SF supervisors oppose Wiener’s new housing-near-transit bill, but there’s wiggle room
Author: Dominic Frecassa
PUBLICATION: San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco appears all but certain to oppose a divisive state bill that would allow denser housing to be built around transit hubs and job centers, a measure that has again exposed the volatility of land use politics in a city straining to confront a critical housing shortage.
A resolution by Supervisor Gordon Mar opposing the bill, SB50, has support from an eight-member supermajority on the board, dealing a symbolic but notable blow to the measure’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.
The Government Audit and Oversight Committee, which Mar chairs, voted 2-1 Thursday to send a resolution opposing SB50 to the full Board of Supervisors next week. The dissenting vote was from Supervisor Vallie Brown, who expressed some reservations about the bill, but said it would be better for the city to be “at the table” with Sacramento legislators, rather than foreclose on the measure altogether.
“We need bold proposals, and not just here. We need to have the rest of the Bay Area and California get into gear” around housing, she said.
Mar’s resolution rebuffs SB50 in its current form, but he didn’t preclude the possibility that, with some amendments, he could come around to the measure.
The bill cleared the Senate Housing Committee on Tuesday, and Mar said it is important for the city to register its opposition as the bill moved through the legislative process.
The legislation is similar to an ill-fated bill Wiener introduced last year, one that also was rejected by the supervisors after an intense debate. But the mounting pressures of the state’s housing crisis appear to be shifting attitudes toward the measure statewide, if not among San Francisco’s supervisors.
In a recent state-of-the-city poll commissioned by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, 74 percent of the survey’s 500 respondents said they’d support the bill, which many proponents see as critical to addressing California’s housing drought.
The bill has also been endorsed by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, and the mayors of Los Angeles, Stockton and Sacramento. It’s also backed by the BART Board of Directors and the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
Mar’s resolution, however, echoes the deep-seated concerns of many of SB50’s critics.
Few dispute the need to build more housing, particularly around public transit corridors to reduce car commuting. But the bill’s opponents believe SB50 doesn’t do enough to protect neighborhoods from displacement brought on by possible construction booms. Many also blanch at the prospect of ceding local control over the city’s development to a state law.
“We should increase density, especially near transit, and we should update our zoning to allow this. But we should do this through a robust, community-led process ... not mandates handed down from Sacramento,” Mar said. “The question isn’t whether we should build more housing or not — we must. It’s about what we build, how and for whom.”
SB50 has also drawn opposition from several San Francisco tenant advocacy groups, who anticipate a mushrooming of luxury housing development squeezing out low-income communities if the bill passes. Many believe SB50 does not do nearly enough to exact greater concessions from developers in return for clearing the way for them to build in more places.
“The problem is it starts from the wrong place,” said Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “It doesn’t start from a place of, ‘We need to build affordable housing and keep people in their homes.’ It starts from a place of ‘how do we incentivize development and reward developers.’”
Wiener’s bill is complex, but its intent is simple: prevent local zoning laws from blocking housing construction near public transit and job centers. The legislation would keep cities from restricting density within a half-mile of a rail station and a quarter-mile of a high-frequency bus stop.
It also raises height limits to roughly four stories within a half-mile of fixed-rail stops and about five stories within a quarter-mile of them. The city would retain the ability to conduct environmental, design and other reviews and would keep in place its rules around affordable housing rates for new developments.
A spokesman for Wiener said the senator was waiting for the full board’s vote to weigh in on the resolution. But in a public exchange of correspondence between Wiener and Mar in recent days, Wiener said that “if the Board of Supervisors were to adopt your resolution and oppose SB50, San Francisco would be aligning itself with some of the wealthiest and most housing-resistant communities in California” that are opposing the bill.
He also said places like the Mission, Chinatown, South of Market and the Tenderloin would be “minimally impacted, if at all,” because those neighborhoods are already zoned as densely or more densely than his bill would require.
“Historically, low income communities have disproportionately been zoned for density, while wealthier communities have not,” he said.
Some of SB50’s backers also see opposition to the bill as a way to launder an aversion to denser development — particularly in places populated with single-family homes, which in San Francisco have become a symbol of wealth and exclusion to many pro-housing advocates.
Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who represents the Richmond District, rejected that notion.
“Come and see who lives in my neighborhood,” she said in an emotional delivery during the committee meeting. “Talk to me about the seniors who are living under the federal poverty line who are eating cat food for dinner.”
Fewer said she supported Mar’s resolution rejecting SB50 because she doesn’t believe that simply building more housing, without the right tenant protections, would benefit the city.
“It’s not just about production. It’s about preservation, and it’s about protection,” she said.
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