Amendments to S.B. 827 Help Push Transit Housing Bill Forward

Height limits lowered and new protections put in as push continues to crack NIMBY housing juggernaut

SB 827 could pave the way for more dense housing near transit. Image:  Pixabay.
SB 827 could pave the way for more dense housing near transit. Image: Pixabay.

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Senator Scott Wiener has revised S.B. 827, the Transit-Rich Housing Bonus, his bill to allow more housing near public transportation. The changes came in response to outcry and blowback from local government officials concerned about losing control over housing regulation.

“California has a housing deficit approaching 4 million homes, and our housing shortage is a huge threat to our state’s diversity, economy, environment, and quality of life,” said Senator Wiener in a prepared statement. “S.B. 827 is about creating more opportunities for housing where we need it – near public transportation.”

The amendments to the bill include redefining transit stops (and thereby the area where the density and high restrictions would apply) and reducing minimum height limits from 85 feet to 55 feet.

Housing advocates support the changes. “We’re excited to continue to see the evolution of this bill and hope these quality amendments help make this pro-housing legislation the law,” wrote Corey Smith of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

The bill, if passed, will supersede local controls on housing heights and density near transit throughout California and has already been opposed by resolution from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (which actually has no direct power over state legislation, of course).

“I am opposed to S.B. 827 because it radically reduces our communities’ ability to have a say in how development occurs in our neighborhoods and because it creates an expedited pathway for building new housing without mandating any additional infrastructure assistance from the State,” wrote Norman Yee, SF District 7 Supervisor. “I am in favor of building new housing, particularly affordable housing, on the west side of our City but there has to be a role for meaningful community input as we review proposed projects.”

Lots of transit at St. Francis Circle, but no density. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Lots of transit at St. Francis Circle, but no density. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Of course, Yee’s sentiment that he is in favor of new housing hardly tracks with the reality on the ground, as seen in the above image of St. Francis Circle, where two of San Francisco’s Muni rail lines converge. The area is surrounded by wide roads, parking lots, and, above all, single-family homes. The shopping district of West Portal is one of the best transit-served areas of the city but has height restrictions and zoning that makes it impossible to add density. The handful of older apartment buildings that are there would be illegal to build under current local zoning laws.

“West Portal Avenue is the poster child of what S.B. 827 is trying to accomplish,” said Todd David, Executive Director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, in a phone interview with Streetsblog. “You have so many trains, they’re so frequent–is there any reason not to have four or five-story apartment buildings in a place well-served by Muni trains and where people would be able to shop locally and help neighborhood retail?”

“Residential zoning districts encompass 70 percent of San Francisco’s private land. Across most residential districts, current zoning permits only one or two units per lot. As the housing crisis in San Francisco and the Bay Area becomes more acute, and as the City and the region continue to grapple with transportation and sustainability, the practice of exclusionary zoning–zoning which segregates people by income or economic class–is coming under increasing scrutiny,” wrote Tom Radulovich, in a Livable City blog post about the bill.

It’s not just San Francisco of course. Think of the giant surface parking lots and the single-story shopping center next to the Larkspur Ferry landing. Or the area around Rockridge BART, with its height and zoning restrictions. There are hundreds of places throughout the Bay Area with strong transit connections but low housing density (or sometimes no housing at all) in proximity.

Pushback from San Francisco and other cities around the state was inevitable. There’s no doubt that Wiener’s tactic was to introduce an all-in bill that he could pull back and modify later according to political realities (and, no doubt, because of some legitimately better ideas). That was certainly true about the eight-story height limit going down to five stories in the amendments.

“These concessions will likely reduce the risk of backlash we feared when we imagined eight-story buildings springing up in single family home areas,” wrote TransForm’s Stuart Cohen, in a detailed analysis of the bill modifications. The amended bill also strengthens protections against potential displacement.

“Politics is the art of compromise. At the end of the day, I think he’ll be as aggressive and pro-housing as he can be, but I don’t think he believes in Pyrrhic victories,” said David.

 

  • I am a fan of the plan.

  • sf in sf

    Thank you for this, Roger. You showed Supervisor Yee’s hypocrisy more diplomatically than I could have. It has been barely a month since he helped rich homeowners in his district kill 150 subsidized affordable apartments for seniors on the excuse that there was a hill there (as if San Francisco has never figured out how to build on a hill). https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Senior-housing-project-near-SF-s-Forest-Hill-12742358.php

    With Senate Bill 827, I hope to see many projects like that actually go through, as elderly homeowners will their homes to their local church to build affordable housing after they pass — something single-family zoning currently prevents.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The mandatory recurring monthly transit pass for all residents of covered projects makes this bill pretty weird. For one thing, many transit services do not offer such a pass. For another, the net present value of a transit pass in perpetuity is extremely high, much more than the cost of a mandatory parking space per unit which we all like to complain about here at Streetsblog. And remember that the bill requires a mandatory transit pass per *resident* not per unit, so the cost is really a multiple of the cost of a parking space.

    I understand the motivation but I think this detail basically kills 827 on economic terms.

  • mx

    I really like the idea of it (I, idealistically, like the idea of free public transit in general, though the research on negative outcomes is less fun), but yeah it’s hard to imagine how it works practically. If I live near Caltrain, does my pass have to give me enough zones to get to work? If I live in Millbrae, do I get a pass for BART, Caltrain, or SamTrans Do they have to buy me daily BART tickets since there’s no monthly pass? How does this work if the building is sold as condos; do the owners have to buy their own passes through the HOA whether they want them or not? If my landlord just ignores the pass requirement, who enforces it and how (nobody’s taking their extra stories away)?

    And fundamentally, transit passes are a cost that developers will seek to recoup. If the purpose is to lower housing costs, why force renters to pay for transit passes they may not find valuable?

    The problems with this seem so obvious that it’s weird to me this was ever put into the bill without someone asking at least one of these questions.

    And that, in general, is kind of where I’m still stuck on SB827. It’s getting better and better, and I appreciate the commitment to keep improving it, but the broad scope of it means that tiny tweaks have the power to change or not change entire neighborhoods, and the entire process feels like it’s being made up as we go. I don’t know exactly what the right required bus frequencies or distances or building heights or densities or transit pass policies should be, but when minute adjustments to these values will set statewide policy for what neighborhoods look like, maybe the process should be more rigorous? People have extensively studied what kind of transit connectivity people need to give up their cars, and I haven’t really seen that kind of research go into this process.

  • Eric Johnson

    Yee is hypocritical because he says he supports building on the west side–but look!–there are no apartment buildings at St. Francis Circle? Sad to see what StreetsblogSF is becoming.

  • dparx

    If the goal of increased density around Transit is to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled, you have to do something to incentivize or encourage residents, employees and customers to use transit services – and not their cars. The LA times years ago did a study of “Transit Oriented” development along the Red Line and Gold Lines. They found that well over 90% of residents were commuting every day in their cars. Car congestion in Hollywood is far worse than before the development.
    On the other hand, if you add the cost of a transit pass to the rent on an apartment, who is more likely to move in? Someone who will use transit (and the pass), or someone who thinks it’s cool to live in a new building in a hip area? All of the residents of new construction are new, additional residents to the area. In most cases it just increases traffic….
    Also, Metro has a very successful BTAP program for businesses that they have expanded to cover multifamily residences. It offers passes at a significantly reduced rate – $19/month the last time I checked.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I imagined the point of the bill was to provide housing at prices the tens of thousands of Californians sleeping under bridges can afford. Adding a $40000-per-person transit pass mandate isn’t helping. Eliminating parking should be enough to encourage transit ridership or walking or biking or car-share or whatever.

    I don’t personally own a car but I don’t have transit passes either. I mostly bicycle. To me this mandatory transit pass would just be a stupid cost.

  • George Joseph Lane

    How is that hypocrisy? It is almost impossible for an individual representative to change zoning.

  • dparx

    The theory is that adding more housing increases supply and lowers cost. I personally doubt if enough housing will ever be built to lower cost, more likely it will slow down the increase in cost. But whatever the effect, the increased supply could be built anywhere, including suburbia. I believe that part of the mandate of increased density is to lessen the need for cars- unfortunately as built it often seems to increase congestion.
    I’m not sure where you got the $40K per person figure, but it could be done very economically.
    I didn’t see eliminating parking in the bill – it just avoids minimums. I doubt if I live to see the day when a major development in California is built with ZERO parking.
    And if you don’t want to use transit, live somewhere else. More supply will dilute demand and you can live more cheaply. Or at least that’s the theory.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    40000 is the net present value of a transit pass in perpetuity at current prices and discount rates.

  • Edward

    Assuming 3% return and a monthly cost of $100. But that is not in perpetuity. Make the return a few tenths higher.

  • LazyReader

    Good luck finding people who wanna purposely live near a machine that goes clickity clack.

    This bill would severely disrupt neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and many other cities that currently have frequent transit service, as maps reveal that it would virtually eliminate zoning in most of the land area of those cities. While some people consider zoning to be an unfair (and possibly unconstitutional) restriction of property rights, most people who live in zoned urban neighborhoods appreciate the benefits of such zoning. By limiting the maximum density of housing, zoning minimizes traffic congestion, noise, and other problems. Moreover, neighborhoods are built with streets, water, sewer, and other infrastructure to serve the needs of the density at which the neighborhoods were built. Major increases in density would require expensive improvements to water and sewer infrastructure–far more expensive than building new infrastructure on greenfields–and streets probably could not be redesigned to accommodate the density increases in any case.
    Residents who oppose densification of their neighborhoods are often accused of being NIMBYs who are borderline racists getting in the way of market demand. But the urban-growth boundaries and other restrictions on rural development have so distorted California and other housing markets that any demand for density is totally
    artificial. Without those rural restrictions, housing would be affordable to
    almost everyone regardless of race or incomes. The fact that
    homeownership rates in Brazil and Mexico are far higher than in the
    United States shows that homeownership is limited more by government
    regulation than by incomes.

  • dparx

    Yes certainly. 5% is a reasonable rate of return for investment in the real estate industry. Hardmoney cost is 10%. And as I said above, you can leverage the scale of the property to get a steep reduction in the price of a transit pass

  • dparx

    Also a tenant doesn’t live there in perpetuity. It’s all in permanent. It’s better figured as an annual cost projected over a certain number of years.

  • Edward

    I agree with the 5%… even a bit low. I invested $50,000 in a share of an apartment building partnership 35 years ago in The City. It just got sold. Well that takes care of my retirement!

  • Major increases in density would require expensive improvements to water and sewer infrastructure–far more expensive than building new infrastructure on greenfields–and streets probably could not be redesigned to accommodate the density increases in any case.

    These sorts of things are required study under CEQA which the amended SB 827 makes explicitly clear still applies. Thus, developments can be conditioned to contribute their fair share of any necessary upgrades.

    But the urban-growth boundaries and other restrictions on rural development have so distorted California and other housing markets that any demand for density is totally
    artificial. Without those rural restrictions, housing would be affordable to
    almost everyone regardless of race or incomes.

    Where are these alleged boundaries? Carpeting the entire Central Valley in houses just creates a nightmare on the freeways.

  • The LA times years ago did a study of “Transit Oriented” development along the Red Line and Gold Lines. They found that well over 90% of residents were commuting every day in their cars.

    How many of those developments had no parking minimums? We already know that building parking spaces encourages driving, but I don’t think that LA has really allowed many projects to go forward without ample amounts of parking until at best, very recently. Since SB 827 already abolishes parking minimums, I’d say that the prospect of potentially not being able to park their car at home will lead those more likely to drive to either not move in or to get rid of it (though perhaps not before getting a couple tickets) soon after. With that in mind, cut back the transit pass to a year. That’s enough for them to decide if transit is for them as well as decide to ditch their car (or not).

  • Agreed. I’d say stick with making transit passes to be available to those who ask, but not requiring them to be showered on everyone. Also, they should have some limit, not just be available in perpetuity.

  • mx

    Sure. You could even punt to local municipalities to come up with the details. SB827 is about taking away the ability of planning authorities to control things, so do the opposite and just say something to the effect of “planning authorities can still require developers to provide transit passes on request for the first year after occupancy (or whatever), maximum dollar value of any such requirement not to exceed $whatever, adjusted for inflation.”

    If cities want a transit pass requirement, they can decide which passes and all the other practical details as part of local law, just as long as they’re not demanding something so expensive it would stop development. If not, it’s their city.

  • Yep, and there’s a massive list of passes to choose from in some areas where multiple agencies overlap.

  • Kevin Withers

    “to crack NIMBY housing juggernaut”

    Alas, mythology is alive and well at streestblog.

    Let’s not forget AstroTurf Wimbys.
    Also, Yelp money is still being spread around, if you partake of their koolaid offering.

  • Vince Tagliano

    “California has a housing deficit approaching 4 million homes.”

    Coincidentally, our state is overpopulated by about 8 to 10 million people. Perhaps they should move elsewhere.

  • almondgarfield

    The reality is, People with wealth, go to places they want to, housing goes to people who can most afford to pay the high rents, California has great jobs so wealthy people are going to move in. The people that are being pushed out, are the people who are poorest. (and also under-served minorities)

    So really, your argument really is, the state is overpopulated and poor people should move elsewhere……

    I don’t care what the plan is. But we need more housing at all levels. this is a crisis

  • Hugh Shepard

    They should have kept the relaxed height limits in the bill. 8 stories is not that high, ‘neighborhood/community advocates’ should suck it up, and deal with the fact that more housing is needed for the people of California.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Overpopulated???!!!! Hah! What brings you to that conclusion? If we could accommodate more people with more housing, why would we have overpopulation? Every time I go to the more dense areas of SF, like Inner Richmond, I keep on thinking of how empty the place is. There are practically no people walking around. There are no buildings more than 3 or 4 stories, and the houses are huge! They’re also extremely expensive! This is not what overpopulation looks like!!!!!!!

  • Vince Tagliano

    If 10 million residents moved out of California to less densely populated areas of the nation we wouldn’t have an overpopulation or housing crisis.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

With S.B.-827 dead, transit-adjacent structures, such as this Wells Fargo in West Portal, will still be protected by local zoning from being displaced by dense apartment buildings. Image: Google Earth

Transit Housing Bill Dies in Committee

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Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content. State Senator Scott Wiener’s transit housing bill, S.B. 827, was defeated by a six-to-four vote in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee yesterday. “While […]