Sen. Scott Wiener will introduce new version of transit density bill

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State Sen. Scott Wiener say he intends to introduce a new version of Senate Bill 827, a hotly contested transit density bill, next year in the legislature.

Wiener says he has been working closely with some of the groups that initially opposed the bill, including the transit coalition ACT-LA, which he met with while in LA for the Los Angeles Business Council’s housing summit last week.

The senator says he plans to bring a version of the bill back to the Senate floor in 2019 with the input of advocates incorporated.

“We’re definitely taking a very hard look at anti-displacement provisions,” said Wiener.

Wiener’s SB 827, which failed to get enough votes to advance out of the transportation committee, would have encouraged the construction of transit-accessible residential projects by creating statewide height and parking requirements for properties within a half-mile of transit stations.

“Unlike healthcare, public education, other critically important needs, when it comes to housing, the state has abdicated and said to cities: ‘You can do what you want—if you want to exclude poor people or if you want to just not have any housing, it’s all good,’” Wiener said Friday, speaking at the housing summit in LA.

Virtually all California cities—97.6 percent of them—have not met their state-mandated housing requirements, according to a 2018 statewide assessment.

But SB 827 faced fierce opposition from many groups concerned that the new housing would lead to displacement.

Opponents of the bill included LA’s entire City Council, which unanimously condemned 827.

Councilmember Paul Koretz said the bill would make LA “look like Dubai 10 years later,” although Wiener said that he talked to Koretz later about his comments, and Koretz admitted to him that he hadn’t read the bill at that point and had assumed there was no height restriction.

“When my staff, and later I, read the bill, it was vague enough that on first blush we thought it might be unlimited height,” said Koretz in a statement to Curbed. “It turns out it would only create ‘mini-Dubais’ with tall, multiple story buildings allowed on single lots in the middle of single-story neighborhoods. Still one of the biggest overreaches Mr. Wiener has proposed.”

Koretz noted that the recently approvedExposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan “shows that we can allow for more density without the neighborhood disruption Wiener seeks to foist upon us.”

Wiener said LA City Councilmembers who focused on displacement as a reason for rejecting the bill could put better protections in place, including strong inclusionary housing requirements.

The city already has a density bonus program that’s part of Measure JJJ, and a linkage fee, which both add affordable units, but its limited inclusionary requirements are not citywide.

In addition, “LA has lax demolition controls, unlike the Bay Area,” said Wiener. “The LA City Council was not really in a great position to object to the bill on displacement grounds, because the LA City Council does have it in their power to restrict demolitions and to enact an inclusionary housing ordinance.”

“I do sympathize with the equity advocacy world and the frustration that it is so easy to tear down buildings in LA,” he said.


The city of Watts and the surrounding neighborhoods of South LA are communities with large numbers of low-density housing adjacent to transit.
Walter Cicchetti/Shutterstock.com

One big challenge for SB 827 and other housing bills is the fact that a majority of California’s big cities are zoned for very low density development, said Wiener.

Nearly half of all developable land in the city of Los Angeles, for example, is zoned for single-family homes.

“The people who want to preserve low-density zoning in their neighborhood, we knew there was going to be a big fight there,” he said. “On the more progressive, equity side of things, we knew there would be a discussion around displacement and affordability, and along the course of the legislative process we added some very strong anti-displacement protections.”

The new version of the bill would include specific exemptions for what he called “communities of concern”—areas that are either experiencing intense gentrification or are on the precipice.

Although SB 827 snagged all the headlines, Wiener was the author of another big bill aimed at addressing the state’s housing shortfall, SB 35, which is just now starting to be implemented in California cities.

The bill, which passed in 2017, is designed to help fast-track construction of housing. If a project meets a set of requirements, including having a certain number of units designated as affordable, developers can apply for a “streamlined” approvals process, including not having to do a CEQA review.

One of the most high-profile projects that’s applied for SB 35 is the Vallco redevelopment, a dead mall in the Silicon Valley city of Cupertino that will be replaced by 2,402 housing units, with half of those units designated as affordable. Wiener says there are at least two affordable housing projects in the LA area which are applying for SB 35, but he could not reveal the projects yet.

Wiener’s impetus for introducing SB 827 was to increase housing production but also to address the state’s increasing transportation emissions, a problem made even more glaring by this week’s dire climate report from the United Nations.

Congestion pricing—currently proposed for New York City and Seattle—has been cited by transportation policy experts as one of the most effective ways to reduce emissions.

Wiener co-authored a bill in 2018 authorizing California cities to implement a “Go Zone,” described as a program that “reduces vehicle congestion by targeting highly congested areas with additional transportation choices and decongestion fees that encourage people to take transit, carpool, bike, walk, or adjust trip times at congested times of day.”

That bill went nowhere.

But in 2019, Wiener said, he will partner with Assemblymember Richard Bloom, who represents LA’s Westside, to introduce a similar bill that would allow cities to launch congestion pricing pilots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Monica.

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