A state bill seeking to solve California’s housing crisis by encouraging denser, taller housing near transit could force a striking, historic rezoning of much of San Francisco.
Senate Bill 827, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, could allow five- and eight-story buildings to sprout in neighborhoods that traditionally have seen mostly single-family homes and two-unit duplexes.
“One of the fundamental problems is we have enormous swaths of land in California, including in some of the most transit-accessible parts of the state, that are zoned for hyper-low-density housing,” Wiener said.
“When you talk about where housing should go, it should go around public transportation.”
The bill, which was introduced Jan. 3, would increase existing height limits in neighborhoods to a minimum of 85 feet if they fall within a quarter-mile radius of transit corridors. Some narrower streets would see height limits raised to a minimum of 55 feet.
In San Francisco, where transit corridors with frequent buses and trains are as numerous as pulsing veins in the human body, “virtually the entire city” would be rezoned to allow taller residential buildings, according to an analysis from the San Francisco Planning Department sent to planning commissioners on Feb. 5.
Supporters and critics alike have painted Wiener’s newest housing bill as both a salve for California’s housing crisis and a bill with unintended consequences that could lead to community displacement.
Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner he plans to introduce amendments later this month to ensure tenant protections.
SB 827 would “likely result in the production of more affordable housing due to overall significantly greater housing production,” according to a Planning Department analysis. Yet that affordable housing would come at a cost to neighborhoods that have closely guarded their suburban feel for decades.
The Sunset, Richmond, Castro, Eureka Valley, Twin Peaks and more may see zoning changes to allow the rise of taller buildings. Even neighborhoods already zoned for taller buildings, like the Mission, would see an increase in density.
The style of housing built could change as well.
As currently written, the bill would eliminate local controls that govern design standards regarding rear yards, lot coverage, exposure, open space, setbacks and control of building bulk, according to the Planning Department.
The potential for dramatic neighborhood transformation worries some Westside residents.
“The Sunset is the quiet suburban side of San Francisco. Families, parks, playgrounds, schools, churches, it’s that kind of a feel,” said Albert Chow, a native San Franciscan and owner of Great Wall Hardware on Taraval Street.
But under the bill, Chow said, “The feel of the Sunset would be changed.”
Wiener, however, argued the eastern neighborhoods of San Francisco, like the Mission, have borne the brunt of new, dense housing development and changed rapidly, while the west side has unfairly avoided dense development.
“We have huge areas that get little or no density … We need density equity in San Francisco,” Wiener said.
Critics have in the past said Wiener tends to tout density everywhere but in his own neighborhood, the Castro, where his political base resides.
But “this bill impacts my own neighborhood, absolutely,” Wiener said.
Daniel Bergerac, head of the Castro Merchants group, said the traditionally less-dense neighborhood feels ready to see apartment buildings rise higher. With recent dense developments sprouting above a Whole Foods, and elsewhere, that process has already begun.
“There are more people in the streets, more active shopping areas, it’s safer. It’s good for restaurants [and] it’s good for local businesses,” Bergerac said.
The Planning Department found potential problems in SB 827 caused by tying housing density to transportation corridors.
The bill would see minimum zoned heights rise to 85 feet within a quarter-mile radius of a transit corridor, and 55 feet within a half-mile radius of a major transit stop. However, in its current form, the bill does not take into account shifting transit lines, according to the Planning Department.
“This could mean that zoning could fluctuate somewhat dramatically over time as service levels increase or decrease due to transit budgets, ridership, travel patterns, or agency service strategy,” planning department staff wrote. “Under the proposed bill, if an operator were to cut service from 15 minutes to 18 minutes, that would trigger a sudden rezoning for ¼-mile around the bus route.”
Additionally, the transit “corridors” in the bill could also cover express buses, according to the Planning Department.
Express buses, which are often for commuters, do not make many stops along their journey; the 30-X Marina Express, for example, whisks commuters from the Marina District to the Financial District with no stops in between. However, “this bill would appear to upzone the entire path taken by such a bus,” the Planning Department wrote, even if no passengers could board along that route.
In the case of the 30-X, its winding route would prompt zoning changes in Russian Hill, Chinatown and North Beach, even where the bus does not stop.
Provisions in the bill that tie zoning growth to street width are also problematic, the Planning Department found, because they are based on curb-to-curb widths, which change frequently, as opposed to the fixed width of an entire street.
“The bill set up the unfortunate unintended consequence that property owners and developers would be inclined to oppose sidewalk widening since it could result in a significant downzoning,” the Planning Department wrote.
Responding to the concerns from the planning department, Wiener said “Just to be very clear, the bill is a work in progress. We know it’s an aggressive bill.”
Some worry SB 827 will lead to displacement in the neighborhoods it upzones.
Local laws in Los Angeles, for instance, don’t offer the same robust tenant protections that exist in San Francisco, which prompted 37 housing and community nonprofits there, including the Central American Resource Center and the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, to sign an open letter opposing the bill.
Los Angeles has a distinct problem, the authors wrote, as SB 827 may conflict with local laws that require developers to create very low-income units and hire local workers for any zoning change, which are estimated by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to create 14,000 affordable housing units in 10 years.
Closer to home, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin has publicly critiqued the bill and wrote on Twitter, “The change to Berkeley would be immense and would only displace even more people now living in rent controlled units.”
Organized opposition to Wiener’s bill is in its infancy in San Francisco. But an email obtained by the Examiner shows citizen activists organizing to “Work together to kill the bills!” because, the citizens allege, SB 827 “pre-empts community control over house & density!”
Jennifer Fieber of the San Francisco Tenants Union worries SB 827 will “juice up the market, and cause land values to increase,” which could lead to “a spike of evictions nearby as people prepare to cash out.”
Gen Fujioka, policy director with Chinatown Community Development Center, which oversees housing for many impoverished Chinatown residents, said SB 827 as it is currently written “would substantially weaken existing rules that protect small businesses and housing in neighborhoods like Chinatown.”
The bill would circumvent the Chinatown Plan, zoning rules enacted in 1986, that Fujioka said protects the neighborhood from market pressures. Wiener’s bill would be “potentially devastating” to those protections, he said.
Housing nonprofits also favor existing height limits, which allow them and local government to offer developers exceptions to the limits in exchange for affordable, low-income housing. Pro-density advocates argue that if development is spurred in greater quantities, rent prices will naturally fall, lessening the need to bargain.
The bill’s proponents also feel the myriad concerns are premature, because Wiener’s bill could still change.
“There’ll be amendments directly designed to address what’s put forward by those people,” said Laura Foote Clark, founder of the San Francisco Yes in My Backyard housing advocacy group.
When asked about fears of displacement, Clark said, “I don’t think with our tenant protections [in San Francisco] that will happen.”
Clark believes SB 827 is a “shot across the bow against historically whites-only neighborhoods,” including San Francisco’s Westside, which has long-resisted dense development.
Wiener told the Examiner he is working “intensively” on anti-displacement language for the bill, including making it “crystal clear” the bill does not lessen local controls that discourage displacement of tenants leading to demolition of housing.
Addressing the numerous critiques of his bill in San Francisco and beyond, Wiener reflected that transformative laws often draw sharp rebuke.
“Hey, if you’re not experiencing political fallout, that means you’re not doing anything. I didn’t run for office to go around waving and being loved by everyone,” he said. “I did this to get things done, even if it pisses people off.”
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