My Transit Density Bill (SB 827): Answering Common Questions and Debunking Misinformation

A summary of California's SB827, which will allow more housing near transit corridors.

Scott Wiener | January 19, 2018 | |
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Our recent announcement of my bill (Senate Bill 827) allowing for more housing near public transportation has drawn a lot of attention, questions, and feedback. Sadly, some have also spread misinformation about the bill. This piece attempts to answer common questions and debunk misinformation.

California is in a deep housing crisis — threatening our state’s environment, economy, diversity, and quality of life — and needs an enormous amount of additional housing at all income levels. Mid-rise housing (i.e., not single-family homes and not high rises) near public transportation is an equitable, sustainable, and promising source for new housing. SB 827 promotes this kind of housing by prohibiting density restrictions (for example, local ordinances mandating only single-family homes) within a half mile of a major transit station or a quarter mile of a bus stop on a frequent bus line. The bill also sets the maximum zoned height in these areas at 45, 55, or 85 feet — that is, between 4 and 8 stories— depending on the nature of the street. (Those heights are maximums. Developers can choose to build shorter, but cities can’t force them to build shorter through restrictive zoning. Cities can allow taller heights, however.)

65-foot tall apartment building at 9th and Judah in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset district

To be clear, in terms of the big picture:

  • The only way we will make housing more affordable and significantly reduce displacement is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation (along with investments in affordable housing and strong anti-displacement protections).
  • The only way we will meet our climate and air quality goals is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation.
  • The only way we will continue to grow California’s economy is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation.

Despite the critical importance of housing accessible to public transportation, many transit hubs and transit-rich areas are surrounded by mandated low-density housing, even strictly limited to single-family homes.

Restricting transit-rich areas to low-density housing has several negative impacts. First, it significantly limits how many people can easily use transit and thus drive less. By severely limiting who can live near transit, we push people farther away, force them to drive, create crushing commutes, and reduce transit ridership, all of which undermine our transit investments. Second, severely limiting density around transit perpetuates an ugly American reality: that restrictive low-density zoning has historically been a tool to exclude people of color, especially African-Americans, and poor people from neighborhoods. Indeed, low-density zoning—banning apartment buildings—was invented shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive zoning laws were unenforceable.

By removing density limits near public transportation, increasing the allowable height to create a path for mid-rise, multi-family housing, and exempting these transit-oriented projects from parking restrictions, we can encourage equitable, transit-oriented, sustainable, less expensive housing exactly where it makes the most sense.

Marea Alta, a mid-rise affordable housing development built on an old parking lot across the street from the San Leandro BART Station (Bridge Housing)

Since announcing the bill, we’ve received significant and broad support. People intuitively understand that dense housing around public transportation makes an awful lot of sense. We’ve also received a number of questions and concerns about the bill, which we welcome. We are already working with supporters, as well as skeptics, to gather as much constructive feedback as possible, with an eye toward amending the bill in February to make it even stronger.

Unfortunately, some have spread misinformation about the bill as well. For example, some have falsely claimed SB 827 will lead to demolition and displacement; it will not. Some have said it will change local approval processes and prevent communities from requiring community benefits around development; it will not. Sadly, the people spreading misinformation include the people who promoted Measure S in Los Angeles (the failed measure to shut down housing development), who opposed Measure M (the successful Los Angeles transportation funding measure), and who oppose low income housing and train service in Marin County.

We will continue to refine SB 827 to achieve our fundamental goal of more housing for more people within walking distance of reliable transportation, especially in areas that have traditionally excluded multi-family housing. We’re committed to a bill that adds housing in a sustainable and equitable way.

As we continue to engage with communities across the state on SB 827, we will have a healthy debate around housing in California. Here are a few questions and concerns that have come up already:

  • Will SB 827 cause gentrification or lead to demolition of existing neighborhoods?

Absolutely not. Creating more housing for people does not lead to gentrification, and SB 827 does not make it any easier to demolish housing. To the contrary, SB 827 creates more housing opportunities for more people and tackles head on the ugly reality that mandated low-density zoning excludes poor people and—per the intent when low-density zoning was created 100 years ago—people of color.

“Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.” — Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Gentrification is fueled by a lack of housing. When we don’t have enough housing, people compete for limited housing, and prices are pushed up. Moreover, when there isn’t enough housing and rents skyrocket, landlords have an economic incentive to push out long-term renters by raising the rent or evicting them to bring in higher-paying tenants. To fight gentrification we need more housing overall to reduce pressure on existing residents. Combined with that increase in overall housing, we must have strong investment in subsidized affordable housing for low income people, as well as strong protections against evictions and demolition of apartment buildings. More housing overall, combined with low income housing and displacement protections, will lead to a healthier and more affordable housing situation.

By requiring denser housing development near public transportation, SB 827 will help reduce displacement pressures and allow more people to live near transit. The current state of affairs — with major transit hubs surrounded by expensive single-family homes — is anything but equitable. It ensures that only a select few will be able to live near transit and exacerbates gentrification in those neighborhoods and other neighborhoods.

When we are in the depths of a housing crisis, like we are, the few areas rezoned by cities for high-density often see rapid development to accommodate housing demand while wealthier, low-density neighborhoods are left completely intact. SB 827 will spread multifamily zoning opportunities across more neighborhoods with high-quality transit access—including wealthier suburbs with strong transit access—rather than concentrating it only in a few areas. SB 827 is an unprecedented action *against* restrictive land-use restrictions with origins in racial discrimination and exclusion. So many Californians are reliant on or could benefit from public transportation, but they’re unable to afford a single-family home on a spacious lot and therefore are excluded from having reasonable access to this vital urban infrastructure.

Some have stated that SB 827, by allowing more homes to be built, will lead to demolitions and displacement. That is false. SB 827 does *not* in any way change local limits on rent increases or demolitions. If a city has rent control, it will continue to have rent control. If a city has an inclusionary housing ordinance (i.e., requiring a portion of new units to be affordable to low income people), it will continue to have that ordinance. And, if a city restricts demolitions of apartment buildings (as many do, particularly for rent-controlled buildings), those controls will remain fully in place.

In addition, we are looking at ways to include anti-displacement provisions directly in SB 827, in particular around demolition controls and affordability requirements. We will solve the housing crisis by having more housing while also protecting existing residents in their housing. I am completely opposed to incentivizing evictions and demolitions of sound housing—these actions have no place in a smart housing plan—and I fully support adding affordable housing for lower-income people. Our communities are stronger when they are stable and families are secure in their housing.

Yet, as we work toward stronger anti-displacement protections, we must not lose sight of the reality that low-density zoning around public transportation is exclusionary. It reduces the number of people who can live near transit and keeps out poor people by ensuring that these homes are extremely expensive. If we are serious about equitable housing access, we will achieve that important goal by increasing density around transit and ensuring strong anti-displacement and affordable housing requirements.

8-story affordable housing project near transit at 7th and H Street in Sacramento (Mercy Housing)

Will SB 827 reduce support for transit investment?

No. Some otherwise-supporters of SB 827 worry that anti-housing communities will reduce public transportation investments or fight new public transportation expansion in order to avoid SB 827’s density requirements. As a longtime public transportation advocate, I am absolutely sensitive to this concern, but I believe the concern is overstated.

First, most cities and towns don’t operate their own transit systems, given that transit agencies are typically separate from cities or regional in nature. Thus, very few cities even have the power to reduce transit service, even if they wanted to do so in order to avoid SB 827.

Second, while communities could organize to fight new transit stations or to reduce bus service, let’s also be real: people *already* fight transit expansions in their neighborhoods. Before serving in the Senate, I spent years as a neighborhood activist followed by six years as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Over that time, I saw firsthand that whenever we proposed putting a new bus line through a neighborhood, or turning a bus line into a more robust line, opposition arose. People raised every objection in the book: safety concerns, pollution concerns, noise concerns, concerns about loss of parking, concerns about crime, and so on and so forth. While some people will now also push back because they don’t want denser housing, that’ll simply mean the opponents will have eleven arguments against a transit expansion instead of ten arguments. I don’t see this new argument as a game changer to an already-challenging environment for transit expansions.

Third, despite the already-existing and inevitable opposition to transit expansions, it’s also a reality that transit has very significant political support. If people were to organize to oppose a good transit expansion or to advocate to reduce bus service, I am confident transit supporters would organize and push back. And, frankly, I just don’t see transit agencies and elected officials, who work so damn hard to get transit investment, backing away and killing good transit projects. I certainly don’t see transit agencies reducing bus service to give in to anti-development pressure.

So, although a community theoretically could try to gut transit or avoid new transit, in reality it’s unlikely to happen. Cutting back on transit or killing good expansion projects is a nuclear option that only hurts existing residents, creates more gridlock, and harms our environment. It is a cynical tactic that only benefits wealthy homeowners who can rely on private automobiles and don’t need transit to get to work or the store. And even these drivers will be harmed when their streets are crowded with more cars because of the lack of public transportation.

And, of course, there’s the bottom line: why on earth would we continue to enable a system where we make massive transit investments in low-density communities? It’s not sustainable, it’s not smart, and it’s not fair. Public transportation must be coupled with housing density, and the fact that some residents may fight transit in order to preserve low density just isn’t an argument against coupling transit and dense housing.

  • Will SB 827 reduce the amount of affordable housing or prevent communities from asking developers for community benefits?

No. By increasing housing opportunities near transit, we will create more housing, which will bring down the cost of housing. Additionally, by allowing heights of 45 feet to 85 feet near transit, we will allow for mid-sized apartment projects, which — unlike single-family homes — are subject to local inclusionary zoning requirements and impact fees. As a result, more projects will be subject to inclusionary zoning, and more affordable units will therefore be built as part of these developments. In addition, by converting more low-density projects into mid-size apartment buildings, these projects will become feasible candidates for the state’s affordable housing density bonus program. With more apartment buildings being built, the density bonus will be invoked more often.

One other thing to note: I also recently introduced SB 828, a bill that reforms the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process. Under RHNA, every city and town in the state receives housing goals. The process is very political, and wealthier communities often receive lower allotments than lower income communities. In particular, we know that wealthier communities also are able, at times, to reduce or avoid low income housing obligations altogether. SB 828 will make it harder for rich communities to push their housing obligations off onto poor communities, especially affordable housing requirements.

Paseo, a mid-rise affordable housing development in San Diego, that is built on a transit line (Bridge Housing)

  • Will SB 827 harm the environment?

No, and you should question the environmental credentials of anyone who claims that denser housing around public transportation is bad for the environment. Sadly, some self-described “environmentalists” actually claim with a straight face that building more urban infill housing is bad for the environment. The opposite is true, as the Sierra Club correctly observed in a recent article discussing the close relationship between dense, urban infill housing and fighting climate change:

“Studies have established a clear correlation between urban density and reduced carbon emissions. A 2014 report from the University of California, Berkeley, analyzed population density in more than 30,000 zip codes in all 50 states along with 37 variables, including household income, transportation, and census data. It found that families living in denser urban cores had a carbon footprint that was half that of families living in suburbs.”

The reality is that housing, including its location, is a core environmental issue. When we prohibit dense housing in urbanized, transit-oriented locations, we push housing further and further out—creating sprawl, covering up open space and farmland, and forcing people into long car commutes with increased carbon emissions. How on earth could that result ever be considered pro-environment?

Additionally, we know that households in multi-family buildings consume less water, less energy, and drive far fewer miles than those living in single-family homes or low-density suburbs. Again, we will never meet our climate or air quality goals without dense, transit-oriented housing.

Finally, SB 827 only applies to parcels zoned for residential or mixed use. Urban parks and open space that are zoned for those uses will not be subject to the bill. In other words, SB 827 will not lead to parks and open space turning onto housing.

Energy use by household type, graphic from CityLab‘s “The Missing Link of Climate Change: Single-Family Suburban Homes”

  • Will SB 827 quickly change the character and feel of my neighborhood?

No. Adding mid-size apartment buildings (4–8 stories) can modestly change the look of portions of a neighborhood in positive ways. It’s important to keep in mind that SB 827 does not allow for high rises.

Of course, *not* building housing, and thus escalating housing costs, also changes the character and feel of the neighborhood by changing who can live there. The architectural character of a neighborhood is important, and so is the human character of a neighborhood. When we push out low income people, young people, and growing families and when we spike homelessness, we absolutely change the character of the neighborhood even if we maintain the architectural character perfectly as is.

Some have expressed concern about having taller buildings in neighborhoods. A Los Angeles City Council Member even asserted that the bill will turn Los Angeles into “Dubai.” Yes, Dubai. We call that dramatic flair. The tallest buildings under SB 827 will be between 45 and 85 feet — i.e., between four and eight stories. Hardly Dubai. And the largest height impact will be at the four and five story level, since the 85-foot zoning category is reserved for major corridors (contrary to some who have focused exclusively on 85 feet while ignoring the shorter heights).

Graphic posted by architect Adam N. Mayer in response to critics of SB 827 clarifying what heights won’t be allowed under SB 827 (the left) and what will be allowed (the right)

And, as described above, the bill will not enable building demolitions, since it does not change local demolition controls and since we are working on language to address demolitions in the bill itself.

It is also important to keep in mind that the changes under SB 827 will not happen overnight. SB 827’s changes will unfold over years and even decades. So when you see a map showing the areas impacted by the bill or visualizations of what these new buildings could look like, it’s important to understand that these changes will be gradual. Land can only be developed if it is available and if a project can actually get approved and financed on the parcel. In addition to local demolition controls remaining in place, SB 827 does not change currently existing approval processes for individual projects.

  • Will SB 827 end local control over zoning?

No, but it does readjust the balance between local and state housing decision-making, which is a long overdue reform. As a former local elected official, I’m sensitive to the importance and effectiveness of local control in many areas. But local control is not an absolute and never has been. In many areas, ranging from public education to healthcare to taxes to building codes to contracting requirements, the state has long played a role in setting parameters around local decision-making.

Housing, frankly, has been exceptional in the tiny role that the state has played. For many years, housing has been treated as an almost exclusively local concern. The state has allowed local communities to decide whether they will build any housing and, if so, how much and for what income levels. Communities that obstruct housing have faced no ramifications, nor have communities that allow market-rate housing while blocking low income housing. Even when the state has created state-level requirements — for example, the housing element, the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), the affordable housing density bonus, the Housing Accountability Act, accessory dwelling unit mandates — these requirements have either had no teeth or no enforcement, and local communities, for decades, have all but ignored them.

In the past few years, the state has begun a long overdue process of rebalancing the state/local roles in housing — recognizing that housing is a statewide concern. A number of formerly toothless state housing laws now have teeth and strong enforcement tools. Last year, we passed my housing streamlining bill, SB 35, for communities not meeting their housing goals.

SB 827 is simply the next step. Communities will still have broad zoning powers, but for parcels close to public transportation, the state will set baseline heights and will not allow low-density requirements.

I see the balance between state and local regulation of housing in California moving closer to the balance that exists for public schools. For many years, local school districts have exercised significant local control over their affairs. However, because the education of our children is a statewide concern, the state sets a number of baselines and requirements to which local districts much adhere. In other words, the state sets parameters, and local control exists within those parameters.

Like public education, housing is not a purely local concern. Local communities do not exist in a vacuum, and housing decisions made in one community have real impacts on other communities and ultimately the state as a whole. We need to get to a place where the state sets broad housing parameters and holds local communities accountable for complying with them, while also allowing communities flexibility within those parameters. Readjusting the state/local balance on housing decision-making will be awkward, since it requires change, but it is overdue, and we will be a healthier and more successful state as a result.

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SB 827 is an important step toward addressing California’s housing crisis — a crisis that deeply affects us in so many ways. I look forward to a robust discussion about this bill and housing generally. I’m optimistic we will come out of this process with a terrific bill that makes our state stronger.

[This article was originally published on Wiener’s Medium blog.]

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