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Contentious California Plan To Expand Housing Near Transit Gets New Life

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
A housing project near Broadway in Sacramento.

A highly controversial bill designed to increase housing near transit stops in California died quickly last spring. Now, it's back in the fall with a new name and more support.

The opposition to SB 827 earlier this year was strong. The bill didn't even make it out of its first committee back in April.

City leaders and lawmakers in Sacramento were concerned the bill’s push to concentrate high-rise housing developments near transit stops would strip cities of their local zoning controls and displace renters and vulnerable communities. SB 827 was seen as a gentrification-inducing piece of legislation by housing equity groups. The organizations said it would increase rents and home prices in areas where low-income residents were already feeling the pressure.

The Sierra Club of California was an early opponent, expressing concern that if cities were mandated to build dense housing near transit stops, it could hamper plans for building future commuter rail projects.

This time around, bill author state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco has repackaged it and addressed many of the concerns raised with SB 827. He has more support out of the gate and said his team has “definitely made progress."

Wiener said his office has worked with “constructive critics” in order to shape a better bill, now labeled SB 50. SB 827 had three co-authors. Two, like Wiener, were from the Bay Area. One, Sen. Ben Hueso, was from San Diego. All are Democrats.

Co-authors this time around have geographic and political diversity. Two Republican legislators are among the 11 co-authors. State regions represented by the lawmakers include the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, and the Central Coast.

Wiener said this coalition of lawmakers, regardless of party or district, are concerned about the state’s housing crisis. He said the massive amount of housing needed in California — some 3.5 million units — shouldn't be planned using old housing solutions that would further the state’s urban sprawl.

"Which means we clog up our freeways, people have to drive long distances, and we cover up farmland and open space, and we build in wildfire zones," Wiener said. "That's not sustainable."

The goal of SB 50, like its predecessor, is to help insure dense housing is built within a half-mile of transit access. But, this time the bill adds employment centers to the equation, as well.

Developers who meet the legislation’s criteria would get waivers for a jurisdiction's maximum density and parking requirements. In addition, maximum height restrictions could be waived depending on how close the housing units are to transit, allowing for low-rise apartment buildings.

Many previous critics were supportive of the housing-near-transit goals, but were concerned about issues such as local zoning control and the loss of housing for low-income groups. Wiener says he’s working with these interests to help mitigate those concerns.

Laura Raymond with the Alliance for Community Transit in Los Angeles was one of those early critics. Her group has been in contact with Wiener’s office and hopes to be included as the process moves forward.

"We plan to engage with the senator's office on this bill. We feel very strongly that equity groups need to be at the table,” said Raymond. “We'll continue to voice concerns as we have them and certain we still have some concerns and there are unresolved issues with the bill."

The bill was introduced on Monday and can't be acted on until January. Most bills aren’t heard in committee for the first time, however, until March or April.

Copyright 2018 Capital Public Radio