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Anti-Development Forces Kill Free-Market Housing Reform in California

SB 827 would have opened up swaths of California's cities to new construction. Now it's dead.

Arturo Osorno/Dreamstime.comArturo Osorno/Dreamstime.comA flawed but promising California housing reform bill died yesterday, killed by local governments and anti-development activists. Senate Bill 827—which would have deregulated housing construction near transit stops—was shot down by a 6–4 vote in California Senate's Housing and Transportation Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Weiner (D–San Francisco), would have overridden local zoning, density, height, and design restrictions for residential and mixed-use developments within a half-mile of most transit stops. That might sound like small potatoes, but given how often these local regulations are used to shrink, slow, or stop much-needed housing, SB 827 would have been a pretty sweeping reform in practice.

For this reason, it attracted the vociferous support of the state's small but enthusiastic pro-development YIMBY movement, as well as a large number of urban planning academics and tech CEOs, who wrote letters in support of Weiner's bill. Weiner himself presented SB 827 as a way of achieving the bread-and-butter progressive goals of combating climate change and goosing up transit ridership. That helped pick up endorsements from several environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But in the end, the bill's deregulatory approach proved too much for the state's broad coalition of anti-development forces. While assuring anyone who will listen that the state needs more housing, they fought one of the few bills that would actually achieve that goal.

"California's housing costs are unsustainable and our housing policies aren't working," Weiner said in a statement following the bill's failure. "California needs to get at the heart of our housing shortage, not just work around the edges, or we will become a hollowed-out state with no middle class."

Since the initial introduction of SB 827 in January, Weiner amended it several times to make it more politically palatable. In February he added "right to remain" provisions, which required any developer demolishing renter-occupied housing under SB 827's streamlined construction process to pay relocation expenses and rent subsidies to displaced tenants. In April he watered down the bill yet again, undoing height bonuses for developments near bus stops, requiring that any new development not cause a net loss of below-market-rate housing, and delaying the law's implementation until 2021.

These amendments did nothing to quiet the concerns of those whose power to veto projects was being threatened. The California League of Cities, for example, warned that "developers would be given the power to dictate building heights, exempt themselves from parking requirements and override community plans." To the governments that the league represents, that's a bad thing.

Other opponents included groups like the Mission Economic Development Agency, an affordable housing nonprofit in San Francisco, which rely on labyrinthine local permitting process to kill projects or extract concessions from developers.

With SB 827 dead, the state has few remaining options for digging itself out of its self-inflicted housing shortage.

One idea being floated in the legislature, and endorsed by three of the state's gubernatorial candidates, is to revive the state's urban redevelopment agencies, which for decades diverted property taxes to urban renewal projects in supposedly blighted areas. These agencies were shuttered in 2011, after it was discovered that much of the money they were supposed to be spending on affordable housing was instead going to maintain luxury golf courses, pay employee salaries, and funnel improper subsidies to developers.

Cities themselves are looking to tax and spend their way out of their housing woes. In 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Measure HHH, which issued $1.2 billion in bonds to finance affordable housing construction. This was followed by the passage of Measure H in 2017, which boosted sales taxes by a quarter cent to provide another $355 million to help transition the city's roughly 34,000 homeless population into housing.

Going before San Francisco voters this June is a proposed $70 million gross receipts tax on commercial landlords to pay for housing and homelessness services.

Whatever the merits of dumping huge amounts of public money into affordable housing construction, it won't get you far without loosening the rules that keep new housing plans tied up in red tape.

Local NIMBYs have proven quite adaptable at stalling public housing projects they dislike. This includes a planned 49-unit social housing development in Los Angeles that has been stalled for over a decade thanks to neighborhood opposition and environmental lawsuits. A similar story has been playing out in Berkeley, where plans to replace a parking lot with a 260-unit development (50 percent of which would be rented out at below-market rate) has been stalled by Indian activists claiming the site is a sacred burial ground.

Some 54 percent of Californian tenants spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, while a quarter spend over half. According to apartmentlist.com, seven of the country's 10 most expensive cities to rent in are in California. The state's median home price is the third highest in the nation, only behind Hawaii and the District of Columbia.

Most everyone agrees that the answer to high prices and lagging supply is to build more housing. That's not going to happen as long as California is one of the most restrictive places in the United States to build.

Photo Credit: Arturo Osorno/Dreamstime.com

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  • Rich||

    Most everyone agrees that the answer to high prices and lagging supply is to build more housing. That's not going to happen as long as California is one of the most restrictive places in the United States to build.

    How about couching this as anti-sanctuary-state?

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Progressives want their immigrants working under the table at restaurants for tips and living at the homeless shelter. That makes it easier for them to get better service.

  • BYODB||


    Going before San Francisco voters this June is a proposed $70 million gross receipts tax on commercial landlords to pay for housing and homelessness services.


    Ah, Commiefornia. Taxing employers to provide 'affordable' housing and services for homeless people. It's amazing that these types of people are able to find the brain power to breathe.


    They appear to understand exactly how to expand their homeless population, but not much else.

  • shawn_dude||

    I'm not going to vote for this bill, but it's helpful to understand that folks in the Bay Area blame homelessness on the high paying tech corporations that flooded the market with well-paid kids who could outbid middle class families on our limited housing. While there is some truth to that, there isn't a lot of data to support the connection between the homeless we see on the streets and people who simply cannot afford homes. The homelessness has more to do with drugs and mental illness than a middle class family who are priced out. Families who are priced out leave the area; they don't just hang out on the street with the addicts. And the addicts, who this tax will sorta help, generally refuse public housing because it comes with a condition that they not do drugs. I'd be supportive of a tax that places these folks into a rehab hospital with mental health care because that, at least, is addressing the issue directly.

    Weiner's law was a good move in the right direction.

  • Sevo||

    This was primarily opposed by the local governments; the poobahs would lose their patronage privileges and might not be able to buy votes with developer money.
    In SF, any developer is charged 'remediation' fees; might go to a public sculpture by the Supervisor's talentless lover, or perhaps to a 'neighborhood house', staffed by her campaign workers.
    Regardless, that's 'free money' the Supervisor gets to hand out, and we certainly wouldn't want them to have to get elected on their merits, would we?

  • shawn_dude||

    Well, a lot of SF Supervisors wouldn't get elected in their districts if they supported development. In my district, it was bizarre to watch the NIMBY's battle each other over a below market value development that used nothing but union labor. The round robin of "development is bad! but unions should be supported!" was dizzying.

    You'll notice Jane Kim, who is running for mayor, got elected on a NIMBY platform but has shifted to the middle and isn't talking like a socialist any longer.

  • ||

    Well, a lot of SF Supervisors wouldn't get elected in their districts if they supported development.

    This is the tightrope they walk. Developer fees are collected all over the place - it's not just an SF thing. You have to appear to be anti-development at the same time that you need the developer fees to fund pet projects to appease your base. You "need" affordable housing at the same time that your ability to issue bonds to pay for public construction to fund the unions is capped by the total property value of your city, so that what you want is sky-high property values while seeming to crusade for "affordable housing."

    Politics - it ain't called a dirty business for nothin'.

  • esteve7||

    Progs don't understand reality, blame corporations and rich people and republicans for problems they create, news at 11.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    A similar story has been playing out in Berkeley, where plans to replace a parking lot with a 260-unit development (50 percent of which would be rented out at below-market rate) has been stalled by Indian activists claiming the site is a sacred burial ground.


    Why doesn't the developer just say the site is sacred to him too, because he dreamed that he visited it on a flying horse?

  • ||

    Why doesn't the developer just say the site is sacred to him too, because he dreamed that he visited it on a flying horse?

    Or that a burning bush told him so, as the case may be ; ).

  • jelabarre||

    The New Jersey Mafia have probably declared the Meadowlands a sacred burial ground as well.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    In California, you don't own real estate. You get get exclusive right to rent property from society within a given framework of regulations, rules, provisos, and special exceptions.

  • ||

    That's actually fundamental to real estate law.

    Real estate laws have a continuous history going back to the Domesday Book. In a fundamental sense, we still live under feudalism, we've just replaced the Big Landlord with a legislative body.

    What you have is always an "estate" - technically a very small fief held in return for feudal obligations to the landlord. A "fee simple" obligation means that you merely have to hand over cash periodically - you don't have to raise troops or provide other forms of feudal service. But "allodial title," or "absolute, unrestricted ownership" of land can only be held by sovereigns, even in the modern "post-feudal" world.

  • Chipper Jones||

    My new favorite in SF is the city manager sending cease-and-desist letters to the scooter rental companies, calling them a "public nuisance." When I first read that I looked out the window of my office and saw a dude literally taking a shit on the sidewalk. But no nuisance there I guess.

  • DrZ||

    I know, we can force rental owners to lower their rent. It's the American (left) way.

  • prediksi singapore||

    Bhuel, ní bhfaigheadh ​​a lán de na Maoirseoirí SF tofa ina gceantair má thacaigh siad le forbairt. I mo cheantar, bhí sé aisteach a bheith ag féachaint ar chath an NIMBY ar a chéile thar fhorbairt luach margaidh faoi bhun nach raibh ach aon saothar ceardchumainn. Tá an babhta babhta "forbairt dona" ach ba cheart tacú le ceardchumainn! " a bhí ag titim.

    Feicfidh tú go bhféachfaidh Jane Kim, atá ag feidhmiú don mhéara, tofa ar ardán NIMBY ach tá sé tar éis aistriú go dtí an lár agus níl sé ag caint mar shóisialach níos faide.

  • MarkLastname||

    Aga poda na sharachak! Gaba gaba! So sai mamubago?

  • jelabarre||

    Building new housing in Kookafornia would suggest people actually want to live there. I suppose there are people like that, but maybe just let the flower children live in their fairyland cloud castles instead.

    OK, I accept that just like NY State there are particular high-density areas of corruption, and their contamination ruins things for the reasonably-minded regions.

  • prediksifajar||

    bocoran toto hk

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