Sen. Scott Wiener’s housing bill fails to meet Berkeley’s needs

STATE ISSUES: The senator’s bill would provide more housing, but fails to address affordability

Kelly Baird/Staff

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, recently introduced a controversial housing bill that would provide a badly needed jump-start to building housing in Berkeley. But it needs to provide for greater protections against displacement.

In an effort to accelerate housing construction, SB 827 eliminates restrictions on the number of houses allowed to be built within a half-mile of transit stations, encouraging denser, taller zoning near public transportation. If passed, high-rise apartments would come to define the neighborhoods around the North Berkeley, Ashby and Rockridge BART stations as well as other transit centers.

California is in a housing crisis. In Berkeley, we are seeing the rise of the “super commuter” become an increasingly normal phenomenon. Berkeley residents at all income levels are unable to find housing. Four UC Berkeley students (and sometimes more) need to cram into one-bedroom apartments because they can’t afford to live in the dorms — and the vast majority aren’t even guaranteed campus housing. At such a desperate time, Berkeley needs more housing, and this bill would eliminate many of the hurdles that prevent construction.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who called SB 827 a “sledgehammer approach” to housing affordability, said he believes “we should leave it to cities to decide” how to facilitate housing production. But Berkeley is notoriously slow at building more housing, particularly because many residents in single-family homes complain about the threat high-rise apartment buildings would pose to their views (or, ridiculously, their zucchini gardens).

At a time when people can’t afford one of the most basic human needs — a roof over their heads — concerns about housing obstructing a view of the Bay are a selfishly inadequate excuse to slow housing construction. SB 827 would tear down the barriers these privileged opinions pose to addressing the housing crisis.

But as it currently stands, the legislation neglects one very crucial aspect of housing, particularly in Berkeley: affordability.

Igor Tregub, chair of Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission, previously told The Daily Californian that while the city meets the need for market-rate housing, it falls “woefully short” of reaching the needs of lower- and middle-income workers. In a city with ever-skyrocketing rents, the construction of exclusively swanky new apartment complexes would completely price out Berkeley’s low-income renters.

In a statement released after SB 827 garnered public controversy, Wiener explained that while the bill would eliminate some zoning laws, it would not change those that protect low-income individuals. According to a spokesperson in Wiener’s office, inclusionary requirements enacted by local governments will still stand under SB 827 — the bill doesn’t add any inclusionary requirements, but it will keep the ones currently in place.

(Also, if the state intends to so heavily rely on the existence of quality public transit for its housing plans, the lack of attention toward increasing investment in doddering systems such as BART and AC Transit is baffling.)

Wiener can’t just eliminate a bunch of zoning requirements and claim to have solved the affordable housing crisis without simultaneously establishing protections for California’s most vulnerable people. Numerous studies have shown that without targeted attention toward the communities affected by gentrification, increasing market-rate housing stock alone cannot prevent displacement.

Berkeley needs more housing, and it needs an environment where people born in Berkeley can afford to stay in Berkeley. The city of Berkeley isn’t giving residents the housing they need, but it seems that Wiener isn’t either.

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  • Dave

    Shame. You do not represent the views of this Berkeley alum. I believe in transit oriented development and am shocked the current board would write this piece.

    This bill will result in MORE affordable housing in Berkeley. Moreover, it doesn’t prevent raising affordability requirements at some point.

    Your own website shows this as a related opinion piece:

    Talk about inconsistent editorial garbage

  • Dirty Burrito

    This may come as a surprise to the authors, but affordability can be created without subsidies.

    In general Tokyo has higher land costs than Berkeley, yet market rate housing there costs less than subsidized housing here. This has been accomplished by increasing the housing supply through easing of zoning laws (2002 urban renaissance law), much like Wiener is trying to do here. Anyone who doesn’t believe it should watch this video:

    “How an Average Family in Tokyo Can Buy a New Home”

  • Kevin Withers

    OMG. Someone has the presence of mind to call out Wiener & the simplistic yimby approach to housing. Perhaps some intelligence remains in this town.

  • Jonathan Morris

    Did the editorial board even read the Urban Displacement Project report they link? They seem to imply the opposite conclusions as the linked study.

    Do they understand how this bill will interact with existing inclusionary requirements and affordable housing mitigation fee requirements? Hint: cities can still require affordable units be included. Berkeley just chooses to require them at levels so high that the only buildings that can finance are luxury buildings to cover the additional costs of fees, when buildings aren’t outright stopped because the requirements are financially unfeasible.

    Why not call out the City of Berkeley (including Mayor Arreguin) for blocking investment in Bus Rapid Transit when mentioning deficiencies in AC Transit? Are they ignoring the continued construction of BART towards Livermore and San Jose?

  • Dirty Burrito

    “Wiener can’t just eliminate a bunch of zoning requirements and claim to
    have solved the affordable housing crisis without simultaneously
    establishing protections for California’s most vulnerable people”

    Housing is expensive because of zoning. Zoning in Berkeley generally dictates the use of $500k – $1M or more worth of land for one unit of housing.

    The confusing part for most people is the fact that upzoning a single parcel in isolation produces much higher land costs, and very expensive apartments. This leads one to believe upzoning everything will also produce much higher land costs, but this is not the case.

    Why is that you ask? Because when we buy land we are also buying entitlements (the right to build units) and entitlements are very scarce in the Bay Area. Much like diamonds, artificial scarcity has led to the high cost of entitlements and the high cost of housing. When we upzone a single lot through a variance, we are only increasing the supply of entitlements slightly, and there is not much effect of price per unit.

    When we uniformly upzone land, as SB827 does, we are generating an enormous number of entitlements in the Bay Area, and that drives down the cost of entitlements. The land will not get cheaper, but the per-unit cost of land will fall substantially. This will not happen uniformly: desirable areas that are upzoned will see increases in land prices, while less desirable areas will see a decline.

  • Dave

    We need upzoning near transit. We have inclusionary requirements already.

    This bill is good for Berkeley and good for the bay area.

    Shame on the daily cal for acting like a Nimby. If you think our inclusionary requirements are too low, raise them. But that’s not a reason to block the dense transit-oriented development we need.

  • That Guy

    Does the editorial board assume we can guess how they plan to solve the problem? Or is their solution coming in another column? Or is throwing stones at other people the sum total of their skill set?

  • DragonflyBeach

    “Numerous studies have shown that without targeted attention toward the communities affected by gentrification, increasing market-rate housing stock alone cannot prevent displacement.”
    The UC Berkeley Urban Displacement project clearly shows market rate housing led to price drops in the following decade, and that it combats displacement. Displacement and Affordability are two separate things. Editorial board would do better to understand the nature of the housing crisis, while students ironically sleep in their cars thanks to Berkeley’s zoning that’s hostile to dense housing.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    The editorial board needs to learn elementary economics. If you increase the supply of a product enough, you drive down its price. If we produce enough housing, housing will become more affordable.

    Affordable housing requirements cannot possibly produce all the affordable housing we need. The only way toward affordablity is increased supply.

    • Dirty Burrito


      It’s also worth noting that “affordable housing” just means subsidized housing and generally isn’t particularly affordable. E.g. a $3500/mo rental at 1400 mission has a qualifying income of $83k, which means 50% of your pre-tax income (or 70% post tax) can go to renting an “affordable” unit.

  • Earl D.

    A reasonably good engagement of Weiner’s bill, which would be expected of a newspaper serving a demographic bearing the brunt of the housing crisis, Young Millennials. However, it misses the mark by saying that “market-rate housing stock alone cannot prevent displacement.”

    In fact it can and does, throughout the country and the world. CA’s housing crisis is as artificial as it is self inflicted: it’s a result of chronic under supply. In fact the study you cited admits that supply alone is sufficient to address the housing crisis, long term. Short term, government intervention through the construction of subsidized housing can be a useful poverty fighting measure, but only to the extent that it doesn’t suppress market rate construction. Unfortunately, virtually all mechanisms for providing funding for affordable housing serve to make market rate housing more costly to build, including the state bill passed last year. CA will not be able to solve it’s affordable housing crisis, unless stops trying to address it with measures that try to alleviate symptoms but leave the underlying problem worse.

    • Dirty Burrito

      Agree 100%. The even the NIMBY funded nexus report found that construction of market rate housing prevents displacement.

      And yes, housing production is near historic lows: