California's Most Controversial Housing Bill in Years Just Died. Here's What to Take Away From That

1 min
Construction cranes tower over downtown San Francisco in 2014. Senate Bill 827 would have forced cities to allow taller, denser development around public transit. It went down with a resounding thud. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

The most controversial state housing bill in recent memory died with a pretty resounding thud.

Senate Bill 827, which would have forced cities to allow taller, denser development around public transit, got only four votes on the 13-member Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers voted against the bill.

Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, the bill would have allowed developers to build five-story apartment buildings near major public transit stops, including neighborhoods previously zoned for single-family homes. The bill received a ton of media attention, both in California and nationally, including a fairly flattering write-up on the front page of the New York Times.

Urbanist “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) groups mourned the bill’s death as yet another roadblock to building the new housing the state so desperately needs. Cities and anti-gentrification groups cheered the demise of what they viewed as an unprecedented inroad on local control.

What to make of all the hubbub? Some key takeaways:

Enemies, enemies, got a lot of enemies

It’s tough for anyone to take on cities and counties, which wield enormous power in Sacramento and to whom state legislators often give considerable deference. It’s tough for anyone to take on the construction trades union, a major source of campaign contributions for Democratic lawmakers. It’s tough for anyone to take on equity and social justice groups, who can bend the ear of progressive legislators.

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It’s really tough to take on all three at the same time. That likely wasn’t Wiener’s strategy when he introduced SB 827, but that’s ultimately what helped doom the bill. The support of real estate agents, developers, YIMBYs and a handful of affordable housing advocates couldn’t muster the votes he needed.

Supporters of the bill arguably made a misstep in not courting social justice groups early enough. A flurry of amendments to protect renters from being displaced and to force developers to include units reserved for lower-income tenants failed to calm their concerns.

Last year, Wiener was able to push through a bill that stripped local control over some housing developments by getting labor and affordability advocates on his side. That bill was also part of a larger package of housing legislation that had something for everyone, including a new revenue source. Gov. Jerry Brown was a driving force behind that package.

None of that happened this time.

Opponents came from San Francisco and its environs to lobby against the bill—and the gentrification they feared it would bring.
Opponents came from San Francisco and its environs to lobby against the bill—and the gentrification they feared it would bring. (Matt Levin/CALmatters)

The bill did spark a statewide debate on whether to up density to help remedy our housing crisis

What Wiener was attempting was truly revolutionary. You can debate how dramatically the character of a city would change by building a five-story apartment building next to a single-family home. But taking away the power of local governments to block those types of developments was a pretty radical step—a step that a growing number of Californians think is necessary to prevent cities from obstructing new housing.

The bill garnered support from prominent urban planners, environmentalists and civil rights advocates. It’s both cliched and premature to say it shifted the needle on the housing debate. But it certainly framed the conversation squarely around the state’s role in compelling cities to build.

Expect something like this to come back soon

Nearly every Democratic legislator who voted against SB 827 caveated their opposition by praising the bill’s vision and audacity. Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose and chair of the housing committee, said at the hearing that while he couldn’t support the bill in its current form, he was eager to work on something like it in the months ahead.

Could SB 827 ever rise from the dead? Well for his part, Wiener has vowed to reintroduce something like it in the future. Combining his push for density around transit stations with a broader mix of tenant protections and new funding for affordable housing could make it more palatable to the interest groups Wiener needs to succeed.