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SF lawmakers condemn transit-housing bill after emotional argument

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“I don’t believe in trickle down economics. We’ve seen what happens when we rely on developers.”

A sunset breaks through gray clouds above a street with a gray streetcar and homes.
Muni N-Judah train in the Outer Sunset.
Photo by the.supreme.reality/Shutterstock

San Francisco lawmakers set up a showdown Thursday between the SF Board of Supervisors and State Sen. Scott Wiener over his transit-housing bill, SB 50. Angry recriminations and tears flowed during hours of debate over Wiener’s plan to increase housing density.

In March, Supervisor Gordon Mar introduced a resolution undercutting Wiener’s housing plan.

This week, days after SB-50 passed its first major committee hurdle in Sacramento, the city’s Government Audit and Oversight committee boosted Mar’s condemnation on a 2-1 vote, but not before supervisors broke down in tears and bitter words over the state of housing in San Francisco.

“SF has the highest income gap and some of the highest housing costs in the world,” said Mar at Thursday’s hearing. “I support increasing housing density near transit. I support building more affordable housing. I support reducing sprawl.”

But Mar contends that Wiener’s bill does too little to create housing that most San Franciscans can afford.

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who represents District One, grew angry and tearful as she described the effects of the housing crisis on her neighborhood.

“SB 50 does nothing to build more affordability into our housing market,” declared Fewer. “We are building and we have been building and the majority of what we’ve been building is unaffordable housing. People in rent-controlled apartments no longer feel safe.”

Fewer added, “The idea that these are just NIMBYs—come out and see who lives in my neighborhood, talk about the seniors living under the poverty line and eating cat food for dinner, families are tripling up in single family homes. I don’t believe in trickle down economics. We’ve seen what happens when we rely on developers.”

Fewer’s district covers the Richmond and other low-density neighborhoods, which she says hide poverty and housing insecurity.
Photo by Mark Schwettmann

Dozens of SF residents spoke during public comment for over 90 minutes, most of them echoing Fewer and Mar’s concerns about gentrification and the alleged dangers of market-rate development.

Of the committee members, only District Five Supervisor Vallie Brown defended Wiener’s plan, arguing that status quo is what most hurts SF’s most vulnerable populations.

“For the past 15 years, working-class people and people of color have born the burden of our economic boom,” said Brown before Thursday’s vote. She added, “The status quo is inequitable, untenable, and disastrous.”

Brown also offered a fiery speech about climate change, promoting the idea that building more housing near transit is a necessity for getting commuters to drive less.

“The fate of the climate depends on cities making more changes,” she said.

Brown voted against Mar’s bill but it passed 2-1.

The resolution, which will go before the full board for a vote next week, declares, in part:

[SB 50 will] undermine community participation in planning for the well-being of the environment and the public good, prevent the public from recapturing an equitable portion of the economic benefits conferred to private interests, and significantly restrict San Francisco’s ability to protect vulnerable communities from displacement and gentrification, unless further amended.

[...San Francisco] is committed to working with its legislative delegation to craft he necessary amendments to SB 50 in order to protect San Francisco’s sovereign charter authority.

Mar noted before Thursday’s vote that his measure is “cosponsored by a supermajority of the board.”

Under SB 50, California cities would be barred from mandating low-density development within a quarter or half mile (depending on the particulars) of significant transit infrastructure like train stations, major bus lines, and ferry terminals.

In letter Wiener sent to Mar defending his legislation, Wiener warned that if the supervisors condemn SB 50, “San Francisco would be aligning itself with some of the wealthiest and most housing-resistant communities in California.”