Push Toward Transit-Oriented Housing Proves Divisive in California

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Growing pains: A bill that would allow for more transit-centric multi-family housing is met with uproar in California. . (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California Senate Bill 827 sounds like an environmentalists’ dream. The bill aims to ease traffic congestion, bolster public transportation and curb carbon emissions all while easing the state’s ongoing housing crisis by making way for dense, transit-oriented residential development where it’s needed most. It’s a sprawl-busting bill that implores Californians to live smaller, smarter and sans cars.

But it didn't even make it pass its first committee meeting, where members voted against it four to seven.

The bill's author state Sen. Scott Wiener, a former city supervisor perhaps best known for singing the praises of micro-apartments and crusading against public nudity on the famously pants-optional streets of San Francisco, isn't giving up hope and promises to re-introduce the bill in the 2019 legislative session.

SB 827 enables the state to override local zoning laws along busy transit routes in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and beyond.

The bill gives developers carte blanche to build dense and tall housing in areas where dense and tall were previously verboten per city law. The New York Times notes that local protections for historic buildings and affordable housing rules would remain unaltered, even when single-family-only zoning regulations and height restrictions are preempted. (The bill allows for apartment buildings up to 85-feet-tall — roughly four or five stories — within a half-mile radius of train stations and quarter-mile of high-frequency bus stops. In some cases, developments could be even higher.)

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, height limits would increase across a staggering 96 percent of San Francisco if the bill gets approval.

Permitting developers to skirt local zoning restrictions so they can build faster and higher near major transit lines seems like a no-brainer in a state that’s housing crisis is only growing more dire by the day. Action is needed — and it’s needed quick.

An unlikely battle creates unlikely foes

In an ideal world, the areas flanking California's existing mass transit hubs would be vast, vacant parcels or blighted post-industrial wastelands just begging to be transformed into sustainable mixed-use communities that offer a range of housing options and close proximity to rail and bus routes. But in reality, many of the areas that would be impacted by SB 827 are not blank canvases but fully realized residential neighborhoods that are low-slung, low-density and often resistant to change. Opponents of the bill, Sierra Club California included, worry that letting developers skirt zoning laws could displace long-time residents, harm affordable housing mandates and alter the character of established neighborhoods, all while removing local governments from the decision-making process.

Calling SB 827 "heavy-handed" Sierra Club California voices particular concern that the bill could backfire by leading to an uptick in development that will work against public transit initiatives and lead to even greater pollution.

In a recent press release, Sierra Club California, which Wiener has accused of advocating for "low-density sprawl," reaffirms its commitment to "fighting climate change in a way that meets human needs. It notes that "this is why we strongly support policies that increase affordable, urban housing density, and access to public transportation."

"This bill has the right aim, but the wrong method," Sierra Club chief of staff Lindi von Mutius goes on to explain. "We know that some members of the legislature are working to refine the bill to make it less damaging in approach. We hope they are successful because we need more transit-oriented development that is appropriately sited to ensure smart, walkable communities that improve quality of life, reduce pollution, and fight climate change."

BART station, Oakland, California
If SB 827 is approved, neighborhoods abutting rapid transit lines could grow taller to accommodate more multi-family housing. Opponents of the bill worry residents will be displaced. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Yimbies square off against Nimbies

Fueled by the brand of grassroots activism that California does so well, you could call the opposition to SB 827 a classic case of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard)-ism.

But this scenario isn’t so cut and dried given that typical NIMBY causes pit impassioned locals against big, bad monolithic corporate entities. Here, it’s two progressive camps sparing against each other; both want the same result — more housing, less polluting cars on the road — but can’t agree on how to achieve it.

Enjoying the (obvious) support of development and real estate groups as well as the tech titans of Silicon Valley, SB 827 is sponsored by California YIMBY, a coalition of pro-housing organizations that takes its name from the responsible development-friendly Yes in My Backyard movement.

As NBC News details, the difference between Nimbies and Yimbies is largely, but not exclusively, generational. Those rallying behind SB 827 are predominately smart growth-embracing millennials while Nimbies tend to be "old-guard liberals" — boomers, essentially, who "who cut their political teeth during an era when one could be staunchly progressive and adamantly ‘slow growth'."

It also appears that both sides kind of detest each other.

"I think they are a combination of dumb and venal and maybe equal parts of both," Becky O’ Malley, a 78-year-old lawyer and journalist from Berkeley, tells NBC News of the YIMBY activists supporting SB 827. "These young people believe themselves to be liberals. But if they are not careful, their policies will build dormitories for people with high-paying jobs and leave no place for families and people of color." Noting that some Yimbies are acting as "fronts" for big developments, O’Malley goes on to call Brian Hanlon, a 35-year-old housing activist who serves as executive director of California YIMBY, an "entitled young white boy."

"They [Nimbies] are the masters of hypocritical progressivism," Hanlon says in response. "They have created what amounts to natural retirement communities. And now people like me can’t get a toehold."

Gentrification and the displacement of low-income and vulnerable communities are legitimate concerns, but Hanlon and his contemporaries also aren’t in the wrong by pushing for infill. Something needs to be done, and dense, transit-oriented housing — the kind touted in Wiener’s polarizing bill — is no doubt the best solution moving forward.

"This bill goes right to the heart of what has prevented more building near transit in California," Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at Berkeley Law School’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, tells the Mercury News. "It would be really transformative. Over the coming decade or so we could have millions of new homes with access to transit."

Still, it's difficult not to sympathize with those who are genuinely worried that the passage of SB 827 will see their neighborhoods turned upside-down.

"I’d hate to see it change that much; this is a charming little area with old buildings and things that have been here for forever," Shirley Mitts, a longtime homeowner who lives adjacent to the Ashby BART Station in Berkeley, tells the Mercury News. "But, I also see maybe the necessity of it. It’s progress as they say."

BART train, Oakland, California
Residents living along BART stations in Oakland and Berkeley are worried that new, high-density development will bring unwelcome changes in neighborhoods currently dominated by single-family homes. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Some cities receptive, others not so much

So where do California’s cities stand on SB 827?

That all depends. A handful of cities oppose the bill including Palo Alto and Milpitas, both in housing-strapped Santa Clara County. John Mirisch, a very vocal anti-SB 827 councilman in Beverly Hills, has gone as far to call the bill "Soviet-style master planning with raging crony capitalism." The League of California Cities, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, also takes issue with the bill but in less colorful terms.

Other city leaders have come to embrace the SB 827 albeit with some conditions.

As reported by the Mercury News, a spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the bill "still too blunt for our single-family home areas." However, recent amendments that safeguard residents in impacted areas from being displaced are said to have further appeased the mayor's office. The LA Metro’s newly expanded Expo Line, which travels through numerous low-density neighborhoods and, in turn, has low-ridership, would be particularly impacted by a shift in zoning laws to allow for more multi-family development adjacent to stations.

Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents some Expo Line-adjacent Westside neighborhoods, has called SB 827 "the worst idea I've ever heard" and argued that phasing out gas-powered cars would be more impactful than allowing for potentially disruptive taller and denser development. "I don’t think people want to see significant rezoning around single-family neighborhoods whether they’re near transit or not," he tells the Los Angeles Times.

Curbed, which shares a helpful interactive map illustrating areas of the city that would be most affected by eased zoning standards, notes that just as grassroots opposition to the bill is substantial and vocal across L.A., so are supportive voices.

(Coincidentally, Garcetti’s office just hired L.A.’s first-ever chief design officer — or "design czar" — in the form of former longtime Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. In the new role, Hawthorne will be tasked with "improving the quality of civic architecture and urban design across Los Angeles" with an eye toward new housing, transit and the 2028 Summer Olympics.)

Other mayors, including those of San Jose, Berkeley, Oakland and Sacramento either outright support or have warmed to the bill now that it stipulates tenants will not be evicted or displaced by development spurred by overridden zoning laws. (One has to wonder why these protections weren’t written into the bill in the first place.)

Expo Line extension, Santa Monica, California
Completed in 2016, Los Angeles Metro's Expo Line is a light rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles with the beachfront city of Santa Monica. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Small vs. sprawl

While both sides make valid arguments, Wiener and the pro-development faction are certainly making the case for a cleaner and greener future. Writing for Vox, Matthew Yglesias calls the push for dense, mass transit-centric housing in California "one of the most important ideas in American politics today."

There’s no argument that people living in dense urban areas have smaller carbon footprints than folks living in more sprawling cities or in the ‘burbs. They make do with smaller living spaces that consume less energy and tend to walk, bike or rely on transportation to get around town. Per findings by the Urban Land Institute shared by the New York Times, policies that promote transient-oriented multi-family development can help to curb vehicle use by 20 to 40 percent. This is particularly crucial in the Bay Area, where housing prices are sky-high and commutes by car in areas outside of San Francisco's urban core are increasingly long and congestion-riddled.

But implementing such policies isn’t easy, even in a liberal, forward-thinking state that has embraced clean energy and electric vehicles with open arms. And the contentious nature of SB 827 is proof in the proverbial pudding.

As Wiener tells the Times: "We can have all the electric vehicles and solar panels in the world, but we won’t meet our climate goals without making it easier for people to live near where they work, and live near transit and drive less."

Love it, hate it or feel largely ambivalent about it, California's Senate Bill 827 is a piece of legislation worth paying attention to.