Approaches to housing at heart of SF state senate race

Incumbent state Sen. Scott Wiener has authored and backed dozens of bills to increase housing production.

Incumbent state Sen. Scott Wiener has authored and backed dozens of bills to increase housing production.

However, his challenger in November’s election Jackie Fielder, a democratic socialist organizer, argues that California needs a dramatically different approach that prioritizes affordable housing.

Since assuming office in 2017, Wiener, chair of the Senate Housing Committee, has introduced a number of high-profile bills.

He touts Senate Bill 35, legislation that requires cities that fail to meet their regional housing goals to streamline approvals for qualified infill projects, as one of his most effective pieces of legislation. Affordable housing developers like Mission Housing and Mercy Housing have invoked SB 35 to speed up units in San Francisco.

Wiener, a former deputy city attorney and city supervisor, also trumpets Senate Bill 828, which changes the method used to set housing goals over an eight-year cycle through the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation, known as RHNA. In requiring cities to account for projected population boosts, among other changes, the bill could cause some housing goals to double or triple.

The Bay Area’s next RHNA process is already subject to debate, with San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar seeking to lower market-rate housing goals for San Francisco and Wiener arguing the numbers are already unrealistically low. The City has met 138 percent of its market-rate housing goals but only 33 percent of its goals for moderate-income housing, 51 percent for low-income units, and 31 percent for very-low-income units.

“I’ve passed some groundbreaking housing laws that are some of the most impactful housing laws in modern California history,” Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner Tuesday. “I don’t mind having critics because it means I’m actually doing something. We have to break some glass.”

Not all of his legislation has won approval. Senate Bill 50, one of Wiener’s better-known bills, proposed sweeping changes that would have required cities to allow dense development near transit and end single-family zoning restrictions statewide. The policy was favored by most Californians, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, but opposed by a number of local governments and by tenant and community groups such as San Francisco’s People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Justice, who feared it would accelerate displacement.

Though the legislation failed in 2019 after multiple revisions, Wiener has expressed pride that it moved the goalposts on housing issues by addressing density near transit and jobs.

He also co-authored legislation with Assemblymember Phil Ting calling for a COVID-19 eviction moratorium for residents and introduced legislation that would have imposed a commercial eviction moratorium as well during this year’s short, chaotic legislative session, neither of which won approval.

‘The boldest bills have not made it through,” said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action. “But the real work has been a lot of good, incremental changes that Scott Wiener has been pretty bold in pushing because he’s part of the ‘all of the above’ strategy. [Fielder] has a streak of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and I think that’s going to do real damage in getting housing built across the state.”

To Fielder, who is making her first run for elected office, Wiener’s housing approach gives little incentive for cities or developers to prioritize units affordable to low- and middle-income households rather than lucrative market-rate housing.

“Sen. Wiener’s approach is myopically focused on housing with very little attention to which housing is going to get built first,” Fielder said. “My plan for affordable housing is a radically different approach to California’s housing crisis. We actually need housing for working-class people.”

Fielder has called for a $100 billion California housing emergency fund to acquire and stabilize 200,000 affordable housing units; to build at least 100,000 public or nonprofit affordable housing units that run on renewable energy; and to rehabilitate public housing.

The San Francisco State University lecturer emphasizes the need to keep people in their homes by working toward the repeal of the Costa Hawkins Act, which limits rent control, and the Ellis Act, which is used to evict tenants. At the same time, she would like to expand San Francisco’s right to counsel legislation statewide to ensure tenants facing eviction have a lawyer and launch a rental registry to regulate corporate landlords.

To stabilize tenants in the short-term, Fielder has joined calls for a rent and mortgage cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

She also attributed the failure of SB 50 and its predecessor Senate Bill 827 to a lack of community input. The Council of Community Housing Organizations, which has members like the Bill Sorro Housing Program and Tenants and Owners Development Corporation, ultimately felt that reasonable amendments to answer concerns around SB 50 and SB 35 were not properly considered.

“The fundamental flaw of SB 35 was and still is that it makes by right market-rate housing equally apply in at-risk urban communities as it is in suburban communities or in communities where there’s no displacement risk,” said Peter Cohen, CCHO co-director. “Given how critical our coalition’s housing organizations are in working on the ground to provide affordable housing and housing security, and in countering the displacement pressures on communities of color, we expect a close and constructive working relationship with San Francisco’s state senator. The housing urgencies of these times demand it.”

Wiener, who considers a housing plan funded by tax increases on the ultra-wealthy unrealistic, has questioned whether Fielder can deliver on her goals if elected. A much-smaller scale wealth tax by the California Teachers Association that would have generated $7.5 billion annually failed in August, while the strongest rent relief bill, Assemblymember David Chiu’s Assembly Bill 1436, was rejected by the legislature in favor of the significantly weaker AB 3088.

“I think it’s really important in politics to be straightforward with voters and not sell the voters a bill of goods,” said Wiener. “The numbers don’t come close to adding up.”

Fielder, however, frequently points to Wiener’s substantial backing from real estate lobbyists and counters that San Francisco needs to be represented by someone like herself with no financial links to corporate interests.

”People who can’t afford luxury condos are not going to benefit from the bills that have been forwarded by Scott Wiener on housing,” Fielder said. “It comes to a question of equity and making sure that the wealthiest people and interests in the state are paying their fair share to house the most vulnerable among us.”

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