Scott Wiener’s bill allows the state to seize control of your neighborhood

SB-827

Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Phil Ting (D-San Francisco & San Mateo) have introduced a bill in the California state senate that would give the state control over who builds next to you in your own neighborhood.

Think 85-foot buildings next to your house

Here is the full text of the bill.

[HTML] [PDF]

I believe this bill is a mistake for California, and that if you take a moment to reflect on it you may agree. Here are the reasons why:

  • California’s beauty was made possible by far-sighted citizens working for the last hundred years to stop exactly the sort of high-rise developments this bill wants to let developers build everywhere. That work of preservation of what makes a place special has always been and will always be done locally by the people that love the place. This bill, had it been in place years ago, would have negated the hard work that kept so much of our state’s beauty for so many years.

  • The most revered cities in the world are those that planned thoughtfully and locally over centuries. This bill would preempt all local planning in the belief that one size fits all for the entire state of California.

  • The people who live in low-density areas, and those who would like to live there, don’t want to live in Manhattan. This bill would bring Manhattan to them.

  • There are many, many ways to build more housing without destroying what so many of us hold dear. Instead, this bill chooses to use a sledgehammer to crush local initiative.

In brief, Scott Wiener and Phil Ting’s bill allows the state to seize control of your neighborhood.

Like many people, I would be affected. I live in the outer Richmond district of San Francisco, where housing heights range from two to four stories, but would more than double under Scott Wiener and Phil Ting’s bill once developers were permitted to bring their eighty-five-foot-tall condo towers out to line the rest of the city’s shoreline. It would happen in your city, too: it’s a statewide bill.

I also think that it’s important to know the facts, particularly who benefits. In politics we should always follow the money. Here is a list of who contributed to Scott Wiener’s political campaign: [PDF] [XLSX]. You can download this list from the California Secretary of State’s office, as I did, here . I simply sorted the list in descending order. I will let you draw your own conclusions, but it would appear to me that when the largest contributors are apartment developers (Trinity, Spieker), venture capitalists (Sutter Hill, Benchmark), and tech companies (Facebook) – all of whom benefit from high-rise developments that can only be afforded by tech employees, but whose executives’ own highest-end neighborhoods in Palo Alto, Woodside, Belvedere, and Manhattan Beach surely would not be affected by SB 827 – then the optics are not good. This looks like a classic case of where a candidate was funded by moneyed real estate interests and now proposes to use the enormous weapon of state law to wipe out all obstacles to real estate development.

If you also disagree with Scott Wiener and Phil Ting, I hope that you will speak out. I would recommend you find a means to speak out that will matter. Sending emails to political leaders’ offices no longer makes any difference – they receive too many, and it’s too easy to automate emails. You will need to call in person, or write a physical letter (here’s mine). Or donate to their opponent. I have done all of those. If you care about how San Francisco looks, and indeed the rest of the state, I hope you will too.

Here are the addresses for Scott Wiener’s state offices:


Capitol Office
State Capitol, Room 4066
Sacramento, CA 95814-4900
Phone: (916) 651-4011


San Francisco District Office
455 Golden Gate Avenue, Suite 14800
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: (415) 557-1300

If you need more information before speaking out, there are plenty of great articles that have been written on the topic. Here’s just one:
Scott Wiener’s War on Local Planning

Who is helping Scott Wiener

These legislators are helping Scott Wiener seize control of your neighborhood. They are the co-authors of this bill.

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D – San Francisco & San Mateo)
Up for re-election in 2018

Senator Nancy Skinner (D – East Bay)
Up for re-election in 2020

Senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego)
Up for re-election in 2018

If you’re in their district, please consider reaching out to them. If that doesn’t work, please consider voting against them in the next election, because they are voting against your neighborhood.

This is a neighborhood.


This is a large apartment building that under SB 827
can be dropped right into the neighborhood.


A Better Idea

I think it’s OK to oppose a bad idea even if you don’t have a better idea.

But this bill is so bad I think it’s not hard to come up with several ideas that are better. Here are several:

  • Appeals process: Set up an appeals process in which the neighbors can plead their case in public. There isn’t one in this bill. How can that be fair?

  • Pay equity: This bill will be sold to you on the basis that we need housing for teachers and firefighters, but in fact what’s built will be more luxury condos. That is always what gets built. That is why developers of high-end properties support this bill. How about go directly to the source of the problem and pay teachers and firefighters enough to live in the neighborhoods they serve? Maybe with a tax on luxury condos?

  • Eminent domain-like process: Pay the neighborhood for what you’re taking from them. This is a decision by the state that some neighborhoods should give more than others; that’s fine, but let’s make it fair. Give something back to the neighborhood — parks, schools, something — when you take away the look-and-feel that they built over the years.

  • Agree on a plan: Decide what you want your city to look like 50 years from now. If you live in San Francisco, do you want it to look like Manhattan? Hong Kong? Boston? San Francisco? Those are all very different possible outcomes. Can we have that discussion first, or do we just let the state decide for us?

  • Define success: Decide what you think will solve the problem in your city. Do you need 10,000 new homes over five years in your city, or 10,000 new homes every year for ten years, or an unlimited number of homes until everyone who wants to live in your town can fit in there? What number would solve the problem in your city? If San Francisco has, say, 850,000 people today in a seven-mile square surrounded by water on three sides, what total number would be enough to satisfy demand – 950,000 people? 1.2 million? 1.5 million? Are we OK with all those outcomes? And do we get to talk about it or not?

There’s a common theme in all of those points: Neighborhoods. Local communities. The places where we all live. Unfortunately, Scott Wieners’s bill treats the entire state as one, as though neighborhoods do not matter. It seizes control of your neighborhood.

There are better ideas than this bill. Our leaders should bring them to us.

This is a neighborhood.


This is also a neighborhood. It's just not the one you wanted.
But it's the one SB 827 wants you to live in.


Counter-Argument

I received a very polite call from a gentleman about my arguments herein. I will try to do justice to his argument by summarizing it as follows:

In his view, it is unfair of those who have lived in a neighborhood for a long time to take away from others the opportunity to move there.

Here is my counter to that argument.

  • I certainly don’t believe anyone should be prevented from choosing to live wherever they want!

  • On the contrary: My argument is about long-term planning for major game-changing construction and who gets to do it.

  • I don’t know what a just — in the sense of being fair — solution is if everyone wants to live in the same place. We’ve selected basic capitalism as our guideline for the last few hundred years – you rent or buy where you can afford to – but maybe there’s a better answer. My personal preference is to pay more to the people who make our community work, so they can live here if they want; and raise taxes (including mine) to do it. But let’s have that discussion.

  • If we have that discussion and decide that there should be no zoning, and that citizens don’t get to express a preference about what types of construction goes on in their neighborhood, then fine – we can go full Houston on this, and let anyone build anything anywhere. That’s a perfectly valid position to take, it’s just not one we’ve taken before, nor one that should be taken lightly. By contrast, if we do want to have some form of zoning, I think height and density are reasonable things to zone on as they directly impact the character of where you live.

  • If the goal is to help people who are already here but priced out – as I think it should be: that, to me, is the real problem we are trying to solve – then we should ask ourselves how much market-rate housing it would take to solve that problem. Real estate prices doubled in some locations in the last twenty years. Is the answer to double the housing stock in those neighborhoods? The math may seem like it would work, but it doesn’t. Instead, three things happen:

1. The people who buy the new homes aren’t the ones who got priced out.

2. You forever change the neighborhood.

3. The more housing stock you build, the more people come from other cities, states, and countries. That’s great! We love new neighbors, we have them all the time. But the prices go right back up. That’s because the land in the areas where people are willing to pay the most to live is constrained by the water (we are, after all, California). There isn’t any more land near the water. But there are a lot more people who have money.

If you define the problem as pushing current residents out, then we aren’t going to fix the problem just by building higher. It doesn’t get you to a stable equilibrium.

My view is we haven’t thought this through. If the sponsors of this bill have, they haven’t made that case effectively.

That’s my point.

I hope that helps and I appreciate hearing from the caller.


Who

My name is Carey White and I live in the Richmond district of San Francisco. I took the time to write this, and to promote it with links, because I want to do something to speak out and I don’t know any other way. I can’t afford a full-page ad in the Chronicle, so I’m left with Google AdWords. I have not taken any money from anyone on this issue. I’m a homeowner here for 15 years and plan to live out the rest of my days here. The future of the state matters to me. I hope it does to you, too.