SB 827: More of the Same, Even with Amendments
LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has waffled State Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 827, a bill that would do away with local zoning restrictions in transit-rich areas. Garcetti’s initial concern was adding protection for existing rent-stabilized units. Since Wiener has now introduced these amendments, presumably the Mayor hopped on board. But, he backed off, raising concerns about single-family neighborhoods.
But, even if Senator Wiener makes these second changes, would it fix everything else wrong with the bill? Not even close. Let’s go down the list of remaining problems with SB 827:
Transit: One of Wiener’s central claims is that his bill will boost transit ridership by increasing density near transit lines. Does Wiener read the news? LA and San Francisco have approved high-density residential projects near transit for years, yet ridership is declining. The problem is that our cities have been building Transit-Adjacent Developments (TADs), not Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC’s). According to METRO, to make TOC’s work cities must comprehensively plan and construct public improvements in neighborhoods near transit that include affordable housing, and promote walking, bicycling, telecommuting, car pooling, van pooling, and access to mass transit. SB 827 does none of this.
Infrastructure: Wiener’s bill is oblivious to the capacity of local infrastructure and services to meet the needs of new residents. Like schools, streets, and sidewalks, LA’s water infrastructure is also crumbling. While the MTA continues to build new rail lines, the existing bus system is poorly maintained and plagued by delays and breakdowns. Proponents of SB 827 claim that increased revenue from new development would solve these problems, but in LA revenue has been rising for years, and still the City can’t balance its budget. Building thousands of new units without planning to ensure that services will be in place to serve them is fundamentally irresponsible.
Displacement: There’s a reason why 37 affordable housing, tenants rights, and transit equity groups signed ACT-LA’s letter opposing SB 827. They’ve seen what the current approach to development has already done to low-income communities: rampant gentrification and displacement. For them, Wiener’s bill allows developers to ramp up these practices, driving even more families out of their homes and pushing them further away from the transit.
Wiener has introduced amendments that he claims will address dislocation, but they mostly leave weak protections in place. He doesn’t understand that even with these protections, Los Angeles has increasing numbers of tenant displacements. Tweaking these laws achieves little because they do not offset the fundamental force driving displacement: real estate speculation. Even with several fixes, SB 827 will still fuel a feeding frenzy of speculation and flipping because its elimination of zoning provisions produces a much larger building envelope, without restrictions on height, number of units, and parking. Wiener is still offering real estate investors exactly what they want, and his amendments amount to crumbs for low-income renters and, potentially, single-family neighborhoods.
Public Participation: Even with Senator Wiener’s amendment, SB 827 still bestows across-the-board, totally free and unscrutinized General Plan Amendments, Zone Changes, and/or Zone Variances for all properties in its coverage areas. Due process is eliminated, without any notifications, workshops,, public hearings, debates, votes by the City Planning Commission and City Council, and rights of appeal. This bill is shockingly anti-democratic, and it will shut out elected officials and community members from the decision-making process.
Environment: By circumventing General Plan Amendments, Zone Changes, and Zone Variances, SB 827 also eliminates the application of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to these discretionary actions. As developers dump more luxury projects on our cities, traffic congestion gets worse. In pursuit of maximum square footage, they convert more green space to hardscape. As they level infill sites, we see our urban forest receding. Real estate investors are dying to see CEQA go away, and Scott Wiener is making their wish come true.
It’s not surprising to see Mayor Garcetti supporting, then waffling, on SB 827. Wiener advocates the same kind of reckless development that he has promoted since his City Council days. As mayor, Eric Garcetti has been a tireless cheerleader for high-priced, high-density projects, claiming that their proximity to transit gets cars off the road. And what are the results? Housing prices continue to climb, the number of homeless has surged, transit ridership is lower than 30 years ago, and both smog and traffic congestion are becoming worse.
Scott Wiener and Eric Garcetti claim we can build our way out of housing, environmental, and transportation crises. Their solution is to do more of the same, and this will not turn out well.
* Dick Platkin and Casey Maddren are members of United Neighborhoods for LA (UN4LA), an umbrella organization calling for better planning in Los Angeles.