State Lawmakers Reject Bill Reshaping Housing around Transit Centers

By Jeff Mitchell---A high-profile state bill designed to tackle California’s housing shortage by transforming how transit-oriented development is achieved died in committee this week after opponents argued, in part, that it didn’t do enough to expand the stock of affordable housing.

Senate Bill 827, authored by Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco), would have stimulated housing density around transit hubs in a three-fold effort to expand the state’s available housing inventory, get people out of their cars and encourage use of public transit systems.

But the legislation was rejected late Tuesday in a hearing before the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee by opponents who argued the bill took a cookie-cutter approach to transit-hub housing planning and that it didn’t guarantee enough affordable housing.

Had it survived, Weiner said the bill would have circumvented local planning restrictions by building more housing near transit-rich areas like Caltrain and BART stations and major bus transit hubs so that more affordable and walkable neighborhoods could be created. The legislation was a follow-on to the more than $800 million for public transit the California Legislature approved by increasing the state’s vehicle and gas taxes.

In reaction to the bill’s failure to pass, a philosophical Weiner said he understood and appreciated the criticism the bill received.

“While I’m disappointed that Senate Bill 827 won’t be moving forward this year, I’m heartened by the conversation it has started, both with those who support the bill and with critics of the bill.The passion we have seen around this bill is driven by what we are all feeling – that California’s housing costs are unsustainable and our housing policies aren’t working. California needs to get at the heart of our housing shortage, not just work around the edges, or we will become a hollowed- out state with no middle class,” Weiner said Wednesday.

Going forward, Weiner said he would rewrite parts of the SB 827 to incorporate the suggestions of opponents, and he plans to resubmit the legislation in 2019.

Besides cities who felt SB 827 was too heavy- handed in its state-mandated planning dictates, other critics said they felt the bill was too liberal with building height limit -- an element Weiner agreed to revise before Tuesday’s hearing by agreeing to change the allowable height increases to five stories from eight. Weiner eliminated the height increases planned near heavily traveled bus routes.

The text of SB 827 also did not address the issue of whether project labor agreements (PLA's) would be required on any of the transit-oriented developments. Weiner spokesman Jeff ​Cretan said this week the legislation's current language leaves the issue of PLA's to local city and county jurisdictions.

Other opponents of SB 827 included building and trade union councils who said they reluctantly opposed the bill in its current wording.

“SB 827 aims to significantly increase high- density housing near transit, but the amendments do not go far enough to provide the type of housing working families need,” wrote Cesar Diaz, Legislative Director State Building and Trades Council in a letter to the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. “The market-rate housing mixed with a third of commercial space it seeks to produce would limit the availability to create affordable housing units even with the proposed inclusionary housing component. We support a process by which the approval of projects is conditioned with mitigation requirements that ensure infrastructure can support the high-density housing.”

Officials with the Los Angeles-Orange County Building and Trades Council also sent a similar letter of opposition to the committee this week.

When and if Weiner brings revised legislation back next, it will likely continue to enjoy the support of some significant but not always aligned political organizations in the state. Officials with the nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California, which represents more than 750 affordable housing developers, said this of SB 827:

“(The legislation represents) a bold approach to address our state’s affordable housing crisis by promoting inclusive growth combating restrictive and exclusionary zoning and protecting existing affordability.”

Other groups in support of the bill included the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California Building Industry Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Apartment Association, Habitat for Humanity, the Bay Area Council, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, among others.

Jeff Mitchell edits The Conduit.