National News

A Second Run at a Controversial Housing Fix

Posted December 10, 2018 1:46 p.m. EST

You probably already know that a widespread housing shortage, especially in California’s cities, has become one of the state’s most intractable problems.

If you can’t afford to live close to your job, you have to spend more time on the road. And if you have to spend time on the road, your car is adding to the state’s horrific traffic as well as pollution, and so on.

So last year, Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco, filed a controversial bill, called SB 827, aimed at addressing the issue. The idea was to, as New York Times reporters Conor Dougherty and Brad Plumer wrote, “allow eight-story buildings near major transit stops, even if local communities object,” to encourage denser housing near public transit.

But the proposal left many parties unhappy. Union officials worried that provisions to streamline development approvals would affect workers. Anti-gentrification advocates worried the bill would lead to the displacement of people living in existing neighborhoods. City leaders didn’t want to give up the ability to shape their communities. The bill eventually died a high-profile death.

Which brings us about up to date. Wiener brought the bill back last week — but with some changes.

I asked Dougherty, who covers housing from the Times’ San Francisco bureau, about what could be next. The conversation is edited and condensed.

Q: The big question is, does the bill have a shot at passing this time?

A: I don’t know. Does it have a better shot of passing? Probably, because Wiener has gotten construction unions on board, and he has addressed some of the concerns about gentrification.

When SB 827 failed, it was opposed by the mayor of Beverly Hills, the Sierra Club and anti-gentrification advocates.

Can he split that kind of coalition? Getting the unions on board helps, but it’s still very early, and there will be plenty of powerful opponents.

Q: But where does this fall among legislative priorities?

A: It’s still unclear where Gavin Newsom (the Democratic governor-elect) stands on this. In the last election voters across California voted for affordable housing and homelessness services. People are clearly worried about housing, especially after the wildfires, but it’s a question of whether people and legislators really believe this bill will help the housing crisis. I think people believe that more than they did a year ago.

There are already a ton of other housing bills this year, so if it does pass it will probably be paired with other legislation, such as tenant protection bills or money for affordable housing.