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SB 827: More of the Same, Even with Scott Wiener’s Amendments

Their solution is to do more of the same, and this will not turn out well.

By Dick Platkin and Casey Maddren

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has waffled on State Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 827, a bill that would eliminate local zoning restrictions in “transit-rich areas” throughout California. Mayor Garcetti’s initial concern was adding protections for existing rent-stabilized units. Since Senator Wiener has introduced these amendments, it seemed likely the Mayor would hop on board. But, he backed off, raising new concerns about single-family neighborhoods.

But, even if Senator Wiener offers a second set of amendments, 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: Wiener’s central claim is that his bill boosts transit ridership by increasing residential density near transit lines. Does Wiener follow the news? LA and San Francisco have approved high-density residential projects near transit for years, yet their transit 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. These should include affordable housing and upgrades that promote walking, bicycling, telecommuting, carpooling, vanpooling, 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 and maintain its aging infrastructure. Building thousands of new units without ensuring that improved services are in place 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 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 transit.

Wiener has introduced amendments that he claims address dislocation and demolitions, but they do nothing more than leave ineffective or non-existent protections in place. He doesn’t understand that even with these ordinances, Los Angeles still has increasing numbers of tenant displacements and residential demolitions. Preserving these weak laws achieves little because they do not offset the fundamental force driving displacement: real estate speculation. Even with amendments, SB 827 still fuels a feeding frenzy of flipping because it eliminates key zoning provisions restricting building size: heights, yards, mass, number of stories, and number of units.

Wiener is still offering real estate investors exactly what they want, larger buildings and higher property values. At best, his amendments amount to crumbs for low-income renters and, potentially, single-family neighborhoods. At worst, they are laughable, such as honoring laws prohibiting demolitions in a city, like Los Angeles, that has no such laws.

Public Participation: Even with amendments, SB 827 bestows totally free and unscrutinized General Plan Amendments, Zone Changes, and/or Zone Variances on 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 shuts 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. Nevertheless, when 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 reckless development that Garcetti 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 rise, homelessness has surged, transit ridership is lower than 30 years ago, and both smog and traffic congestion are 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. They can be reached at email hidden; JavaScript is required.