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Sen. Scott Wiener explains plan for taller, denser housing near transit

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New bill would allow mid-rise development at transit hubs

Muni Train
The T-Third line in Mission Bay.
Photos by Getty Images

In 2017, Senator Scott Wiener rewrote the rules on housing development for California cities with SB 35, a law that mandates municipalities to build more to keep up with demand or risk temporarily losing control of much of their entitlements process.

Now Wiener is backing another new housing bill and hoping for the same success; SB 827 would all but require that new housing near major transit hubs (as defined by the California Public Resources Code) be mid-rise construction of at least four stories.

In a Medium post published Tuesday, Wiener defended the bill from criticism and laid out what it will and will not do. Here’s the breaks:

  • First and foremost, Wiener says California housing prices are all about supply and demand: “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.”
  • The bill’s goal is mid-rise housing between four and eight stories: “SB 827 promotes this kind of housing by prohibiting density restrictions (for example, local ordinances mandating only single-family homes). [...] The bill also sets the maximum zoned height in these areas at 45, 55, or 85 feet — that is, between four and eight stories— depending on the nature of the street. ([...] Developers can choose to build shorter, but cities can’t force them to build shorter through restrictive zoning. Cities can allow taller heights, however.)”
Caltrain station at Fourth and King in San Francisco.
  • Wiener argues that transit-centric density can solve housing, transit, and environmental problems in one fell swoop: “Restricting transit-rich areas to low-density housing [...] limits how many people can easily use transit and thus drive less. By severely limiting who can live near transit, we [...] create crushing commutes and reduce transit ridership. [...] 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.”
  • Critics like Berkeley’s Becky O’Malley argue that “well-paid commuters to San Francisco jobs will soon gentrify southwest Berkeley” if the bill passes; Wiener argues the status quo is what gentrifies cities: “Gentrification is fueled by a lack of housing. [...] When rents skyrocket, landlords have an economic incentive to push out long-term renters by raising the rent or evicting them.”
Walnut Creek BART
Walnut Creek BART station.
  • OMalley also argues the bill will give NIMBYs more ammunition to oppose new transit. Wiener says she’s probably right, but it doesn’t matter: “People raise every objection [to transit extensions] 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.”
  • Wiener also admits that this bill puts more power over housing into state hands. In fact, that’s part of the point: “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. [...] 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.”

You can read the rest of Wiener’s comments here, and the full text of the bill in its present form here.