Dear Albany residents,
As many of you may have read, SB 827 didn’t make it out of the April 18 hearing in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee (T&H). I had a second-row seat, so I’ll give you my perspective below:
As I often have said around Albany City Hall, I’m at the stage in my life when I no longer get much satisfaction from saying, “See, I told you so.” But I have attached (here, as a pdf) my April 16 comments to the committee.
The day of the hearing, while I was wandering around, looking for the room, I stumbled upon Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), and waited for a break in the conversation to thank him for all his good work last year on the vaccination legislation (with Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento). As it turns out, Allen was on T&H, and he made some of the best criticisms of SB 827.
After a few perfunctory bills that were heard while a quorum slowly assembled, Sen. Wiener stepped up the to the podium to present SB 827. The hearing room is designed with sloping floor, almost like a stadium, and an elevated, semi-circular dais, making it hard to see the faces of all the members when you are seated in front.
Wiener presented the bill, and it appeared to me he was the defensive from the start. When he described the strong points of the bill, he mentioned items that were not in the original bill, but were added as amendments in committee. That was probably a good thing. The original bill defined transit corridors so broadly that almost all of San Francisco, and much of urban coastal California, would have become zoning-free, like Houston.
The majority of the members of the committee (10-D, 3-R) damned the bill (and Wiener) with not faint, but fulsome praise. It was a little condescending. Everyone agreed that Wiener had identified a problem. But the reality is the original bill was sophomoric and the committee had to do a fair amount of Wiener’s homework for him.
Wiener, when he was on the SF city council, had a reputation for rapidly flinging stuff against the wall to see if anything stuck. His fellow committee members on T&H gently let him know that is not how things get done in Sacramento. In the future, they were looking forward to working with him in a more constructive manner.
And as for the tech-backed YIMBYs, I think the message to them was that the state legislature get requests from many powerful groups, and that they could take a number and get in line. As the nouveau riche kids on the block, they had an over-inflated opinion of themselves, perhaps due to some easier victories last session. But SB 827 was an overreach. They’ll learn.
The bill’s co-author, Berkeley’s Nancy Skinner, offered a rambling defense of the bill that, as a constituent, I thought was an embarrassment. In the end the bill got only four yes votes, two from the co-authors and two from Republican committee members. Six Democrats voted against, and two Democrats and one Republican were NVR (no votes recorded). I’m not sure how the NVR strategy works, but it’s annoying. More here.
I’m left puzzled by two things. The first is the media’s infatuation with Wiener and this bill, which I thought was obviously a PR stunt from the start. The NY media were especially guilty of this–an echo chamber of cluelessness. I’m reminded of Sol Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker cover (attached here). More than once Wiener’s bill was presented as “bold.” Yet I don’t think anyone in this debate thinks of Houston, which has no zoning, as a bold model for San Francisco.
The second thing I find puzzling is that the co-authors pitched SB 827 as an environmental bill that will reduce California’s carbon footprint. I’m not sure if they were being disingenuous or if they don’t understand that the evidence for that is quite weak. But this is a topic for another day. Just keep in mind that homeless people have very low carbon footprints, yet no one argues homelessness is good for the environment. Housing is an end to itself, not a means to an end.
There were enough audience members who wanted to speak that they were only allowed to say whether they were in favor or opposed. I was one of the later. I’d guess those who were opposed outnumbered those in favor by about two-to-one.
The vote was taken, SB 827 died in committee, and the audience streamed out to the elevators, mostly happy and excited. In the end, the committee made the right decision.