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

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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.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.