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Proposal to add density near transit stations quickly rejected in California senate

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Critics say it wasn’t strong enough on affordable housing

Steve and Julie via Flickr creative commons

A “bold” state bill that that would have brought denser housing to areas around transit stations—all in an effort to alleviate California’s housing crisis—is DOA.

Sen. Scott Wiener’s Senate Bill 827 failed its first test in the Capitol on Tuesday, when it was rejected by a majority of the senate’s transportation and housing committee.

Several lawmakers who serve on that committee said they support the bill’s goal of creating more housing, because the state sorely needs it. But they argued it wouldn’t be a good fit for small, rural towns, and they said its affordable housing provision wasn’t strong enough.

“Density for density’s sake doesn’t necessarily lead to affordability,” said Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). “All one has to do is look at Manhattan, where everyone is paying $5,000 a month to live in a closet.”

Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced the bill as California, especially the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, grows increasingly expensive for renters and buyers.

According to the California Association of Realtors, just one in four residents can afford a median-priced home in Los Angeles County, where the price at the midpoint of all sales ballooned to a record $580,000 in February.

Experts put much of the blame on the soaring prices on a supply shortage.

“In California, for decades now, we have made a conscious decision that having enough housing simply doesn’t matter,” Wiener said Tuesday. “We’ve done that through our policy choices by making it harder and harder to get new housing, by having extreme low-density zoning—even near public transportation.”

SB 827 would have made it easier for developers to build apartments and condos near subway, light rail, and bus stops. It called for overriding local rules on height, density, and parking for all residential projects within a half-mile of a train or subway station.

Local rules would have been replaced by new state standards allowing those buildings to reach heights up to four and five stories.

Residential buildings near “high-quality” bus lines, defined as bus routes with service intervals of less than 15 minutes during rush hour, would have been able to exceed local density restrictions, but not height limits.

Beverly Hills vice mayor John Mirisch called it a “real estate bill that turns transit into a sales amenity.”

The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to oppose it. In January, councilmember Paul Koretz told the Los Angeles Times that he wouldhave a neighborhood with little 1920s, ’30s and ’40s single-family homes look like Dubai 10 years later.”

On Tuesday, Wiener described the types of buildings that SB 827 would have permitted as small, and he called Koretz’s comment hyperbolic.

“We’re talking four to five stories, the kinds we used to build quite a bit of in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but got banned when we down-zoned many of our cities in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said.

The bill would have required builders taking advantage of SB 827 to include affordable units in their projects.

The number of affordable units would have varied based on project size, but, for example, a building with at 51 or more units would have to set aside 20 percent at a “rate sufficient for lower income households, including 10 percent [for]... very-low income households.”

Still, critics, including many social justice organizations, said that wasn’t enough. And they said they feared buildings with a majority of market-rate units could drive up housing costs in the surrounding area.

“A policy that fails to adequately preserve existing sources of affordable housing, protect lower-income communities from direct and indirect displacement, and ensure the development of new housing affordable to lower income households is not one that we can support,” said Anya Lawler, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Wiener said he would keep tweaking SB 827, and suggested he’d bring it back next year.

“I’m heartened by the conversation it has started,” he said in a statement. “The passion we have seen around this bill is driven by what we are all feeling—that California’s housing costs are unsustainable and our housing policies aren’t working.”