Nobody expected Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB 827 to bite the dust so quickly. The controversial bill overriding local zoning power around transit stations had received so much publicity nationwide that everybody thought it had legs, even if Wiener had to amend it pretty significantly to get it through. Jonathan Chiat in New York magazine talked about how the bill was “the great test for progressive politics”; it even got some publicity in Houston.
Indeed, just two weeks ago, I told the assembled planning commissioners of California at a League of California Cities event in Monterey that they had to get ready because “something like” SB 827 was coming down the pike.
And yet we were all wrong. The bill failed its first committee test this week and now it’s dead for this year at least. There will be a lot of post-mortems as to why this happened. But the important question is: Will SB 827 – or something like it – be back next year? And if so, what are the odds of its success?
I can’t say for sure what a future SB 827 – or a package of bills designed to promote housing – might look like. But I will say this: In the last two years, Wiener has succeeded in transforming the entire policy debate about housing in California. He’s done it by taking a well-documented issue that nobody wanted to face and moving it forward with provocative bills that nevertheless seems to have a chance of passing.
His SB 35 last year passed in part because it was part of a larger package of housing bills and because – though it encompassed the same general idea of overriding local zoning to build housing – it was more limited in scope. As we documented not long ago, SB 35 has already given developers more leverage in both Berkeley and Cupertino.
But SB 35’s success, coupled with SB 827’s failure, points to a couple of strategies that seem to increase likelihood of success for a local override bill. The first is limiting the override to affordable housing. And the second is tethering the override to the housing element. Developers can use SB 35 only in cities that have not met their production goals under the housing element – though, practically speaking, this means virtually all cities in the state.
That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on Wiener’s other major bill – SB 828, which would essentially require cities to double the amount of housing they zone for in order to account for the existing shortage of some 2 million housing units across the state. (Liam Dillon in the Los Angeles Times recently provided an excellent overview of the bill.)
Unlike SB 827, SB 828 is still alive. It may be just nerdy and obscure enough to pass – and that will change the world of housing even more, at least for local government planners around the state.