How state Sen. Scott Wiener became obsessed with housing: Q&A

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Scott Wiener blames California’s housing woes on its attachment to low-density, single-family neighborhoods — and local elected officials who, he says, have failed to approve enough apartment buildings for the growing population.

After just a year in Sacramento, the San Francisco Democrat representing the city at the epicenter of the housing affordability crisis is in the thick of a statewide showdown over land use decisions, challenging long-held local authority over zoning restrictions.

His latest proposal, Senate Bill 827, would require cities to allow more apartment buildings and condominiums within a half-mile of rail stations and a quarter-mile of bus stops with frequent service. The bill, sponsored by a growing coalition of YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) activist groups, covers large swaths of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Wiener is a former local elected official himself, having served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. So he knows a little something about local politics.

We spoke with the senator about his personal housing situation, how $4,000 rents are changing his city and why he thinks building more is the answer to stabilizing housing prices in California. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: Let’s start with your story. When did you come to San Francisco, and what brought you there?

A: I moved to San Francisco in 1997 around Labor Day. I’m originally from the Philadelphia area and I always assumed I would go back because that’s where most of my family is, but then I decided during law school that I should check out a different city. The summer of 1995 I spent clerking at a law firm in San Francisco. I really just fell in love with the city.

Q: Are you one of the fortunate San Franciscans who owns their own home?

A: I rented for seven years, and in 2004 I purchased a small, 500 square-foot condo in the Castro. I feel lucky that I bought it when I did because I wouldn’t be able to afford it now. As long as I make my mortgage payments I get to stay there. I don’t have to worry about whether my building gets sold or my landlord wants to evict me or move into my place. Unfortunately, a lot of people do have to worry about that, all the time. I’m single, so for me a 500-square-foot unit is more space than I need, frankly.

Q: If you were to move to San Francisco today, where would you be able to afford to live?

A: On my salary (state legislators make $104,118), to move into the Castro, I’d have to get several roommates. To live by myself, I’d probably have to get a very tiny in-law unit in the very outer southern or western part of the city, which is still slightly more affordable. I would not be able to rent or own where I am today, not without several roommates.

Q: How have you seen the city transform since you have been there?

A: When I came to San Francisco in 1997 it was the beginning of the dot-com boom. It was a super tight rental market. I went to some open houses where there were lines out the door. It was a very crazy time. I ended up renting a one-bedroom apartment in heart of the Castro with a panoramic view of the Oakland hills, and my rent was $1,050 a month. Today that would be a $3,000 apartment. That, in and of itself, shows you how things have changed. This city is always in a state of change, and it’s one of the things that makes it so dynamic and that makes it so interesting, but it also makes it really stressful. I will say that what is different about the current change we’re seeing is that the cost of housing has gotten so extreme that it is threatening a lot of what the city is about in terms of our diversity — diversity of ethnicity and race, diversity of age, diversity of income level. It’s really under assault because of the cost of housing.

Q: Was there a defining moment, conversation or experience that convinced you that the problem was that San Francisco and other cities weren’t building enough places for people to live?

Alphonzo Jackson, center, holds his six-month old son Isaiah as he speaks with San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, left, before a rally supporting paid family leave at City Hall in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 5, 2016. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is voting on whether to require six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents – a move that would be a first for any jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

A: Before I was even elected to the Board of Supervisors I was president of my neighborhood association, and in that role I was part of community processes around developments moving forward in the Upper Market area. The amount of time it took to get those projects approved was extraordinary to me. Some of them would have to go through 50 or 60 community meetings. That was when I first started really questioning the system that we have. And then once I got into office and prices were starting to go up and ultimately to explode, it became just a fundamental focus for me.I’ll never forget one day early on in my tenure on the Board of Supervisors. I was walking down on the street that I live on, and there was an older gay man, probably in his 70s, who came up to me. He said, “Scott, I am terrified because I just saw my landlord painting my building.” In the market that we were in, he not unreasonably saw the painting of the building as a precursor to selling the building, which means potentially getting evicted. He had lived in the Castro for decades and did not have a lot of money. If he were to lose his apartment, he would be in deep trouble. That encounter has always stuck with me, just showing the very justifiable anxiety level among renters in San Francisco.

Q: Rent control, and a statewide law limiting it, is another hot topic this year. Should Costa Hawkins be repealed? Why shouldn’t cities be able to set these policies on their own?

A: I think Costa Hawkins could use reform. We want to make sure that people have incentives to build new rental housing while also ensuring that we have a rent-stabilized housing stock. You can do that. You can find that balance. There is something arbitrary (about the law). In San Francisco, for example, any apartment building built before 1979 is rent controlled; anything built after 1979 is not rent-controlled — forever. Having some number of years where you eventually roll into rent control, I think that is a worthy topic of discussion. I hope that the conversation goes in that direction, working toward a compromise, rather than an either-or.

Q: Your new bill to create denser and taller zoning near transit stations and corridors, SB 827, is being hotly debated. It would cover large swaths of cities, which are used to making these decisions locally. Do you think it will pass without significant amendments and compromises?

A: I’m keenly aware that there will be a lot of dialogue around this bill. We welcome feedback from the public and from local government and from others. I am confident we will have a good negotiation, and there will of course be give and take.

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#housing #wiener #california #house #Oldestneighborhoods #proposal #new

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