SB 827 Reveals The Inadequacy Of California’s Environmental Advocacy Community On Land Use

SB 827, to relax local restrictions on home-building near transit, faces a big test this afternoon at its first Capitol committee hearing. As the hearing draws near, it’s worth noting how disappointing the reaction to the bill has been from some advocacy groups that are supposedly in the pro-climate and transit worlds.

Scott Lucas at San Francisco Magazine has a lengthy piece exploring one of those groups’ opposition to the bill: the Sierra Club California. The article features this exchange with the head of the organization:

Although [Sierra Club California director Kathryn] Phillips says she supports infill development around mass transit, it’s hard for her to locate an actual place in California where she supports new buildings. This is also true of the Bay Area chapter, which in recent years has opposed the 8 Washington condo tower near the Embarcadero, the redevelopment of Treasure Island and the Hunters Point Shipyard, the expansion of Park Merced, and the new Golden State Warriors stadium. Recently, the chapter opposed a 66-unit development in the Western Addition because it would replace an auto repair shop it deemed historic.

With regard to upzoning near transit, Phillips rules out Sacramento, where some neighborhoods, she thinks, would use upzoning as an excuse to block new transit, concealing what she calls “racist” reasons under a civilized veneer. Nor does she think it’s appropriate in more outlying areas like Folsom, where a transit stop under the bill would lead to an upzoning too near wilderness areas. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea in San Diego, where taller buildings would block views of the ocean, nor does she support it in major cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, where “people who live in rent-controlled buildings worry about bigger and bigger buildings coming toward them.”

As she finishes enumerating those exceptions, she adds, echoing the national organization’s policy line, that “we see the value of infill higher-density development around transit.”

SB 827 has revealed a lot about the politics behind our current housing dysfunction in the state. We knew wealthy homeowners and their allies in office would oppose allowing more homes built in their transit-rich communities. But the bill has also pulled the curtain back on the hypocrisy, confusion and cowardice within much of the climate and transit advocacy community about how to deal with the massive housing shortage in the state.

If SB 827 is successful, it will unfortunately be in spite of many of these advocates. And that’s not a good sign, given how much work needs to be done to improve California’s land use policies in an era of climate change.