It's a piece of legislation being hailed as a surefire way to boost housing construction across California -- so why are so many housing advocates opposed to it?
A recent bill put forward by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has sparked a firestorm because it would suspend many cities' land-use restrictions when it comes to constructing new apartments near transit stops. Even in Mountain View, where officials pride themselves on addressing the housing crisis, the idea is going over like a lead balloon.
Earlier this month, Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel wrote to Wiener outlining his concerns with Senate Bill 827, saying it would cripple the city's ability to extract concessions from housing developers.
The city has long relied on using a density-bonus system that allows housing developers to build higher and more densely packed apartments. In exchange, developers are required to help fund local improvements, such as parks, transportation or affordable housing.
Wiener's bill would essentially take away the city's leverage to demand those concessions, Siegel told the Voice, and he warned it could trigger a political backlash. The bill, he said, would make it so that certain high-rise apartments wouldn't have to address valid neighborhood concerns, such as traffic, parking and construction impacts.
"If you don't have the capacity to address those concerns, then people are going to find a way not to build anything," Siegel said. "We need a comprehensive approach to housing, not just finding ways to squeeze more apartments onto the head of a pin."
Wiener's proposed legislation applies only to so-called "transit-rich" properties, defined as those within a half-mile of a major transit stop. For Mountain View and cities up the spine of the Peninsula, that means the proposed rules would impact sites near Caltrain, BART and VTA light rail stations. An approximate map of the Bay Area's affected properties can be found at transitrichhousing.org.
Under the new bill, housing proposals for those properties near transit would be immune to most local zoning restrictions, such as parking requirements and caps on the maximum density or height. The closest properties to a major transit stop could be built at least 85 feet high, according to the bill.
Siegel points out that Wiener's bill wouldn't square well with plans in Mountain View to build more housing close to offices, such as in North Bayshore. A better plan, he suggests, would be for the state lawmakers to provide more incentives for encouraging housing, such as extra funding for transit projects.
Asked for comment, Wiener praised Mountain View and Siegel's work in promoting housing growth. But he pushed back against the criticism that his bill would suspend local control over development. A newer version of his housing bill contains some provisions for cities to set their own density limits, albeit within the parameters of the legislation, he said.
"The community can still engage on the approval process for specific projects under this bill," Wiener wrote. "We worked with local governments on developing these parameters and we're happy to engage with local leaders on this."
Wiener's proposal has remained one of the most closely watched bills at the state Legislature, and it has regularly been singled out for opposition by the League of California Cities. Last month, the Palo Alto City Council signed its own opposition letter to the bill.
The proposed housing bill is currently being considered at the state Senate's Transportation and Housing Committee. If it passes out of the committee, it will likely go forward for a vote in late May.