Opinion: Real progressives would embrace Scott Wiener’s SB 827 housing bill

There’s plenty of talk about “greedy developers” being the cause of our housing crisis but the people making out in this crazy market aren’t builders, but existing homeowners.

For decades, efforts to restrict new housing in Berkeley and the broader Bay Area have driven up housing costs, pushed out low-income residents, and reinforced historical, racially discriminatory housing policies. Our city’s and region’s failure to build adequate housing is also exacerbating climate change by giving our middle-income workers no choice but to commute long distances in their cars.

Meanwhile, homeowners sitting on million-dollar-plus properties benefit as the artificially constrained housing market heaps unearned value into their homes.

In common political parlance, this effort to lock in the status quo on behalf of the wealthy, and to prevent change at all costs, would be considered “conservative.” So it is genuinely ironic that it’s so-called “progressives” driving such restrictions. And it was genuinely bizarre seeing some affordable housing advocates allied with white, wealthy outposts like Beverly Hills and Marin County to kill SB 827, as the battle for a solution to the housing crisis screeched to a halt in Sacramento.

SB 827, introduced by liberal San Francisco State Sen. Scott Wiener, essentially legalized urban, transit-oriented housing. The bill would have made it dramatically easier to build new housing near major transit hubs by removing the ability of cities to block such housing on spurious grounds. Under SB 827, developers seeking to build multi-family housing on properties within a quarter mile of major transit stations could build apartments up to 55 feet, without needing to worry about delays due to neighbor complaints about “shadows” or “neighborhood character” or that most sacred of California sacred cows — parking for cars.

In recognition of the need for cities to maintain some oversight of development within their boundaries, SB 827 subjected developers to local community benefits requirements such as affordable housing minimums. The bill also protected renters by ensuring that any tenants displaced by new construction were offered a new apartment—at the same rent, in the same building—plus temporary accommodations provided during construction (including moving costs). This was a dramatic expansion of renter protections beyond current law.

And the bill addressed the housing crisis on a regional and statewide level. It would no longer be possible for some cities to put up barriers to new construction, forcing others to shoulder the load. It was genuinely equitable.

Despite these conscientious efforts to protect renters and other vulnerable residents, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín called the bill “a declaration of war against our neighborhoods.” Yet while Arreguín, who claims on his website that he is working “to make this city more affordable and accessible for all,” the reality has been quite brutally the opposite.

Let’s assess Mayor Arreguín’s performance based on the data: According to real estate website Zillow, housing prices in Berkeley are up 17.4% in the last year alone: The median home price in this city of 120,000 people is now nearly $1.3 million. Arreguín’s approach (and that of his allies on the city council) to stymie, stall, and kill housing projects clearly isn’t working in favor of those seeking an affordable place to live.

For an owner of a million-dollar home, that’s a $174,000 one-year windfall. For renters, city workers, teachers, first responders and anyone else who didn’t have the good fortune of moving here 20 or more years ago, it’s an intractable barrier to living in our fair city.

This being Berkeley, there is plenty of talk about “greedy developers” being the cause of our crisis (as if current housing stock was built by benevolent humanitarians). But that narrative gets the story exactly backwards: The people making out in this crazy market aren’t builders, but existing homeowners. And while those developers have to pay taxes on their earnings, in addition to whatever community benefits they must factor in to their cost of doing business, existing homeowners (like me!) don’t have to pay taxes on the bulk of those gains! The notorious Proposition 13 makes sure of that.

And the story is the same in cities across the state: “Progressive” mayors and council members declare their abiding support for “affordable housing”— right up to the part about actually making sure it gets built.

Given the current state of the housing market, fears of displacement are completely legitimate: We’re creating six or seven jobs for every new unit of housing we build, so inevitably, housing is a game of musical chairs in which most Californians lose. But bringing new construction to a halt hasn’t stopped gentrification or kept housing prices from hitting the stratosphere. As much as “luxury condos” are derided by opponents, one could consider them flypaper for wealthy newcomers: Either they buy their nice condos, or they bid up prices of housing in existing neighborhoods. The latter is what we’re seeing happen across the East Bay, and in cities all over our state.

That’s why SB 827 was embraced by some of the nation’s foremost affordability housing and civil-rights advocates. Last week, a dozen legendary housing experts, including Berkeley’s own john a. powell and Richard Rothstein, sent in their endorsement of SB 827. In their letter of support, they wrote: “By circumventing cost‐inflating restrictive zoning barriers, SB 827 would allow more affordable housing than is currently permitted to be constructed where public transportation systems can carry job seekers to employment centers.” Thus, the bill was a “laudable effort to attack the problem of racial and economic segregation both directly and indirectly.”

SB 827 was also endorsed by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, the trade group representing affordable housing builders, saying that SB 827 was “a major tool to combat restrictive and exclusionary zoning that has contributed to the Bay Area’s and California’s concentration of wealth and opportunity for the few to the detriment of the many.” Oh, what could’ve been…

There were many other reasons to support SB 827, such as the positive effects it would’ve had in the fight against global climate change as more people could’ve lived closer to work, allowing them to walk, bike, or take public transit instead of commuting from remote, suburban outposts.

It took decades of ill-advised and racially charged policies to get us to where we are now. This problem won’t be solved overnight. But now, a solution won’t even be attempted for another year.

And that solution starts with building the housing we need to meet the region’s demand, irrespective of a person’s income bracket. That’s what real progressives work toward, and that’s why we should embrace next year’s successor to SB 827.

Otherwise, wealthy homeowners will continue to get wealthier, with zero broader public benefit.  

Markos Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.