What is SB 827 and will it destroy single family neighborhoods?

California’s residents are fighting over a proposed state law that could radically change what’s built in their neighborhoods.

California is in the grip of a tightening housing crisis as supply is unable to keep up with demand and more working and middle class families see ever larger chunks of their paychecks going to pay the rent or mortgage payment.

In response, California State Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco has introduced legislation in Sacramento called the Transit Zoning Bill, or Senate Bill 827.

The bill changes zoning laws to allow for taller and denser construction near transit stations and heavily traveled bus routes.

If passed, Wiener says his bill could create an enormous amount of housing in California by changing what’s allowed to be built in neighborhoods. According to Wiener, the bill would also help mitigate other problems, such as traffic, sprawl and pollution.

But even before its first legislative committee hearing in Sacramento scheduled for this week, SB 827 has earned plenty of enemies. They argue Wiener’s bill is heavy-handed, could turbocharge gentrification, and poses a threat to neighborhood character all over the state.

Senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco in the state legislature, is the author of SB 827. He says building more housing is critical to the state’s future. He says putting housing near mass transit would also cut down on traffic and sprawl. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

WHAT DOES SB 827 DO?

The bill would allow for the construction of taller and denser housing projects within a half-mile of mass transit stations in California cities, or a quarter-of-a-mile away from stops on heavily traveled bus routes. The denser and taller construction would be allowed even if surrounding neighborhoods are zoned for single-family residences. The bill originally allowed for residential buildings as tall as eight stories, but as amended SB 827 caps new construction at five stories.

Even if the scale conflicts with local zoning ordinances they would be approved because the bill shifts a lot of traditional zoning authority away from municipalities to the state.

WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS FOR SB 827?

Wiener says that with a statewide housing deficit of approximately four million units, California simply needs to build a lot more housing and quickly. That increase in supply, he contends, will reduce demand and then the cost of housing.

Additionally, by building housing near transit lines, SB 827 would increase the convenience of using public transportation. This would help reduce congestion and pollution by taking more cars off the road. There’s also an argument that dense development has a smaller carbon footprint than stand-alone single family homes.

WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST SB 827

Brad Kane shows off his Los Angeles neighborhood of historic homes and carefully tended gardens. He fears, if passed, SB 827 would unleash massive development in his neighborhood between L.A.’s Pico and Olympic boulevards. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Many local elected officials and neighborhood groups say SB 827 would take too much zoning power away from cities and give it to distant bureaucrats in Sacramento. They argue decisions over the location and scale of housing is better handled by individual city governments in direct contact with their constituents.

Many housing activists also fear that allowing for taller and bigger developments in neighborhoods would set of a frenzy of real estate speculation, with developers looking to make a quick profit by tearing down existing homes and apartment buildings and replacing them with luxury housing. SB 827 critics say that would lead to the displacement of people who already have homes and create few units affordable to working and middle class families.

Finally, many homeowner groups fear building large multi-family residences in communities that are now zoned for single-family homes would damage the character of their neighborhoods and reduce the value of their homes.

WHAT’S THE RESPONSE TO CRITICS OF SB 827?

Senator Wiener says local officials often don’t approve needed housing because they’re too fearful of the backlash from neighborhood groups that are staunchly NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) in their thinking. Wiener says the only way to get around that fear of upsetting the locals is by concentrating more zoning decisions in Sacramento. As for fear of gentrification, Wiener says his bill offers residents protection from displacement, such as requiring a certain number of units to be affordable and requiring developers to find new housing for people.

Wiener’s found allies in a political movement called YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”). YIMBYs say creating more housing has to take precedence over other concerns, like fears of losing neighborhood character.

WHO’S FOR AND AGAINST SB 827?

Laura Foote Clark of Yimby Action San Francisco calls California voters asking them to contact their legislators and express support for SB 827. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

SB 827 has pitted organizations often on the same side of a lot of issues. Groups supporting it include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environment California and California YIMBY, as well as many business and real estate groups.

Opponents include the Sierra Club, the Coalition for Economic Survival and other tenant advocacy groups, and every member of the Los Angeles City Council, which voted unanimously to oppose SB 827.