New Housing Bill Well-Intentioned, Yet Ultimately Wrong Approach to Development


We all agree that Berkeley cannot remain the small town that it once was. Yet as we grow and evolve, and approve new housing developments, we need to ask ourselves about what kind of city we want to be.

Senate Bill 827, authored by Senator Scott Wiener, is a new bill that has been getting a lot of attention in the media. If approved as written, it would radically alter how Berkeley and many other California cities look by allowing much denser housing in many neighborhoods. This means apartment buildings as tall as eight stories not only near BART stations and bus depots but also in many of our residential neighborhoods, if they happen to be located within just a ¼ mile of a “high quality transit corridor”.

The bill defines “high quality transit corridor” as any neighborhood that has a bus route where a bus stops every 15 minutes. This would open up many now quiet residential neighborhoods to large-scale housing developments and would ruin the character of these neighborhoods. It would also eliminate parking requirements for these developments, creating further parking impacts and congestion in residential neighborhoods.

If SB 827 is approved, agencies like AC Transit would suddenly have power over land use decisions by simply deciding where to place a bus stop, or improving bus headways. It also can have the unintended consequence of fueling opposition to future transit investment, if new rail lines or bus stops mean that the state will preempt local planning laws. We all understand the critical importance of better public transport and don’t want to do anything that would impede these projects.

I have lived in Berkeley for 16 years and have seen first-hand how the housing affordability crisis is hurting our students, working families and communities of color. For years, I had to share housing because I could not afford a place of my own, and today continue to be the beneficiary of Berkeley’s strong rent control laws. There is no question that we need more housing. But SB 827 does nothing to address affordability. In fact, the legislation actually encourages displacement by incentivizing landlords to allow properties near major bus stops or BART to fall into disrepair in order to replace them with market-rate housing. Once those buildings are demolished, they are gone for good, forcing longtime residents out of Berkeley. With their departure, we not only lose diversity, but the fabric that makes our city so vibrant and unique.

This is already happening. In 1990, African Americans made up 19 percent of Berkeley’s residents, yet today they make up less than 8 percent of our city.

Do we want to become a city for the privileged few or do we want to building housing for all – young tech workers as well as artists, people of color and working families who can’t afford to pay $3,500 a month for rent?

Senator Weiner argues that his legislation will cut greenhouse gas emissions, as people live in denser housing close to public transit. That may be true for those who can afford market rate units, but what about working families who will undoubtedly be displaced when they can’t find an affordable home? When someone lives in Vallejo but commutes to a job in Berkeley, it only puts more cars on our freeways – and adds emissions, the opposite of what this bill says it want to achieve.

At its core, SB 827 is fundamentally unfair. It applies a broad brush to all California cities without pausing to consider the effort cities have made to build new housing, including affordable units. Over the past decade, Berkeley has approved and/or built an estimated 2,000 new housing units, more than many Bay Area cities. Unfortunately, most of the new units have been at market rate because it continues to be a challenge getting developers to build affordable units. What we need to focus on is those communities that have opposed building new housing.

It is true that we need a way to incentivize cities to approve more housing, especially near transit. But we must do it in a way that doesn’t completely override local control or undermine ongoing efforts to build affordable housing, something that Berkeley is working very hard to do.

These local efforts include creating a Small Sites Program working with non-profits to buy existing multi-unit properties to preserve affordability, passing Measure U1 expected to generate $ 4 million a year for affordable housing, and inclusionary housing and community benefit payments from large developments for affordable housing. We are also exploring a vacancy tax on residential units that are kept off the market for an extended amount of time.

We all agree that we need more housing. But getting there must happen in a way that takes into account people from all walks of life and not just the privileged few, and without destroying the very elements that made communities desirable places to live in the first place.

Jesse Arreguin