Jesse Arreguín is right to oppose Jerry Brown’s anti-democratic give-away to the real-estate industry.

In his July 19 op-ed published on Berkeleyside, Garret Christensen slammed Berkeley City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Jesse Arreguín for opposing Governor Jerry Brown’s Trailer Bill 707. Christensen called the legislation “an important state affordable housing bill” that “Berkeley and its councilmembers, especially those with aspirations of becoming mayor should welcome…with open arms.” “[I]t is truly baffling to me,” he declared, “why anyone who calls themselves a progressive is opposed to the governor’s proposal.”

In fact, Trailer Bill 707 is opposed by many people besides Arreguín who call themselves progressives— for example, the representatives of the 60-plus organizations, including Public Advocates, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, Jobs with Justice San Francisco, the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and SEIU 1021, who signed a July 8 letter urging the state legislature to reject the bill.

Brown’s proposal, they wrote, “gives developers the power to force approval of projects “’by right’ without public or environmental review.”

For Christensen, the lack of public or environmental review is a boon that would eliminate “Berkeley’s extra layers of approval requirements.” What he deems “extra” is anything beyond the “objective zoning standards” specified in the bill.

The problem: zoning is an essential but limited land use planning tool. A development could meet a city’s zoning and still displace existing tenants, small businesses, and jobs. By removing the right to negotiate with developers over such issues, Brown’s bill puts communities, especially disadvantaged ones, at the mercy of the real estate industry. Meanwhile, as the letter cited above notes, “privileged communities…can merely maintain or redesign zoning restrictions to keep out affordable housing.”

In any case, the amount of affordable housing created by Trailer Bill 707 is piddling, as Christensen himself intimated: “If a multi-family housing project includes a certain percentage of affordable units (the exact percentage depends on the level of affordability, but ranges from 5% to 20%) and meets the city’s zoning laws, the city must grant the permit.” In other words, as much as 95% of the new housing authorized by Brown’s proposal could be unaffordable.

Moreover, a proposed development could meet a city’s zoning and still damage the environment. That’s why Trailer Bill 707 is also opposed by the Sierra Club.

Christensen acknowledges that “[t]here is some environmental opposition to the bill…, since infill developments including the requisite amount of affordable housing would be exempt from CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] review.” But in his view, “these concerns are misplaced, since any honest accounting shows much lower carbon and water impact from allowing people to live in a denser, transit-rich city like Berkeley instead of making them commute from a far-flung car-dependent suburb.”

In fact, the UC Berkeley authors of the cited carbon impact study commented that “[a]s a policy measure to reduce GHG emissions, increasing population density appears to have severe limitations and unexpected trade-offs….[W]e suggest that population density has limited potential and call for more tailored solutions; which in our view are urgently needed.”

The other study Christensen cited, conducted by the San Jose Mercury News in February 2014, examined water consumption by jurisdiction in California. It tied the huge disparities in consumption to “the Golden State’s varied climate,” income distribution, amount of industry in a city, and use of water meters but said nothing about density.

Christensen further contended that“[t]he bill…explicitly excludes development on wetlands, earthquake fault zones, hazardous waste sites, high risk fire areas, and other such environmentally sensitive areas from qualifying for by-right approval.”

Yes, it does. But Trailer Bill 707’s by-right exemption from environmental review also applies to developments “on a site that is either immediately adjacent to parcels that are developed with urban uses or for which at least 75 percent of the perimeter of the site adjoins parcels that are developed with urban uses or is bounded by a natural body of water.”

As San Francisco Sierra Club Group Chair Sue Vaughan and San Francisco Planning Commissioner Cindy Wu have observed, this means that “developments bordering a park or a wetland on the fourth side would be entitled to [the bill’s] exemptions. Even the Coastal Commission is at risk of losing its power to protect the coast.” Meanwhile, environmental detriments such as traffic congestion, shadowing, and toxic soils would be off the table.

Attached to the budget, which had to be passed by June 15, Brown’s last-minute trailer bill moved through the legislature without a single public hearing or debate. With the support of the Realtors, the Bay Area Council, the Building Industry Association, SPUR, the Bay Area Council, and developer-friendly housing advocates, it was approved. The details, however, will be hammered out in August. Meanwhile, the governor is holding $400 million in affordable housing funds hostage to the legislature’s rubber-stamping his disingenuous deregulatory measure.

Every candidate for Berkeley public office should be asked to state a position on Trailer Bill 707. Voters should consider supporting only those who, like Arreguín, oppose it.

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Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.
Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.