Scaled-Down Density Legislation Still not the Answer

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

Scott Wiener is at it again.  The state senator from San Francisco wants to create denser neighborhoods as an answer to California’s housing crisis.  In a recently introduced bill he seeks to force high-density multifamily housing on local governments.  But, this latest effort is less a fix and more an accommodation. 

Wiener, as you recall, was the state senator who believed if localities simply allowed higher-density housing in neighborhoods surrounding or in the vicinity of transit hubs they could kill two birds in one fell swoop – increasing housing supply while reducing vehicular traffic.  He introduced legislation to do that not long after he arrived at the state Capitol for the first time.

Indeed, the effort started in 2017, following Wiener’s swearing in as a state legislator.  For a time, it appeared the freshman lawmaker’s seeming bravado and naiveté won out over Sacramento’s historic inclination to punt on true housing reform.  Initially the senator appeared genuinely and refreshingly interested in policy and prepared to get started on building housing.  

Alas, his enthusiasm was short-lived.  His idealistic outlook on what to do ran headlong into the politics – all too present at the Capitol – of “just say no” to major reform.  Wiener soon became just another member among many.

After fighting the good fight with opponents of the legislation – it seemed like years – Wiener failed to get his goal adopted.  Along the way the senator got beat up pretty substantially too.  So, this year he proceeded to introduce a bill – SB 902 – an extreme deviation from the original, pro-housing concept and a great offense to homebuilding and the state’s housing crisis.

Wiener’s new bill does nothing, really.  In fact, the basic incentive of the legislation simply grants a locality the authorization to put a zoning ordinance on the local ballot.  There are no instructions – to the project sponsor nor to the locality – if the ordinance fails.  Moreover, the ordinance may only set densities to a maximum of just 10 units per site – hardly the design of infill that it’s going take to make a serious dent in the state’s housing need.

The bill also intentionally involves the state in what should be purely a local decision, conceding its promise of uncomplicated and speedy processing.  SB 902 ignores the age-old tension between the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and local government, requiring multiple HCD reviews before moving on an ordinance.  Adding insult to injury, the bill demands that HCD consult with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) first.

SB 902 is pending an expected passing vote by the full Senate and will likely land on the Governor’s desk before long.  It’s certain to get signed, too.  That’s good news for state bureaucrats – with now more to do – and bad news for local housing policy, which will have new statutory and regulatory hurdles to clear.  

If it doesn’t sound like true reform, it isn’t.  But, that won’t stop lawmakers from patting themselves on the back – congratulating one another for achieving a new scheme to building new housing.  In truth, it’s a meaningless milestone.   

Sacramento policy leaders ought to know better.  You’d think the ones like Wiener who regularly dabble in housing and land use would have figured it out by now – lawmakers and bureaucrats can’t force locals to systematically approve housing.  They need to create incentives – and there are dozens to choose from.    

It’s time for policy leaders to get serious about housing and quit fooling around with useless laws.  It’s time for them to stop just talking a good game and finally put their money where their mouths so often are.

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