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Three dangerous bills being pushed by State Senator Nancy Skinner

June 2nd is the final day in this session for the State Senate to pass bills that originated in that house. Berkeley’s state senator, Nancy Skinner, has supported or sponsored three dangerous bills that will be considered by next Friday. Two - SB 35 and SB 167 - have dire consequences for every city in California. The third, SB 595, enhances the power of the Bay Area's inept and unaccountable transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission ("MTC").

SB 35: Housing Accountability and Affordability Act (Wiener)

SB 35, the brainchild of San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener, would force cities that haven’t met all their state-mandated Regional Housing Need Allocations ("RHNA") to give by-right approval to infill market-rate housing projects with as little as 10% officially affordable housing.

SB 35 is anti-free speech and civic engagement. No public hearings, no environmental review, no negotiation over community benefits. Just “ministerial,” i.e., over-the-counter- approval.

SB 35 is pro-gentrification. As a statewide coalition of affordable housing advocacy organizations has written:

Since almost no local jurisdiction in the State of California meets 100% of its market rate RHNA goal on a sustained basis, this bill essentially ensures by-right approval for market-rate projects simply by complying with a local inclusionary requirement [for affordable housing] or by building 10% affordable units.

The practical result is that all market rate infill development in most every city in California will be eligible for by-right approval per this SB 35-proposed State law pre-emption.

And as Berkeley Housing Commissioner Thomas Lord has pointed out, the RHNA program itself is a pro-gentrification policy. It follows that the passage of SB 35 would further inflate real estate values and worsen the displacement of economically vulnerable California residents.

SB 35 is pro-traffic congestion. It would prohibit cities from requiring parking in a “streamlined development approved pursuant” to SB 35, located within a half-mile of public transit, in an architecturally and historically significant historic district, when on-street parking permits are required but not offered to the occupants of the project, and when there is a car share vehicle located within one block of the development. Other projects approved under the measure would be limited to one space per unit.

Absent the provision of ample new public transit, the prohibition of parking in new development will worsen neighborhood traffic problems. SB 35 says nothing about new transit.

The construction of on-site parking is expensive, up to $50,000 a space. A measure that exempts new development, as designated above, from including parking without requiring developers to transfer the savings to affordable housing is a giveaway to the real estate industry.

Nor does SB 35 say anything about funding the amount of infrastructure and local services—fire and police, schools, parks—that would be required by the massive amount of development it mandates.

Are local jurisdictions expected to foot the bill?

The lineup of SB 35’s supporters and opponents reveals serious splits in the state’s environmental protection and affordable housing advocates.

Supporters include Bay Area Council, the lobby shop of the Bay Area’s biggest employers; BAC’s Silicon Valley counterpart, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; the San Francisco and LA Chambers of Commerce; the Council of Infill Builders; several nonprofit housing organizations, including the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and BRIDGE Housing; the Natural Resources Defense Council; the California League of Conservation Voters; and a panoply of YIMBY groups, including East Bay Forward and YIMBY Action.

Opponents include the Sierra Club; the League of California Cities; the Council of Community Housing Organizations; the California Fire Chiefs Association; the Fire Districts Association of California; a handful of cities, including Hayward, Pasadena, and Santa Rosa; the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers; and many building trades organizations, including IBEW Locals 1245, 18, 465 and 551, and the Western States Council of Sheet Metal Workers.

SB 595: Metropolitan Transportation Commission: toll bridge revenues (Beall)

State Senator Jim Beall’s SB 595 would authorize MTC to place on a November 2018 ballot, a regional measure to raise tolls on all Bay Area bridge except the Golden Gate, “to be used for unspecified projects and programs” vaguely specified as “improvements in the bridge corridors.” As a fee, rather than a tax, the measure would need only a simple majority to pass.

The exact amount of the increase has not been specified. MTC has indicated it will seek a $1-3 raise. That would jack up the price of driving west on the Bay Bridge at most times of the day (5 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm) from $6 to $9. A $3-dollar increase in bridge tolls would raise an estimated $5 billion.

How can elected officials in good conscience vote for a bill to raise bridge tolls that doesn’t specify the amount of the increase?

A bigger concern is MTC’s disastrous fiscal history. In 2011, the agency lost $120 million in bridge tolls after a bond-credit swap (think The Big Short) went bad. Its new palace on Beale Street in San Francisco had 50%—$80 million—in cost overruns. And then there’s the new Bay Bridge, a fiscal and engineering fiasco in whose “oversight” MTC played a major role.

Bay Area public transportation is in desperate need of improvement, but giving an unelected rogue agency billions of new dollars to play with, is asking for (more) big trouble. Instead, the state legislature ought to be considering how to make the governance of our region’s transportation fiscally responsible—a new state audit of MTC is long overdue—and democratically accountable.

SB 595 has one supporter, MTC, and no opposition.

SB 167: Housing Accountability Act (Skinner)

This bill, sponsored by the Bay Area Renters Federation ("BARF"), is a companion to SB 35. It would prohibit cities from disapproving a housing project containing units affordable to very low-, low- or moderate-income renters, or conditioning the approval in a manner that renders the project financially infeasible, unless, among other things, the city has met or exceeded its share of regional housing needs for the relevant income category. (As of November 2016, HUD defined a moderate-income household of four people in Alameda County as one earning under $112,300 a year.)

The bill defines a “feasible” project as one that is “capable of being accomplished in a successful manner within a reasonable period of time, taking into account economic environmental, social, and technological factors.” It does not define “successful” or “reasonable.”

If a city does disapprove such a project, it is liable to a minimum fine of $1,000 per unit of the housing development project, plus punitive damages, if a court finds that the local jurisdiction acted in bad faith.

SB 167 authorizes the project applicant, a person who would be eligible to apply for residency in the development or emergency shelter, or a housing organization, to sue the jurisdiction to enforce SB 167’s provisions. The bill defines a housing organization as

a trade of industry group whose local members are primarily engage in the construction or management of housing units or a nonprofit organization whose mission includes providing or advocating for increased access to housing for low-income households and have filed written or oral comments with the local agency prior to action on the housing development project. [Emphasis added]

The reference to "the nonprofit organization" was added to the existing Housing Accountability Act to encompass BARF’s legal arm, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund ("CaRLA"), whose lawsuit of Lafayette recently failed. Last week CaRLA re-instituted its lawsuit of Berkeley over the city’s rejection of a project at 1310 Haskell.

SB 167 further amends the existing Housing Accountability Act to entitle successful plaintiffs to “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.”

Predictably, the bill is supported by the Bay Area Council, the lobby shop for the region’s largest employers; the California Building Industry Association; the Terner Center at UC Berkeley; the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition; and YIMBY groups, including East Bay Forward, Abundant Housing LA, and of course CaRLA.

Opponents include the California Association of Counties and the American Planning Association.

Nancy Skinner styles herself as a progressive. Her support for SB 35, SB 595, and her sponsorship of SB 167 shows that she’s just another real estate Democrat carrying water for the building industry and its YIMBY stooges, and the profligate autocrats at MTC. Her constituents in Berkeley, Richmond, and other East Bay Cities should urge her to change course and walk her talk.

And, throughout California, voters should contact their state senators and tell them to oppose SB 35, SB 595 and SB 167.