The great California housing debate over SB 827 (Wiener) has mostly been depressing to witness. The bill would essentially upzone areas adjacent to major transit, leading to badly needed housing production mostly in our affluent and transit-rich areas that can support more expensive multifamily construction.
Riding to the rescue of anti-growth affluent communities have been various advocacy groups focused on or allied with low-income tenants. These advocates mistakenly assume that the upzoning will lead to a building boom in low-income areas and contribute to gentrification and displacement. In reality, the upzoning will encourage development in high-rent areas and reduce pressure on displacement and gentrification overall.
So it was somewhat refreshing to see an advocacy group actually engage with the substance of SB 827, rather than react ideologically against it. TransForm has been focused on bolstering smarter land use around transit since it originally formed as the awkwardly named Transportation and Land Use Coalition (TALC) over 20 years ago. SB 827 in many ways should be the organization’s dream bill, as it seeks to reverse the exclusionary, low-density housing policies that have created the environmental and economic mess that California now finds itself in.
But TransForm is not entirely pleased with the bill. Their concerns revolve around preventing displacement of low-income residents, adding more affordable housing, and engendering a backlash against infill. In a blog post, they recommend:
- Value capture to increase affordable housing stock, likely through a requirement that a certain percentage of homes built under the bill be affordable (scaled to the size of the project)
- Stronger, enforceable renter protections, such as through ensuring no net loss of affordable housing in transit station areas
- More inclusive conversations about potential improvements
- Greater sensitivity to local context, such as different height limits on different land use types
- Consider “Missing Middle” housing types for low-density neighborhoods, such as designs that get over 80 units per acre with 25- to 30-foot buildings
- Place a maximum unit size on developments to avoid vertical McMansions
- Refine criteria for transit capacity, with different requirements for zoning based on transit types — BART, light rail, bus rapid transit, ferry, etc.
- Ensuring traffic and climate benefits by avoiding traffic congestion through parking maximums, providing on-site transportation amenities for residents, and maximizing affordability
- A clearer understanding of the bill’s geography and impact
Some of their recommendations are relatively harmless, such as a more inclusive process (which is what the legislative process is usually all about anyway) and better mapping. Some seem likely to engender the backlash they fear, such as parking maximums. And some seem overly fear-based, such as the need to “protect” single-family home neighborhoods to avoid a backlash — as if there isn’t already a big backlash against any new development.
In particular, it’s worth looking at differentiating land use requirements in the bill based on transit capacity, as well as increasing the enforceability of anti-displacement measures.
But TransForm should acknowledge that efforts to require more affordable housing through inclusionary zoning, even just in upscale areas, are essentially a tax on new housing to pay for more affordable units. This tax will depress housing production overall and put the burden of subsidizing affordable housing on new home buyers, rather than on existing homeowners who benefit from the status quo. Density bonuses would make more sense to boost affordable housing supply, as well as funding these units through increased taxes on current homeowners.
Still, it’s nice to see some substantive critiques from a land use advocacy group, particularly given how unproductive the nonprofit sector has generally been when it comes to finding actual solutions to the housing shortage. We’ll have to stay tuned to see if any of these recommendations make it into the bill.