It's the Tech Industry vs. the Sierra Club in California's Big Housing Debate

California State Senator Scott Wiener made a big splash this month by announcing a package of pro-development bills, and now interest groups are taking sides in a heated debate over housing and density.
January 25, 2018, 2pm PST | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Jesse Richmond

California State Senator Scott Wiener has made his case for a package of pro-development bills, and then made the case again for the most ambitious of those bills, SB 827. Supporters of the zoning incentives included in SB 827 have mapped out the potential effects of the bill. Now special interests are lining up on either side of the issue.

First came the Sierra Club, an environmental organization that has been criticized in the past for enabling anti-development forces in urban areas and thus spreading development to the periphery. Sierra Club Policy Advocate Kyle Jones wrote a letter to Senator Wiener [pdf] on Sierra Club letterhead to oppose SB 827. The gist of Jones's argument:

While infill development near transit is the most desirable option, we believe that your bill is a heavyhanded approach to encourage that development that will ultimately lead to less transit being offered and more pollution generated, among other unintended consequences.

That letter provoked a response from Ethan Elkind, author of Railtown, who rebuts the Sierra Club letter point by point. Here's on particularly pithy section of Elkind's response:

But if Sierra Club is truly concerned about displacement, why not recommend policies to address it in the bill, such as requirements for inclusionary zoning or density bonuses? Instead, they offer no solutions, while failing to recognize the massive displacement already occurring due to the existing housing shortage. My question for Sierra Club: what do they propose to combat the gentrification and displacement currently happening now? And where do they want new homes to be built, if not in these prime transit areas?

Another interest group taking sides in the debate is the tech industry. Los Angeles Times reporter Liam Dillon reports that a group of 120 top executives from California tech companies and venture capital firms have written a letter of support for the bill. "The executives, including Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Logan Green of Lyft, Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Reid Hoffman, who co-founded LinkedIn, said that the state’s housing crisis makes it hard to recruit and retain employees and is pushing tech firms to relocate out of the state," according to Dillon. The entirety of that letter is printed on California YIMBY Tech Network letterhead.

For a high-level survey of the political debate surrounding SB 827 and the state's housing policy controversies, an editorial by the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't overtly pick sides while elucidating the issues and interests driving the debate. A point made by the article that takes an optimistic approach to the debate, no matter the eventual outcome: "It’s a problem that won’t be solved readily or easily, but the debate itself is yielding signs of progress." 

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Published on Friday, January 19, 2018 in San Francisco Chronicle
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