Sen. Scott Wiener Wants California Cities to Build More Housing

Newly sworn in state Sen. Scott Wiener wants more housing in California. (Michelle Gachet/KQED)

As a San Francisco supervisor, Scott Wiener has made housing one of his top priorities. That's not going to change now that he's a state senator.

Within hours of being sworn in this week, Wiener introduced legislation aimed at encouraging -- and in some cases forcing -- cities around California to approve more housing development, especially affordable projects. It's modeled in part on a law he pushed in San Francisco and in part on a controversial failed proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Sacramento must be part of the solution to California's housing shortage, said Wiener, whose Senate bid received significant support from real estate interests.

"The housing crisis is not just about it being hard for people today to find housing -- that is a huge problem, and the housing crisis fuels evictions, displacement and makes it hard for families to grow," he said. "But the housing crisis is also threatening our economic growth in California. If an employer believes its workers will not be able to find housing near the workplace, that employer is going to decide to locate elsewhere or to grow its workforce in another state."

Wiener said he's learned some important lessons from Brown's failure and his time in San Francisco. The governor's proposal -- which sought to speed up the local approval process for projects that included some low-income housing -- was opposed by labor, environmental and affordable housing groups as well as cities and counties.

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"I give the governor enormous credit for calling the question," Wiener said. "It didn't work out ... my hope is we can avoid some of those flare-ups by working collaboratively with some of the stakeholders."

Details of Wiener's proposal are still being crafted, but in general it has two prongs: The first is based on legislation he successfully pushed in San Francisco, and would exempt 100 percent affordable housing developments around the state from some local development requirements. The second part would punish cities that don't meet their building goals, which are set through a state process. The bill calls for the streamlining of developments in cities that don't meet those goals -- essentially, builders would be able to skip some local requirements if they are constructing homes in places that haven't built aggressively enough.

Wiener said it's not fair for some communities to shoulder the burden of housing expansion while others refuse to add affordable or even market rate units.

"Housing is no longer a city-by-city, siloed issue. It is a statewide need and the state has a role to play," he said. "We want to maintain local control -- communities should have a strong voice in their own future -- but there have to be boundaries, and it’s not acceptable for cities or towns to simply opt out of creating housing."

A luxury apartment building under construction in downtown San Francisco.
A luxury apartment building under construction in downtown San Francisco. (Anya Schultz/KQED)

Wiener said currently there's no accountability or enforcement of housing goals, and "there are communities that fall way behind or blow it off entirely."

But he's not interested in alienating some of the powerful interest groups that derailed Brown's proposal. For one, he is looking to head off labor opposition by including language in the bill that would guarantee a prevailing wage for construction workers on any new developments.

"For the building trades, these discretionary processes and appeals are the only way in many parts of the state that they have leverage to actually get a prevailing wage so that their workers can have a middle-class existence," he said. "So this legislation is entirely conditioned on paying prevailing wages. We do not want to start creating poverty jobs for our construction trades workers."

He also pledged to work with environmentalists to make sure that any streamlining of regulations is done in an "environmentally appropriate way."

It's not entirely clear how his proposal will be embraced by other groups that fought Brown's attempt to change housing law. The California League of Cities, which opposed the usurping of local control proposed by the governor, declined to comment on the bill because it has not been fully crafted.

And Amy Schur, statewide campaign director for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE, helped lead a coalition that successfully fought Brown's plan earlier this year. She said affordable housing advocates are concerned about any proposal that focuses on building more market rate or luxury housing -- especially in expensive coastal areas like the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

"What our cities need ... is housing that's affordable for the families that have spent decades in these communities, housing that allows people to stay in the community that they've invested in and raised their families in and not just push them out to far-flung areas that lack transportation to jobs, that lack services," she said.

There are parts of the Wiener proposal that are interesting, Schur said, including forcing cities that haven't stepped up to build housing for working-class and low-income residents to approve more projects.

And, she said, "we are very interested in proposals to speed up building 100 percent affordable units" -- but only if state leaders retain the strong environmental protections that all developments are subject to in California.

"I think there's some common ground," she said. "But we keep hearing policy proposals surface about expediting luxury and market rate housing, and that makes us very nervous."

Wiener said this bill is just one piece of  a broader conversation that needs to take place in Sacramento -- including dedicating more state funds to affordable housing development in another bill he is co-sponsoring.

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