Tall Tales: The Potential Impact of SB 827

Scott Wiener’s 8-story height proposal is the new 800-pound gorilla in the California housing debate.

Imagine 8-story condos packed across San Francisco, from the Embarcadero waterfront to the shores of the Sunset, and everywhere in between. That’s a real possibility under a controversial bill from state Senator Scott Wiener that would take on the California housing crisis by radically “upzoning” height allowances near public transit stops.

SB 827 aims to increase the amount of housing built near public transportation stops by adding a “transit-rich bonus” that pushes up height limits beyond what local jurisdictions have approved. In San Francisco, that means new housing developments could go up to eight stories across every inch of the city that is not a public park.

Advocates insist this would be a boon for affordable housing, luxury condos, and housing at every price point in between.

“Building subsidized affordable housing has about twice the anti-displacement effect as building regular market-rate housing,” Laura Foote Clark, executive director of pro-housing group YIMBY Action, tells SF Weekly. “We should be allowing the building of both as quickly as possible to stop this displacement disaster.”

But a quirk in our local geography means that if passed, this bill would transform San Francisco in ways it would not affect most California cities. SB 827 applies these height growth bonuses to any housing project within a quarter-mile radius of a stop on a “high-quality transit corridor.” Thanks to the prevalence of Muni, that’s basically all of San Francisco except Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and Lake Merced Park.

A San Francisco Planning Commission analysis found these growth bonuses would apply to a full 96 percent of San Francisco land.

“827 would rezone the entire city,” Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards complained at a March 15 meeting. “This is a recipe for Beverly Hills in the Sunset.”

The Commission also balked at the lack of affordable housing guarantees in the bill. “SB 827 may result in more affordable housing overall,” Richards said, reading from the analysis. “I call B.S.”

And that’s nothing compared to the response from Sup. Aaron Peskin, who has called for a lawsuit against the state if the bill passes. “I am an unabashed opponent,” Peskin said at a Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee hearing this month.

Sup. Jane Kim has emerged as the most vocal adversary of the bill, throwing a protest rally this month at the West Portal Muni station that just happened to dovetail into her mayoral campaign. (Kim, you’ll recall, ran against Wiener for the state senate seat he now holds.)

“Who benefits from building luxury condos? Luxury condo developers,” Kim wrote in a March 15 Medium post. “They will make billions of dollars. The reality is many of these luxury units remain empty as investment properties. Vacant luxury condos don’t build community, house our residents, or make our neighborhoods safer.”

Kim characterizes all forms of new housing as “luxury condos,” which may be an exaggeration. But both sides in this height debate accuse the other of telling tall tales.

“Scott Wiener’s putting out this bill to shake us all up right now and say ‘Oh my god, eight stories all throughout San Francisco!’ ” mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weiss said at a recent mayoral debate. “That’s preparing us to do something in between, and that’s a classic negotiating tactic.”

But scare tactics also apply to the contemporary reality of Bay Area housing. Curbed SF writer Sally Kuchar belted out a tweetstorm Monday that went viral, sizing up the statistical state of affairs of our housing market. “Spoiler: It’s really, really, really bad,” she tweeted.

Over the course of 19 successive tweets, she spelled out how 413 San Francisco homes have been sold over the last 30 days. The median price has been an insane $1.45 million, with an average of more than six offers per home.

Most houses go well above asking price, and disproportionately to employees of billion-dollar tech companies who can afford gigantic down payments or all-cash offers the likes of which few of us could ever dream. The problem is even worse down the peninsula and closer to Silicon Valley.

But SB 827 does not make other wealthier communities build up the way it does for San Francisco. Former Redfin CTO Sasha Aickin created an interactive map of how SB 827 would affect zoning across the state, posting it at TransitRichHousing.org.

San Francisco zoning is completely overhauled, but places like Marin County and Orinda — two communities singled out by YIMBY Action as “exclusionary” — are almost entirely unaffected by the bill. 

“I’d love for it to apply in more places,” YIMBY Action’s Foote Clark says. “Marin, which successfully killed BART, is less affected than I’d like.”

To his credit, Wiener has recognized the blowback, and added a few tenants rights amendments to the bill. Now, it allows cities to ban the demolition of rent-controlled housing, has added protections that displaced tenants get first dibs on new development, and contains a “Right to Remain” guarantee that developers have to pay all moving expenses for displaced tenants, plus pay their rent for up to 42 months if they had to move because of the development.

It’s a step in the right direction, but tenant advocates argue that “market solutions” don’t exactly have the best track record for the working class and people of color.

“It’s not enough to hope that we’ll get more affordable housing,” Planning Commissioner Millicent Johnson said this month. “I really appreciate the amendments that have been made to protect renters. But we all know what happens in real life. Enforcement falls to the city and nonprofits. Even with those protections and even with those efforts, folks fall through the cracks, particularly the most vulnerable.”

Critics complain that upzoning is mandatory in this bill, but the anti-displacement measures are not. In San Francisco, upzoning would mostly affect areas known as single-family neighborhoods, which compose about 70 percent of zoned San Francisco land.

YIMBY Action wrote a letter to the Planning Commission last year calling for the upzoning of all single family and duplex lots. “Protecting ‘neighborhood character’ exacerbates racial and economic segregation and decreases our housing supply, worsening rents and home prices for all,” they said.

Whether single-family neighborhoods are racist and classist depends where you look. You could sure make that case against tony neighborhoods like Presidio Heights and St. Francis Wood. But according to the most recent Zumper data, the most affordable neighborhood in town — the Excelsior — is also single-family-heavy, and one of the most multi-ethnic neighborhoods in the city.

Wiener’s upzoning bill is opposed by every San Francisco mayoral candidate except Board President London Breed, though none of them has a vote on whether the bill makes it through the statehouse. Nevertheless, Weiner is still revising the bill with state senate subcommittees, so there will be more than eight more stories to this developing saga.

Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.
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