Few bills in Sacramento have gotten as much attention or stirred up as much controversy recently as SB 827, Sen. Scott Wiener's bold proposal to override local zoning laws to allow the construction of buildings four to five stories tall near rail stations and frequently served bus stops — even in single-family neighborhoods where dense development is prohibited.
But this week state leaders decided — rightly — that Wiener's hostile takeover of local zoning went too far.
Introduced in January, the bill immediately became a lightning rod because it so dramatically upended local control over housing and development decisions. Wiener and pro-housing Yes In My Backyard groups argued that the state had to intervene because decades of slow-growth policies by local governments have created a devastating housing shortage. But they drew opposition from an unusual coalition of homeowners worried about their single-family neighborhoods and tenants' rights advocates worried about gentrification and displacement.
Yet even some of staunchest opponents of SB 827 professed to support the bill's housing goal. As well they should — California badly needs to build housing, and it makes sense to concentrate those new units near transit so people can more easily get around without driving.
So, it's time for those folks to put their money (or their zoning) where their mouth is. Cities and counties ought to take the initiative and change their land-use laws to promote taller, denser, more walkable and more affordable development around transit stations. For all the city officials who wring their hands over the housing crisis while opposing SB 827, here's your chance to prove Wiener wrong. You don't want to lose local control? Then don't wait for the Legislature to pass the next version of SB 827.
And if cities need more encouragement, the state should tie housing dollars to housing production. California needs to build a lot more homes — up to 180,000 new units a year just to keep up with population growth. That number has been reached only three times in the last 27 years, The Times reported.
The state is expected to raise $225 million a year for affordable housing projects through a real-estate transaction fee approved last year. That sum could increase considerably if voters approve a $4-billion bond measure for affordable housing construction on the November ballot. To the extent allowed by law, the state should give communities that have planned for denser and more affordable housing near public transit priority when doling out those dollars.
Along the same lines, the state also ought to tie transportation funding to smart-growth land-use policies. Thanks to recent fuel tax hikes and fees, California will spend tens of billions of dollars on transportation infrastructure, including the construction of rail and bus lines. As a condition of receiving funding, the state should require that cities plan for dense, affordable development around the stations and stops, and fast-track development approvals. Publicly funded transit typically boosts private property values in the surrounding areas. The state should look at laws that ensure the public gets some benefit — such as affordable housing — in return.
The state should also look at tightening existing housing mandates. Legislators did this last year with several bills that put teeth in the state's "fair share" and housing accountability laws that are designed to make cities zone for and approve the construction of enough housing to meet population growth. Now lawmakers should revisit the decade-old "Sustainable Communities Strategy" law that requires regions to develop a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by placing more housing and commercial space near transit.
Designing cities to reduce driving is essential because transportation produces half of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, and California will not meet its climate change goals without slashing the number of miles that people drive. But there are few penalties for cities that don't follow through on their sustainable community plan. Lawmakers should look at ways to toughen the law so cities have to follow through on their climate change commitments.
SB 827 may be dead, but the work to build more homes in more walkable, transit-friendly communities must continue. The future of California is at stake.