Checking out a rainbow at Totland near North Berkeley BART. The SB 827 bill calls for denser, taller housing developments near transit hubs. Photo: Koseli Cummings

New proposed legislation, introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener and co-authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, that would require California cities to allow denser, taller housing developments near transit hubs and bus lines, has ignited controversy in Berkeley and nationally.

With some limitations, SB 827 would eliminate restrictions on the number of houses that can be built within a half-mile of BART and within a quarter-mile of major bus routes, including Muni and AC Transit. It would also block cities from mandating parking requirements.

Skinner said the bill would help supply much-needed housing in Berkeley and the state.

“In the Bay Area alone, we’ve added thousands more jobs than we have housing units,” she said. “More housing is essential to reduce the pressure that lack of supply is causing in all our communities. And there’s no more logical place for housing than near transit.”

But the bill has drawn strong opposition from many who believe it would deprive cities of their rights to control their own zoning and could also lead to unwanted density. In fact Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín characterizes the bill as “a declaration of war against our neighborhoods.”

Housing crisis: Everyone agrees something must be done

Not everyone agrees on how to solve the housing crisis, but everyone agrees that something needs to be done.

California’s population grew from 35 million at the start of 2002 to 40 million as of Jan. 1, 2017, an increase of about 5 million, or nearly 14%, according to the state Department of Finance. During that same period, only about 2 million housing units were added by the state, a 13% increase, to 14 million.

This means the state was about 100,000 housing units short of what it needed just to keep up with population growth, potentially leaving more than 300,000 Californians without the housing they required.

It’s bad enough on the state level, but in the Bay Area, things are even worse, according to the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association. As of early 2o16, the Bay Area economy had added 480,000 private-sector jobs over the previous five years, but only 50,000 housing units.

In the San Francisco metro area, which includes Berkeley, the median rent now requires almost half of the median income – 42% – according to real estate site Zillow. From 1985 to 2000, the median rent required 31% of the median income.

Mortgage payments require a larger share of income than they did before 2000; the share is 41% today, compared to 38% historically. This means homeowners spend an additional $2,189 per year on home payments.

A rendering for a proposed multi-residential building at 3031 Adeline St. in Berkeley, which is close to Ashby BART. Image: Dinar & Associates

Lack of housing stalls greenhouse gas reduction goals

There’s an environmental piece to the puzzle as well. State officials have said California will not be able to meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels unless a huge number of new homes is built in job centers and near transit.

“We cannot meet climate targets if we do not permit homebuilding near transit,” said Brian Hanlon, leader of pro-development group California YIMBY and an Oakland resident.

Matt Lewis, a Berkeley resident and climate and energy policy consultant, said, “If you put a bus or train within a five- or 10-minute walk of someone’s house they will use it, and that is how you reduce pollution.”

Pollution from cars is the biggest cause of global warming pollution in the state, responsible for 25% of such pollution.

“Scott Wiener has taken what all the planning literature says is important — this is how you reduce pollution — and put it in this bill,” Lewis said.

In the Bay Area, SB 827 would affect neighborhoods close to BART, Caltrain and Muni stations. It would override certain local zoning rules in those areas to permit homes to be built nearby, but the local permitting and approval processes would not be affected.

A natural continuation of climate change laws

To Lewis, the bill is a natural continuation of California’s existing climate change laws.

In 2006, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 32, the groundbreaking Global Warming Solutions Act, which kick-started the process for state agencies to figure out how to reduce pollution across the California economy.

A host of subsequent legislation followed. One of the most recent bills was SB 375, which passed in the fall, directing metropolitan planning organizations to plan for building housing near transit areas.

“Pollution from cars is getting worse,” Lewis said.

Because cities across the state fell behind in building enough housing, people must drive further and further from their homes to get to work in San Francisco and Los Angeles’ job centers, he said.

SB 375 addressed this problem, and SB 827 codifies some of its recommendations, he said.

“No guarantee the cities will get benefits”

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he is on board with SB 375, but not SB 827.

“It allows 85-foot buildings throughout Berkeley and the state of California with no protection against demolition of rent-controlled housing, with no guarantee the cities will get benefits out of the out-of-scale buildings built,” the mayor said.

In fact, the provisions of the bill governing 85-foot buildings only apply to buildings on streets at least 45 feet wide and one block from transit hubs such as BART.

“Not that many areas of Berkeley have 45-foot streets,” said Thomas Lord, a housing policy advocate who is a member of Berkeley’s Housing Advisory Commission. Lord emphasized that he was not speaking for the commission or the city.

“Mostly this would just apply to Sacramento Street and San Pablo Avenue,” said Lord, who himself has a number of criticisms of the bill. “Surprisingly enough, Ashby (Avenue) is too narrow. Fifty-five feet would be the limit on a lot of streets, parts of Russell Street, for example.”

With regard to the mayor’s remark about demolition, “I think it’s always good for officials to read a bill before they use incendiary language to describe it,” Skinner said. “First off, the bill does not touch any local government’s demolition controls. For example, in Berkeley, the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance has very strong anti-demolition policies. The type of scenario the mayor describes would require demolition around our transit areas. That’s not going to happen.”

Meanwhile Wiener wrote in a Jan 14 article: “If a city has rent control, it will continue to have rent control. If a city has an inclusionary housing ordinance (i.e, requiring a portion of new units to be affordable to low-income people), it will continue to have that ordinance,”

In response to Skinner’s comments, “She’s technically right, those laws aren’t changing,” Lord said. However, he said, “if this bill raises the financial incentives, yes, local control over demolition hasn’t changed, but the incentives and probability of demolition have changed.”

For example, Lord said, “in South Berkeley, we have old housing stock with lower-income families. At present it’s not economically advantageous for an owner to evict those tenants, tear down the house and build something else.” This is because the demolition ordinance calls for compensation for the tenants and zoning limitations that limit how many units could be built.

“In this way, we encourage the owners of this naturally occurring affordable housing stock to keep the place up and provide some stability for the community,” Lord said.

Lord said the bill would greatly raise the potential profit for paying the fees, then tearing down the buildings and replacing them with more units, with a potential for income that would more than offset the financial penalties.

This would lead to displacement of some of Berkeley’s most economically vulnerable residents, Lord said.

Alex Casey, a policy adviser for Zillow, disagreed.

“Much of price growth is driven by scarcity,” he said. “What the data show, when you look at the community as a whole, if you are not adding new units, then you are going to see existing units become more and more pricey and unable to sustain the current community members.

“Displacement is often more a product of rising prices and stale buildings than it is a block-by-block transformation,” Casey said.

In response to Casey’s comments, Arreguín said, “The reality is we’re not going to build enough housing now. There’s not enough land in the city of Berkeley and the amount of time it takes to build is significant. Even if you wipe out regulations, you still have to get financing. Even if we streamlined completely, it still takes time to build new housing.”

While Skinner said she believed there was not enough land in Berkeley to build the amount of housing we need if we retain single-family. “If we don’t densify, we are not going to be able to address the need for the number of units,” she said.

Berkeley Councilwoman Lori Droste noted that the introduction of the bill is making waves, not just in California, where it’s received coverage in the Los Angeles Times, but nationally; online magazine Slate ran a story about the bill, as did the Boston Globe, running an opinion piece titled, “Go on, California — blow up your lousy zoning laws.”

“It’s (SB 827) going to undergo several iterations before it lands in committee in March and it will be a much different bill. I think it needs to change in some ways. You want to get as many people on board as possible,” she said.

Wiener has said that he is looking at ways to include anti-displacement provisions directly in SB 827, in particular around demolition controls and affordability requirements.

Lord agrees that there’s a way to go on the bill. ,”The bill needs a considerable amount of amendments so it lives up to Wiener’s promise that it won’t lead to displacement,” he said. “What Berkeley needs to do is weigh in on this bill as it makes its way through the legislature and figure out what protections Berkeley needs so the bill won’t cause displacement.”

Arreguín was steadfast in his opposition to the bill.

Asked if he would feel more positively about it if his concerns were addressed, he said, “No.” The mayor pointed out that thousands of units are currently under construction or in the permitting process, with 910 units built since 2014 across 11 projects that are now occupied, and many more on the way.

“I’d like to see how SB 375 is implemented,” Arreguin said. “There are things underway on the state and local level to increase production but make sure we balance more housing with preventing displacement.”

Skinner said, “Certainly the legislature did take some positive action to help get more affordable housing and more housing overall by approving Sen. Jim Beall’s bill (SB 3, which would place a $4 billion statewide housing bond on a future ballot) and some other bills including my bill (SB 167) that strengthens the Housing Accountability Act.

“All of these were very good, but they’re not enough to get us out of this crisis,” Skinner said. “Anyone can see the equivalent of Hoovervilles up and down San Francisco and Berkeley. People are homeless because of a lack of affordability.”

A call for Berkeley to live by its stated beliefs

Greg Magofna of East Bay for Everyone, a pro-housing organization, echoed Skinner’s sentiments.

“Yes, there are projects underway, but it’s not enough,” Magofna said. “People are living on the streets today.”

The housing advocate, who grew up in Alameda in subsidized housing and lives in Berkeley, called on the city to “live by our stated beliefs.”

He said, “Sens. Wiener and Skinner are taking action to make real inclusive communities.”

According to Magofna, “The Bay Area, and specifically Berkeley, talk about how we are a sanctuary city and welcoming to everyone. But by saying, ‘Let’s not build new housing,’ we’re saying, ‘Come to our city and we will be a sanctuary for you if you are rich. Alternatively, you can live on the street.'”

YIMBY is short for “yes in my backyard,” as opposed to the infamous NIMBY attitude, “not in my backyard.” A series of groups calling themselves YIMBYs have formed in the country and across the world, lobbying for development as a cure for housing shortages and unaffordable rents. Magofna’s group is a chapter of the organization.

Magofna described a recent proposed project by All Souls Episcopal Parish, 34 units of affordable senior housing at the corner of Cedar and Oxford streets with underground parking that would also house the All Souls office and meeting room.

“The neighbors showed up at a Zoning Adjustment Board meeting this fall and protested because they were afraid the building would affect the availability of parking on the street,” Magofna said. “These are Berkeley values today. I am disgusted that a city championing human rights and fighting climate change would (seek to) block a project because there’s not enough parking. People in Berkeley only care when it’s hard for them to find a parking spot, and it’s OK because they have an electric vehicle.”

Janis Mara has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based national real estate trade publication, winning California...