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California Senate stalls transit-housing bill

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Citing not enough affordable housing, vote against leaves Senator Scott Wiener’s signature bill in limbo

A white light-rail train on elevated tracks, with the tops of trees and buildings visible as it passes. Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock

After months of public wrangling and amendment, San Francisco’s State Senator Scott Wiener finally brought his signature transit-housing bill SB 827 before the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in Sacramento Tuesday, where it stalled on a 6-4 vote that leaves it in limbo.

SB 827 would have radically changed how California cities zone for height and density by making it illegal to place height limits below four to five stories (depending on the locale) along major transit routes.

Thanks to San Francisco’s extensive bus network, this would have applied to virtually every parcel in the city. But even cities with far less skin in the game, like Lafayette and Berkeley, complained that the bill redirected too much control from local municipalities to the state.

Calling local control “important but not biblical,” Wiener again labored on Tuesday to frame the bill as a necessary step given the scope of the crisis.

“If this bill fails today, or at a later date in the legislature, this issue is not going away,” Wiener prodded his Senate fellows.

“When people say they support housing somewhere else, there is never somewhere else,” State Senator Nancy Skinner of Alameda County (a coauthor on the bill) added.

While all of the lawmakers and most of the public speakers Tuesday acknowledged the need to build more housing faster, a majority of the senators were not persuaded on the bill’s merits.

“It pains me a bit to have to refrain from supporting the measure,” Senator Richard Roth of Riverside said before voting no.

[Correction: Roth’s office tells Curbed SF that Roth actually did not enter a vote on the bill.]

The 6-4 vote against puts off SB 827 for the remainder of the year, but does not technically kill the bill; it’s possible it may appear again in the future.

Critics of the bill cited both lack of affordable housing (though SB 827 would have required affordable units) and/or worry that adding density would be a “declaration of war” for small cities.

“Wiener was granted reconsideration, meaning it’s possible for [the bill] to be revived,” Los Angeles Times writer Liam Dillon notes via Twitter. “But legislative deadlines—not to mention intense Democratic opposition—make that very difficult.”

In a statement released late Tuesday, Wiener said he was disappointed but labored to maintain the idea that the bill still has a future in some form, comparing the setback to a similar legislative failure by California Governor Jerry Brown:

When Governor Jerry Brown in 2016 proposed legislation to streamline housing approvals, [it] was deemed too aggressive by some and didn’t move forward that year.

But that proposal served as the foundation for the bill I proposed just a few months later—Senate Bill 35—which streamlined housing approvals in California. SB 35 owes much of its success to the hard but important conversation that Governor Brown started.

Whether or not Wiener will work to bring SB 827 back to committee this year—or begin working on an entirely different bill to similar ends—remains to be seen, but in any case it seems unlikely Wiener and his co-authors will not attempt to resurrect the bill in some form.