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The Housing Caucus

For years, state lawmakers stalled on a landmark deal on housing. Then we elected these people.

Scott Wiener, David Chiu, and Nancy Skinner. 

 

Read more from the Power Issue here

Standing at a podium in front of the Hunters View housing project in San Francisco, Governor Jerry Brown waxed paradoxical. “Too many goods,” he mused, “create a bad. That’s the paradox.” He was referring, in his Moonbeamish way, to decades of well-intentioned regulations that, as a whole, had made housing in California more expensive and slow to be built. It is the crisis of our generation, and the governor whose career has spanned its inception and entrenchment was now taking a whack at solving it.

The 15 bills Brown signed on the morning of September 29 would, among other things, provide billions of dollars to build housing for poor people and force cities to streamline their approval of new construction, or face consequences. They were the product of years’ worth of debate, frustration, and demoralizing failure, and nobody in the governor’s orbit had the impression that they would provide a quick fix. The state’s housing crisis, says San Francisco’s freshman state senator, Scott Wiener, “has taken decades to create. It won’t be fixed in a year.” Still, some back-patting was in order.

Fourteen other members of the state senate and assembly joined Wiener on the folding chairs on the lawn in front of Brown, among them Berkeley state senator Nancy Skinner and San Francisco assemblymember David Chiu; also present were San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf, and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, the lanky potential presidential aspirant who had to rush back south after the signing to be home for Yom Kippur. (San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo was supposed to be there, but his invitation literally got lost in the mail.)

Spread out around and behind the politicians were for-profit and nonprofit housing developers, construction workers, union reps, pro-housing activists like Sonja Trauss and Laura Clark (leaders of the rising grassroots YIMBY—Yes in My Backyard—movement), members of the Hunters View tenant board, police and bodyguards, and political staffers. All present applauded as our ever-parsimonious governor signed into law, with one stroke of one pen, the 15 bills. “This is probably the biggest bill signing I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “Because it deals with a basic thing: shelter.”

To reach the point of this master stroke required three years of intense negotiations that, right up until the last days of the legislative session in September, looked ready to fall apart. The legislature’s leaders on housing, many of whom hail from the Bay Area, spent months writing the bills, cutting the deals, whipping the votes, and carrying the state’s most ambitious reforms to housing law in decades across the finish line. Chiu, Skinner, and Wiener, as well as San Jose state senator Jim Beall, Alameda assemblymember Rob Bonta, Oakland assemblymember Tony Thurmond, and Santa Monica assemblymember Richard Bloom, navigated a ropes course suspended above hostile local governments, NIMBYs, a tightfisted governor, interest groups from every walk of life, and skeptical or hostile colleagues. At any moment, they could have failed. But through a mixture of tenacity, pragmatism, arm-twisting, and sheer luck, they did it—and here’s how it happened.

 

You could start this story at any number of moments—after the Second World War, when the GIs and their families poured into a California that gave them, or at least the white ones, mass-produced ranch homes and generous mortgages, setting the expectation that the California dream included a backyard with a pool. Or in the ’60s and ’70s, when their children, stoked by anti-establishment fervor, practiced laudable anti-development politics, stopping the demolition of the Haight and a proposed landfill that would have choked the San Francisco Bay, among many other mega-horrors. Or in the ensuing four decades, when that reflexive rejection of development curdled into a sour build-nothing-near-me ideology that produced a cataclysmic housing shortage that drove their children out of the state.

But the most convenient place to start is in 2011, when Governor Brown led a successful eff ort to close the state’s redevelopment agencies, which had poured around $5 billion a year into construction projects—some enlightened, some benighted—for decades. Although part of that money went to soulless suburban shopping malls, some of it went to building housing projects for low-income Californians. The assembly, under then-Speaker Toni Atkins, tried several times to revive the funding, to no avail. “At least six times,” Skinner, who served with Atkins in the assembly, remembers.

Enter Chiu, the former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who in 2015, during his first term in the state assembly, wrote a bill that would have allocated $300 million to fund low-income housing projects. The legislature passed it, but Brown vetoed the legislation, saying that he would rather see such a spending request occur within the state’s yearly budget than as its own bill. (Chiu was so new to Sacramento that, after the veto, he texted his staff to see about a legislative override—not realizing that it was a taboo that hadn’t been breached since 1979.)

So the next year, Chiu cowrote a onetime $1.3 billion expenditure into the state budget, which, as part of the negotiations, was whittled down to $400 million. Relatively late in that cycle, Brown added a wrinkle. He would spend the money, but he wanted something in exchange: a stipulation, known as by-right, that would speed the time elapsed between proposal and picket fence by requiring local governments to automatically approve projects that complied with their zoning, rather than leaving it to the discretion of bureaucrats.

It was a quid pro quo that made sense strategically—progressive Democrats wanted the funding, and moderates wanted the legal change (and Republicans didn’t have the votes to matter)—but the details of by-right proved too overwhelming for Chiu and the rest of the legislature to address in the waning days of last year’s session. Activists couldn’t get over the loss of local control over construction. Environmentalists worried that it would open the gates to construction in greenfi elds, on coastlines, and above fault lines. Labor unions had concerns about wages. Tenants’ rights activists fretted that it could be used to bypass rent control. And plain old NIMBYs opposed the measure because it would push forward construction in, well, you know where.

That led to a tense summer in the capitol. “I was working furiously to see if there would be any possibility of salvaging [the legislation], but the two sides were too far apart,” Chiu says. (It’s true: I dropped by his Sacramento office last year, figuring that I would write a story if a deal were struck, and could feel the tension breaking through Chiu’s chipper demeanor. I could all but see him sweating in his suit.) Looking back on it this year, he acknowledges that he was stuck: “My staff and I compiled a list of all the issues we would have to address, but realized it was too wide a gap—a chasm—to cross,” he says.

 

That chasm would close somewhat magically, with the results of a single election. Following the road map charted by Chiu in his 2015 victory over fellow San Francisco supervisor David Campos, Wiener eked out a similarly hard-fought win over board colleague Jane Kim in 2016. This signaled a tall mandate for the towering senator: In two successive contested elections (three if you count the mayor’s reelection), San Francisco voters had a clear choice on housing policy: Campos and Kim thought a moratorium on market-rate housing would mitigate the crisis, while Chiu and Wiener believed that increasing supply—of both subsidized and market-rate housing—would mitigate prices. Both times, a majority of San Francisco voters chose the candidate who believed in supply and demand—and demanded that Sacramento do something already.

Chiu and Wiener have been friends since law school at Harvard (Campos also attended at the same time). They both moved west in the late ’90s, and they even worked together on an immigration case—Chiu as a nonprofit lawyer and Wiener working pro bono from a white-shoe firm, representing a migrant caught up in ICE’s byzantine deportation process—before becoming elected officials. All of which is to say, they talk all the time: on the phone, in person, over texts. So when Wiener took office after the termed-out Mark Leno, he knew which part of the housing package would be his to carry—the by-right proposal.

Conditioned by strenuous debates he’d had over the past few years with Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the leader of the progressive faction in San Francisco, Wiener, along with his staff, drew up a list of every objection that opponents had thrown at him and figured out ways to defuse them all. As his first action upon taking office, Wiener wrote a by-right bill synthesizing, he thought, as many of the reasonable objections as he could. He wasn’t optimistic about its chances. “When I introduced that bill in December, I honestly didn’t know if the bill would make it out of committee,” he says. “I thought it might die in five minutes.”

It didn’t.

Wiener’s was one of 130 housing bills that lawmakers fed into the legislative funnel this year. Among them was Skinner’s SB 167, which proposed changes to the state’s Housing Accountability Act, the law that YIMBY groups had used to sue the cities of Lafayette and Berkeley over their respective denials of housing projects. During the suits, Brian Hanlon, the then codirector of CaRLA—the YIMBYs’ legal advocacy arm—and the groups’ attorney, Ryan Patterson, drew up a list of changes to state law that would make it easier for activist groups to compel cities to build. Several of these became the basis for Skinner’s bill, including stiffer financial penalties for cities that had fallen out of compliance with the law that obliges them to approve developments that meet local zoning requirements. “If developers play by the rules,” she said, “they should get a permit.”

With the support of the YIMBYs and a coalition of more-established pro-housing groups, Skinner’s bill sailed smoothly through the legislature, but Wiener’s did not, even though some colleagues whom Wiener expected to be opponents, like San Mateo state senator Jerry Hill, turned out to be supporters. Wiener worked in his typically assiduous fashion to craft a bill, and had air cover from Nancy McFadden, the governor’s powerful chief of staff , and the state senate’s leader, Kevin de León. But trouble loomed in the Senate G overnance and Finance Committee, whose chair, Mike McGuire, opposed the bill, as did union lobbyists concerned about their workers’ wages.

Just before the committee vote, Wiener, McFadden, and de León reached an agreement with labor that projects approved under the new law would pay a higher wage rate, and by a 4–2 vote with one abstention, the bill made it out. (McGuire voted no in committee and again on the floor.)

 

Meanwhile, in the assembly, Chiu was still pushing hard on the funding bill. “Before we even came back to the 2017 session, we had been working with the administration,” he says. Since his compromise proposal had been halted in 2015, he’d held hearings across the state as chair of the assembly’s housing committee—listening to migrant workers in Coachella, homeless veterans in Los Angeles, and apartment dwellers barely hanging on in San Francisco. As the legislative year began, Chiu and his committee staff began winnowing, ensuring that the final product had something for all parts of the state. “If this had just been a Bay Area conversation, we wouldn’t have had 15 bills,” Skinner says

The trouble was, this wasn’t the only major legislative lift that needed to be achieved this year. Brown most ardently wanted the legislature to pass an extension of the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program, a pioneering effort to fight carbon emissions signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. If the lawmakers couldn’t push cap-and-trade through, not only would it be a policy disaster; it would be a political embarrassment. The Republican amateur Schwarzenegger would have done what the dyed-in-the-hemp environmentalist Brown—who ran for president in 1980 under the slogan “Protect the Earth, Serve the People, and Explore the Universe”—couldn’t.

So while the governor had said all along that he wanted a deal on housing this year, members of the legislature began to grow nervous that he didn’t want it as badly as he wanted to continue to cap carbon. About two weeks before the final vote on cap-andtrade, on June 21, three assemblymembers—Chiu, Bloom, and Bonta—worked out a strategy to leverage the governor. They would get their Democratic colleagues to support cap-and-trade, but Brown had to assure them that he would back a housing deal. The three swelled to 30—a majority of the chamber’s 54 Democrats. The next day, they marched into Speaker Anthony Rendon’s office. Brown, on his way out from an earlier meeting, ran into them, looking taken aback.

Inside, the Speaker had two questions: Was the deal for real, and did they have the votes? It was, they told him, and they did. So the group then marched from the Speaker’s office back to the governor’s office in the center of the capitol. In that meeting, Brown agreed to work with them to compromise on the housing bills, and they agreed to support cap-and-trade.

Over the next two weeks, staff worked frantically to assemble the housing package, but as the cap-and-trade vote drew near, Chiu grew more nervous, fearing that the work was going too slowly. On July 5, he and five other members met with McFadden in Chiu’s office to air those concerns. She told them a deal was in sight. They weren’t sure. But then, 45 minutes into the meeting, a staffer interrupted to inform them that a visitor had arrived. In walked Brown, who plopped himself down on a couch for the next half hour.

In the semiotics of Sacramento, this was a big deal. If you meet with the governor, even as a member of the legislature, you get on his calendar, and you go to his office. The governor doesn’t come to you—he drops by legislators’ offices about as often as the pope brings a casserole to the parish for the post-Mass potluck. Clearly, he was here to do business.

Chiu decided to strike, demanding that the governor issue a public statement before the vote committing him to permanent funding for affordable housing; a housing bond; a streamlining measure, presumably Wiener’s by-right legislation; and accountability proposals like Skinner’s. Brown agreed, and just before the Monday-evening cap-and-trade vote, his office put out the public statement. Then the legislature went into its summer recess.

Two weeks later, the deal was still about a dozen assembly votes shy of the two-thirds majority it would need. Holdouts included seven or eight moderate Democrats and four or five others facing tough reelection fights. The moderates were brought on board with new language that offered more money to local governments, leaving the four or five “target” members; the Speaker and the governor stepped in to round them up. It felt like a fait accompli—but it didn’t work out that way.

 

On the day of the vote , Chiu organized his floor team of fellow lawmakers as if they were playing soccer. Of the eight members working with him, six played zone defense, roaming specific areas of the floor to make sure that the promised votes were delivered, while two played sweeper, wandering the floor to buttonhole anyone who wavered. A two-thirds vote in the assembly requires 54 votes to pass, and when the bill came up, the yeas immediately totaled 51. Three to go.

One holdout, assemblymember Rudy Salas, had a short, private conversation with the Speaker, then voted yes. Two to go: Marc Levine and Adrin Nazarian, both Democrats, and both with reputations for recalcitrance.

“I sent my sweepers to go find them,” Chiu says. The sweepers came back to Chiu—they couldn’t be found. So he went to the kitchen. Not there. The bathroom. Not there. He looked under the stall doors. Not there. The phone booths. Not there. “At this point,” Chiu says, “the only place they could be was the portico,” a covered area at the entrance to the assembly chamber. Although it’s physically outside, the legislative rules consider it part of the floor, so members are allowed to go there during votes. That’s where Chiu, joined by Bloom and Bonta, found Levine and Nazarian, standing on opposite sides, just taking in the fresh air—or at least pretending to. The entire housing package had come down to this.

As Levine remembers it, Chiu joked, “Marc, it looks like you’re going to jump.” Bloom then added, “If you jump, we’ll grab your arms, cut them off, you’ll fall down, and we’ll take your bloody arm to your desk and hit the fucking green button.” (Bloom declined to confirm this account.)

Although the Speaker later said to the TV cameras that no deal was cut, a Nazarian bill on net energy metering that had been held in the Senate Appropriations Committee went up for a vote the next morning. (Brown ultimately vetoed it.) Whatever horse trading happened on the portico, after an hour, the two men returned to the floor and voted yes on the bill, opening the way for the rest of the package. The feeling among the victors, says Chiu: “Euphoria, and relief, and disbelief.”

 

After the Governor's signing in September, Chiu and Wiener hosted a party at Mission Rock Resort, a bar on the waterfront. Much needed beers flowed. The lawmakers—and their staffs and supporters—felt they had earned it. Over oysters, the young YIMBYs hoisted drinks with older advocates who had been working in Sacramento for decades.

For Skinner, the victory marked a change 30 years in the making. “In the 1980s, the Bay Area embraced the greenbelt” to block sprawl, she says, but “we didn’t embrace densification.” But the work will continue for decades: A UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll found that, thanks to housing costs, 51 percent of Bay Area residents are thinking of moving out of the state.

Days later, Wiener sat in the sunlight in his San Francisco office, overlooking the dome of City Hall. He was already figuring out what housing bills to introduce in the next session. He ticked them off one by one. “There is more to be done around protecting renters,” he said. “The Ellis Act. Affordable housing funding, whether for homeless people or other types of low-income housing. We need to bring redevelopment back in an improved way. Changes to Costa-Hawkins.”

He paused to take stock and then shrugged. “We’ve got more to do.”

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco magazine

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