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Scott Wiener Thinks He Knows How to Fix California's Housing Crisis

Other legislators aren't so sure.

Scott Wiener main photo
California's go-for-broke legislator failed this year in his bid to spark a revolution in housing policy. He's ready to try again.
To California Sen. Scott Wiener, nothing epitomizes his state’s housing failures more than the seemingly endless fight over a five-story condo building at the corner of Valencia and Hill streets in San Francisco’s Mission District. The area is in the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which rezoned a third of San Francisco in 2008 to increase density near transit and to make housing more affordable. The lot was formerly home to a fast-food restaurant whose neighbors included several three-story apartment buildings and the historic Marsh theater.

Shortly after the Neighborhoods Plan took effect, a developer proposed a 16-unit building with two affordable housing units on the site of the restaurant. Although it adhered to the new zoning plan, the 1050 Valencia project was to be the tallest building for many blocks, and Mission District residents moved to stop it. In addition to complaining about the project’s height, they insisted the modern building would damage the historic character of the neighborhood. This was despite the fact that the stucco and wood-shingled restaurant there at the time was neither historic nor aesthetically appealing. In addition, the Marsh theater owner was concerned that construction noise and a proposed first-floor bar would disrupt theater business. It took years for the condos to be approved. The developer agreed to mitigate the noise impact and reduce the number of units from 16 to 12. 

Not satisfied, the opponents turned to the Board of Permit Appeals, which sympathized with them and lopped off the top story of the building. That reduced the number of units from 12 to nine—and eliminated the two affordable units. “Welcome to housing policy in San Francisco,” wrote Wiener, who was then a member of the city’s board of supervisors. “A policy based not so much on our city’s dire housing needs but on who can turn out the most people at a public hearing.”

After an outcry from Wiener and affordable housing advocates, the board reversed its decision a few months later, in 2014. But that still wasn’t the end of it. In mid-2015, the project was halted when a judge suspended construction following a petition from Neighbors for Preservation and Progress. It finally opened to residents the following year. By then it had been nearly a decade since the project’s initial proposal.

Wiener left local government for the California Senate in late 2016. But he continued to push on the housing issue, as well as many others. This year, he became something of a national celebrity among urbanists by introducing S.B. 827, a bill that would override local zoning laws and allow more height and density in the areas around transit stations. The bill died in a legislative committee in April, but the issue isn’t going away. And neither is Wiener.

Actually, what happened to the Mission District condo project and to Wiener’s crusade reveals quite a bit about the problem of building in California. The same power struggles have repeated themselves many times and in many places. Mountain View, a wealthy South Bay suburb, is another textbook case. Housing activists who say Google worsens congestion by running buses for its employees between San Francisco and its headquarters in Mountain View have called on the company to build affordable places for its employees to live. But in 2012, the Mountain View City Council—citing a need to protect the city’s burrowing owl population—explicitly forbade Google from doing just that. In 2016, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly approved a tax increase to provide $1.2 billion for 10,000 units of new housing for the homeless. Nearly two years later, developments have stalled because of a requirement that they receive a letter of support from the local city council member. 

Similar scenarios are playing out in dozens of cities around the country. For decades, Boston’s triple-decker units housed the city’s young families. Now, those families are being pushed out by prices that have nearly doubled over the last 10 years. Renting is less and less an option for them as the larger units are scooped up by college students and unmarried millennials living in groups. Local officials are trying to come up with some sort of remedy. The Seattle City Council is in the midst of a heated debate over sweeping changes to the zoning code that would allow apartments and condos in single-family zones with increased heights and decreased setbacks. In Colorado, a group called Better Boulder has successfully pushed that city’s council to pass a home co-op ordinance to allow up to 15 people to share homes so that they are more affordable.


Mission District residents in San Franciisco opposed the building of a five-story condo on the corner of Valencia and Hill streets, arguing it would destroy the historic character of the neighborhood. (Stephen Antonaros)

California is simply a lot further along in its housing debate. It has been many years in the making: Housing unit construction, especially in coastal areas, has lagged behind since the 1980s when compared with metro areas across the country. Over the past eight years, the state’s population has grown by 3 million. Economists say that, to keep up, builders would need to add about one unit for every three new residents. The state has generally fallen far short of that goal, although it has done a little better in the past couple of years. Housing prices, meanwhile, keep going up. A burnt-out home in San Francisco can sell for $700,000; teardowns in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino can go for $2 million after one day on the market. When housing costs are factored in, about 1 in 5 residents in the state lives in poverty. It’s no surprise, then, that local governments in suburbs and cities are grappling with large numbers of people sleeping in cars and others living out of motorhomes, transforming entire city blocks into makeshift—illegal—RV parks.

California’s lack of high-density building may be having an effect beyond the state’s borders and even on the environment that most local building ordinances seek to protect. “If you say no to housing near transit, you’re still building housing somewhere else,” says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. “But instead of in California, that new project gets built in Houston or Las Vegas, where carbon emissions are higher.”

California is awash in single-family homes. Seventy percent of San Francisco is zoned single family. Build more condos and apartments, even luxury units, most economists say, and prices will ease up. But local governments stand in the way. S.B. 827 would have overridden most local zoning limits. It would have allowed for much higher building heights and a higher density of new projects within a half-mile radius of any transit stop. It was radical. Even its supporters believed Wiener’s effort was destined to fail. And it did, falling short on a 6-4 vote in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. But a simple solution to a complicated problem is always a hard sell—at least the first time.

Wiener, who is 47 years old, is an unusual character for a politician, especially for a seasoned one who has—on more than one occasion—thrust himself into the public spotlight. To begin with, attention doesn’t seem to be something he craves. He’s 6’7” but is more comfortable folding himself into a chair and talking policy to a roundtable of college students than he is standing behind a podium and making speeches. 

He doesn’t have much patience for the small talk that is an unavoidable part of political life. If he thinks he has a solution to a problem, he pushes it, appearances be damned. “I think I’m drawn to things that matter,” he says. “And sometimes those things are controversial.”

The last time Wiener sparked this much controversy was in 2012, when he was a San Francisco board supervisor and proposed a restriction on public nudity. In most cities this would have been a pretty easy pitch. But San Francisco is different. A significant constituency there sees nudity as a form of self-expression, and the proposal actually spurred more nakedness in the form of protests. But Wiener’s bill, which limited nudity to authorized events such as parades and festivals, was a sign of how much San Francisco, and the Castro district in particular, had changed since the free-wheeling 1970s. Wiener, who represented the district, introduced the proposal after hearing complaints for a year about increasing displays of public nudity on the part of neighborhood residents. As much as he insists he “didn’t want to be the guy banning nudity in San Francisco,” it was an obvious solution to a problem. It passed.

Six years later, on the housing issue, Wiener was once again at the center of a battle to change an established practice. But there was very little coalition-building. Wiener’s approach seemed to be to throw his idea out there and see what stuck. The initial proposal included no affordable housing requirements, which made most housing advocates come out in reluctant opposition. The definition of transit was also ambiguous, leading cities and towns that provide only bus service to wonder if they’d be subject to the bill. Wiener eventually amended S.B. 827 to bring more groups on board—the automatic height allowance was toned down to four- and five-story buildings, rather than permitting eight stories, and Wiener clarified that just the area around rail, subway and ferry stops would be subject to the full height allowances. (The bill still permitted somewhat higher density—that is, multifamily housing—around bus stops.) Those changes helped bring around groups such as the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But by then, a lot of damage had already been done. 


A lack of affordable housing in Mountain View and other California cities has led to thousands living in make0shift -- illegal -- RV parks. (AP)

The proposal also stirred up bad blood about California’s long history—particularly in San Francisco—of pushing out minority groups for the sake of progress. It happened during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century and has happened in every boom time since. The advocacy group Causa Justa has documented recent tech-boom displacement, noting that the Mission District lost 1,400 Latino households between 1990 and 2011, while adding 2,900 white households. Causa Justa, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and other activist groups lined up in opposition to the bill, saying they didn’t want to leave the crisis in the hands of a real estate market designed to put profits ahead of shelter. These groups are pushing a ballot measure that would repeal a 1995 state law limiting the type of housing covered under local rent control laws.

Others agree that California’s housing crisis is too complicated to be left entirely up to the market. If homes and apartments are too expensive now, building more won’t suddenly make them affordable so that teachers, firefighters and sanitation workers can live near their jobs. A solution might require new buildings to be made almost entirely into modest-price housing. Developers can’t make money doing those projects unsubsidized, and they won’t produce them. “California can’t build its way out of an affordable housing crisis,” says George “Mac” McCarthy, president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “We spend a lot of time whining about affordable housing challenges, but we never really marshal the political will to do something about them.” 

To McCarthy, the key to solving the problem lies in more control over who’s investing in the real estate market to begin with. He points to Toronto, which has discouraged outside capital by implementing a 25 percent surcharge on any real estate purchases made by foreign companies. “It’s a public policy question people fail to ask,” McCarthy says. “Do we want to supply shelter or do we want to open it up to global capital?”

Cities and towns, dozens of which opposed S.B. 827, say localities are being made into villains for no reason. A joint letter, submitted by the California State Association of Counties, Urban Counties of California and the Rural County Representatives of California, pointed out that many localities had already come up with their own prescription for increased density via their master plan process. Case in point: Mountain View may not have allowed Google to build housing for workers, but it did increase height limits and density elsewhere along major roads in its 2030 development plan. All told, the localities said, S.B. 827 “undermines the intent of state policies requiring community engagement in land use planning, especially in disadvantaged communities.”

In the end, Wiener’s legislation died because too many groups felt as if they’d been left out of the process. “There were so many different factions with so many concerns and everyone had their own pet issue,” says San Francisco-based transit consultant Jeff Wood. “The bill got killed by a thousand different cuts.”

Thanks to national coverage, Wiener’s bill exposed not just California but the whole country to the divisions that exist on housing. That attention has opened up or expanded a conversation in many cities about their own approach to meeting housing demands. The failure of S.B. 827 is a reminder that fear, vulnerability and history often render one-stroke solutions dead on arrival. Wiener knows this. 


S.B. 827 has helped open up conversations in many California cities regarding their approach to meeting housing demands. (AP)

In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed legislation to streamline and speed approval for local housing projects. It was ultimately deemed too aggressive. So Wiener, as a new legislator in 2017, introduced a similar bill but gave it a local twist: Only cities that weren’t meeting their state-mandated housing goals would have to fast-track approval for certain multiunit housing developments. It was only after the bill was passed that a state housing department analysis revealed that some provisions of the bill would apply to nearly every city in California.

Still, that legislation may be having an effect. In March of this year, the promoter of a mall redevelopment in Cupertino used the new law to amend the project and quintuple the number of housing units to 2,402. Half of the units would be reserved for qualifying residents making $84,900 or less for a family of four. The size and the affordable housing component changed the development enough to make it eligible to be fast tracked. Long delayed by local residents worried about traffic, it will likely be approved under the new rules. 

Wiener plans to take the conversation started by S.B. 827 and have another go at it next year while “incorporating what we have learned since we introduced it.” Undoubtedly, that will include far more coalition-building. Just bringing around his former colleagues on the board of supervisors and activist politicians in Los Angeles would go a long way. But Wiener is not expected to alter his bill dramatically, and does not accept the criticism that his market-based approach only lines the pockets of developers. To him, that’s “an ignorant, short-sighted and cynical argument. If someone comes up with a viable way to do this without developers, I’m all ears,” Wiener says. “But until then, I’m going to call B.S. because I don’t think anyone can come up with that.”

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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