Controversial state housing bill SB 827 dies in committee hearing

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After months of debate and amendments, SB 827, a bill that would have brought greater housing density around transit stations, died in a California State Senate committee hearing Tuesday in a victory for many California cities that opposed the bill, including Berkeley.

The California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee in Sacramento voted 6 to 4 to reject the bill, which was introduced in January by State Sen. Scott Wiener. SB 827 would have incentivized developers to build apartments and condos, rather than single-family homes, near transit. The state mandate would have changed how all California cities are zoned for height by allowing developers to build taller buildings and by increasing the amount of housing along major transit routes, including BART, Caltrain and LA Metro stations.

“It is not acceptable to invest hundreds of millions or billions of dollars on public transportation systems and then allow only a small number of people nearby,” Wiener said at the committee meeting, in defense of his bill.

Berkeley City Council members were among many California city representatives who opposed SB 827. Prior to the committee decision, Berkeley City Council had resolved to formally oppose the bill April 24 — a resolution that was put forth by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and councilmembers Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison and Linda Maio.

“The bill only addressed availability and not affordability and that was a giant flaw,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who also opposed the bill.

Berkeley City Council’s written resolution argued that “the true need” around the Bay Area was not for market-rate housing but for affordable housing — in fact, it states that by the midpoint of the city’s reporting period, Berkeley had built more than 90 percent of its targeted amount of market-rate housing. Instead of a lack of market-rate housing, the resolution states that the “greatest obstacle” for the Bay Area has been receiving funding specifically for affordable housing.

At the committee hearing, John Mirisch, vice mayor of Beverly Hills, argued against what he calls “one-size-fits-all” laws, such as SB 827 and SB 828, another bill that was introduced by Wiener this year that concerns city zoning policies.

“SB 827 is a real-estate bill which turns transit into a sales amenity,” Mirisch said at the meeting. “That’s just one reason why SB 827 represents one of the largest wealth transfers from the public to the private sector in state history.”

After Wiener proposed SB 827 in January, he sparked conversation and debate all around the state. On April 10, he proposed amendments to the bill, such as measures on affordable housing requirements, further clarification on which transit stations would be affected and stronger language regarding city demolition controls. Wiener also delayed implementation of SB 827, citing the need to give local communities time to plan their city-specific requirements.

At a UC Berkeley panel with Wiener that included discussion about SB 827, State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who co-authored the bill, said she was motivated by the desire to help eliminate California’s “economically exclusive zoning policies,” which ensure that only a select few people can afford to live in the low-density housing available around transit.

“State action to ensure that more housing is built near job centers and transit hubs is still needed and will continue to be a priority. Meanwhile housing bills such as my SB 1227, to encourage more student housing, and SB 1469, to ease adding units to existing homes, are moving forward,” Skinner said in an email.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said there would never be a “perfect solution,” and that California’s housing crisis is a problem that will not be solved with inaction. He commended Wiener’s bill as a “bold” step forward, but added that he does not support it because he represents 22 cities with populations under 100,000, where almost every single mayor and city council member opposed the bill for a lack of flexibility.

“So instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater — lousy analogy, I know,” Dodd said, “I think we ought to take the policies that Senator Wiener has come up with here and continue working on this to devise a plan that helps with a lot of the concerns we’ve had today.”

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