California state senators Nancy Skinner, Scott Wiener discuss state housing crisis at panel

Anne Maguire/Staff

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California state senators Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board vice chair Paola Laverde attended a panel Thursday night to discuss recent housing policies, which could greatly affect housing in Berkeley and across California.

The panel, hosted by ASUC external affairs vice president, or EAVP, Rigel Robinson, focused on two recent California bills that were authored and supported by Skinner and Wiener and are currently going through the state legislature.

SB 1227, which was introduced by Skinner in February, would encourage the construction of more affordable units of student housing. SB 827, introduced by Wiener in January, aims to lift the restrictions on the number of units that can be built in transit-rich areas, including BART stations and high-frequency bus lines.

Office of the EAVP National Programs Manager Dana Alpert, who facilitated the discussion, said the goal of the panel was to bring in local senators to talk to students about the pressing housing issue.

“Obviously, this is a very large problem for students,” Alpert said.  “We don’t even have enough housing to guarantee housing for all of our freshmen.”

Skinner explained that market-rate housing has become expensive because of an overall shortage of housing units. During the panel, Skinner said that since 2010, the Bay Area has added eight jobs for every one unit of housing. This, coupled with decreasing vacancy rates — 1 percent for Berkeley and 3 percent for Oakland — means fewer vacant units and more people, resulting in more expensive units.

“You and I, we don’t have a choice,” Skinner said in an interview with The Daily Californian, describing how old, run-down housing units are sold for premium prices. “Owners can get away with it because it’s a seller’s market.”

In presenting SB 1227 to the crowd, Skinner referred back to her personal experience with limited housing as a student at UC Berkeley. She pointed to campus residence halls, which, according to Skinner, are the tallest buildings you can find around Berkeley, as UC land does not fall under the same local zoning rules as other developments.

Schools including UCs and CSUs are — if not already — running out of their own land, Skinner said, and the city regulations on housing density need to be amended so more affordable student units can be developed.

SB 1227 works by increasing the housing density for development projects that are solely made for students, according to Skinner.

Wiener said SB 827 has a “simple” goal of creating more housing near transit-rich areas, but it has also attracted a large amount of critique that he has factored into his recent amendments.

Wiener explained that the core purpose of SB 827 is to relax zoning density rules in order to increase transit-rich housing, such as rules that mandate some developers to include one parking space per each unit of housing built. He added that the bill would not attempt to change or override local ordinances — for instance, he stated that any pre-existing demolition controls or local inclusionary housing requirements would remain intact — and also said an amendment would place extra protections on rent-controlled housing.

“This bill has attracted a lot of conversation. A lot of love and a lot of hate and everything in between,” Wiener said. “Whatever happens, I’m glad we’re having this statewide conversation about the housing situation.”

Campus sophomore Andy Garcia, who attended the panel, said afterward that he found the discussion to be extremely important for students. He added that it was crucial that students be conscious of where they stand on these issues.

“They are literally the gentrifiers who are moving in from all these different places to big cities, like Oakland and San Francisco, and who are fundamentally pushing these people out and who are the ones voting for these policies,” Garcia said.

Both Wiener and Skinner attributed the housing crisis to California’s housing policies and “economically exclusive zoning.”

“We hear ‘housing crisis’ all the time — I think crisis gets overused.  We’re in emergency, a disaster, a mess. We can call it many things,” Wiener said during the panel.  “They all mask the human carnage that results from California’s decision — the decision that it wasn’t important to have housing for everyone.”

Alicia Kim is the lead businesses and economy reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.