Senate Bill 827: Right Problem But Wrong Solution

What is SB 827?

SB 827, Planning and Zoning: Transit-rich Housing Bonus, was introduced by California Senator Scott Wiener on January 2018.  Principal co-authors are Senators Nancy Skinner and Assembly Member Phil Ting.  The bill is currently in committee process.

Because the bill declares that its provisions address a matter of statewide concern, i.e. a housing crisis in all areas of the state, the bill applies to all cities and counties in the state, and imposes a state-mandated program in all cities and counties in the state.

What Does This Bill Do?

* Authorizes a height bonus for any housing project located within ½ mile radius of a major transit stop or a ¼ mile radius of a bus route.  Bonuses will allow heights of up to 85 feet (at about 8 feet per floor, 85 feet would mean 10 floors).

* Exempts projects with specified number of below-market units (i.e., those awarded a housing opportunity bonus) from city and county zoning regulations, such as floor area, parking, design standards, and height.

* Specifies that “notwithstanding any local ordinance, general plan element, specific plan, charter, or other local law, policy, resolution or regulation, a transit-rich housing project shall receive a transit-rich bonus…”  

Would This Bill Help Solve the Housing Crisis?

Critics of this bill have been pointing to some holes in the bill’s strategy:

* The bill refers to “fixed route bus service.”  This sentence is either a typo, a sincere delusion that bus routes do not change (or that housing can move to follow new bus routes), or a strategy to keep building as bus routes change.

* If neighborhoods are really opposed to mandates from above, all they have to do is decrease their public transit service.  No transit, no density.

* The major concern for many residents is displacement.  The bill offers height bonuses to any housing near transit.  Certainly a taller, market-rate building would be a lot more profitable than a rent-controlled shorter one.  Therefore, the bill produces a great incentive to gentrify neighborhoods.  Senator Wiener denies this; however, he has promised to amend the bill to include anti-displacement controls.  

* Major proponents of this bill, Silicon Valley companies that claim they have difficulty hiring employees because of the lack of an affordable housing stock, should have foreseen such a challenge.  They could have spread out throughout the Bay Area and/or built their own neighborhood-appropriate employee housing, as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn are doing right now.

"The lack of homebuilding in California imperils our ability to hire employees and grow our companies,” the leaders wrote. “We recognize that the housing shortage leads to displacement, crushing rent burdens, long commutes, and environmental harm, and we want to be part of the solution."

Hopefully, the “solution” is not to blanket neighborhoods with buildings that amount to little more than sore thumbs.