California’s SB 827 ‘Upzoning’ Bill Dies a Noisy Death — for Now

Would California’s housing and transportation problems get better with more high-rises near transit stops? Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

A controversial California bill that would have swept away local zoning restrictions near transit facilities was killed at its first formal stop in the legislature this week. SB 827 was designed to address two of the state’s megaproblems: a severe housing shortage and an auto-heavy transportation system that makes achievement of ambitious greenhouse-gas-emissions goals highly problematic. By overriding local limitations on housing height and density near rail and high-volume bus stops, the bill aimed at “upzoning,” the construction of high-rise multifamily dwellings in some of the state’s core urban areas. The bill targeted California’s rampant culture of nimbyism (“not in my back yard”), an opposition to development that is (not coincidentally) most intense in the wealthy coastal communities that have the biggest affordable-housing shortages.

Opponents of this sort of radical change in how development decisions are made won the first round, as SB 827 was defeated in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. But it’s an idea that is not going away:

The bill was sponsored by California YIMBY, a coalition of pro-development Yes In My Backyard groups who are newcomers to Sacramento politics. Also backing it were Silicon Valley CEOs and development and real estate trade associations. Dozens of urban planning and housing experts have lined up in favor of the proposal, arguing it could encourage more racially integrated neighborhoods and ease the state’s housing shortage.

But by and large, advocates for low-income affordable housing opposed the measure, claiming it would promote gentrification and displacement of long-established minority communities. Local governments more predictably fought the preemption of their zoning and planning prerogatives; in its initial language, SB 827 would have affected the entire city of San Francisco and roughly half of Los Angeles.

The bill’s author, Democratic state senator Scott Wiener (who is from San Francisco) tried to mollify opponents with amendments to shrink the affected areas somewhat, to reduce the required height allowances from eight to five stories, to require that new construction include low-income housing, and to prohibit demolition of low-income housing to build new upscale units. But it wasn’t enough, this year at least. It says a lot about the controversy the bill aroused that the two leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, went out of their way to say that they wouldn’t sign it if it got through the legislature.

Wiener and his supporters promise to bring the bill back in 2019, perhaps with some new tweaks. But perhaps the most important thing they’ve accomplished is to generate a fresh debate on development rules in a state where they have been so important in driving demographic and economic change. Aside from the ever-rising cost of housing for sale and rent in the state, California’s homelessness problem is getting conspicuously worse almost everywhere.

But while SB 827 cleverly linked housing development to public-transit access, which makes the new housing more convenient for low-income residents while getting more cars off the roads, this approach also means that many wealthy communities can continue to luxuriate in nimby isolation. If there’s no public transit, there’s no required new development.

In any event, the “no, but” posture of many of SB 827’s opponents is a good sign for potential future action:

Nearly every Democratic legislator who voted against SB 827 caveated their opposition by praising the bill’s vision and audacity. Sen. Jim Beall, 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.

It’s telling that California Republicans have not been that involved in the debate: Most conservatives appear to have either opposed or supported SB 827 based on their perception of how far it went to promote the total deregulation of housing markets. GOP gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen opposed it from the hammerheaded perspective that multifamily housing is a bad idea in itself.

But at present, Republicans aren’t that big a political factor in California. So the controversy over “upzoning” is an intra-progressive dialogue that arouses the passions usually associated with partisan politics.

California SB 827 ‘Upzoning’ Bill Dies Noisy Death — for Now