Public Comment

Scott Wiener is the Housing Industry's Pied Piper

Robert Brokl
Friday June 14, 2019 - 04:48:00 PM

You have to hand it to Senator Scott Wiener, he never gives up flogging for the housing industry. Last year, SB-827, this year, in slightly modified form, SB-50. Wiener's bill has stalled in the Senate, but his mantra and methods haven’t changed much. Cite a manifest problem, in this case homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, relentlessly posit the same, and only, solution over and over--just build more housing, and the problem will be solved. Repeat.

But why should he change? The California Building Industry Associ9ation (CBIA) has picked Weiner as Legislator of the Year, and the bulk of his campaign contributions come from builders. (from an article entitled “Scott Wiener’s SB 50 is a WIMBY Bill.” (Wall St. in My Back Yard.)

As Naomi Klein explained in Shock Doctrine, even crisis and calamities can be opportunities, for consolidation and amassing of power and profit.

SB-50 and SB-827 before that would preempt local zoning "near transit and jobs," eliminating local controls or input, to allow up to 85 feet high condo and apartment buildings. In San Francisco, this definition would mean almost all local zoning control would be eliminated, by state dictat, to solve the housing “crisis.”

But there are reasons why the bills have so many skeptics, including the very groups and people that might seemingly benefit. More market rate housing is NOT going to get housing for people sleeping on the streets or in cars, nor assist the working poor (those with "low-mod” income levels in the Bay Area would be considered wealthy in many parts of the country) who could really benefit from affordable housing. According to the June, 2018 Fortune, households of four people in San Francisco, San Mateo or Marin counties earning $117,000/yr. are considered “low income,” according to HUD guidelines.

Wiener and his developer allies make the simplistic argument that building more housing, even all luxury housing, will ultimately bring down the cost of all housing, the-supply- and-demand solution. Never mind that “trickle down” originated with Reagan and that Trump's single-minded pursuit of the recent tax cuts, supposedly to lift all of us up, disproportionately benefited the wealthy. Surprise, surprise. 

Investment is flooding into parts of California, and parts of cities, because of profits to be made. If profits diminish, the wealth will go elsewhere, or parcels will be land-banked for another day. Developers are not in the social service industry. 

Tenants will likely lose out if SB-50 passes, since existing apartment buildings, constructed before 1978 and under rent control where it exists, and affordable homes in low-income neighborhoods, will likely be demolished, since new construction of multi-unit buildings is exempt from rent control under state law. (Wiener’s new bill did have some fig-leaf “protections” for existing buildings with tenants, with vague language calling for bureaucracies to be set up by cities, for said buildings to be identified. Take that to the bank, as my mother used to say.) 

At least San Francisco has some provisions for inclusionary zoning. As mayor, Jerry Brown opposed it, and, since Brown’s tenure, Oakland never discourages developers. If SB-50 passes, it couldn’t stop demolitions even if it wanted to. 

As many have pointed out, the housing crisis is basically job creation, job concentration, and income inequality problem. The tech boom in the Bay Area has dramatically distorted the economy. The problem is concentrated in the three tech-centric counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara, and SB-50 was rightly seen by Democratic legislators from outside these counties as a local “fix” imposed state-wide. For contrast, check out low-rise, laid-back downtown Bakersfield sometime. 

As a long-time North Oakland resident I’ve seen the dramatic changes first hand: modest bungalows bought up by flippers for as much as $800K, blown up for maximum square footage and number of bathrooms and bedrooms, often with an auxiliary “nanny” unit added on the same lot, and then resold in the neighborhood of $2 million. And counting. Often all cash offers, quick SOLD signs voiding the need for PENDING ones. 

Numerous market rate, 5 story rental unit projects are under construction in my “neighborhood shopping district” of Temescal, but Telegraph Ave. is jammed. BART, having perfected providing safe, clean, affordable mass transit, and acquisition of new train cars, has graduated to the developer business big-time, including the construction of a 24 story market rate condo project at the MacArthur BART station. All on land acquired by eminent domain in the 60s and early 70s. 


For starters, cities need to stop subsidizing tech industries. Yes, Twitter comes to mind. Subsidies, if there are any, should go to creating truly affordable housing, not just a few of the least desirable units with sunset provisions in otherwise market rate projects. 

Spread the tech blessings. Why obliterate the unique character of our cities, why we moved or stayed here in the first place, to accommodate more tech with high wage workers, when there are so many less expensive areas of the country with affordable housing and workers with skills that would welcome the opportunities? Amazon should reconsider places like Cincinnati that it passed over for the Bronx. 

A new Homestead Act, providing incentives for people to own a house in under-populated parts of the country. As Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, families owning their own house has been the classic American strategy of getting a financial foothold—the house just doesn’t have to be in Hillsborough. 

Wiener himself is an unlikely spokesperson for truly changing the status quo, and his sympathy for the needy seems faux. He opposed San Francisco’s Proposition C to address homelessness. As the Nov. 4, 2016 Truthout noted, he has opposed funding for homeless LGBT youth, and supported punishing homeless people by separating them from their belongings. 

In this dark period, with so much being lost or threatened under the warped presidency of Trump, Weiner’s relentless cheerleading and promotion of more market rate housing as a magic bullet to fix the manifest problem of the yawning divide between rich and poor is disheartening, and cruel to those who want to believe. The accompanying chorus of YIMBY chants of “more housing, any housing, everywhere” is acrid theater. 

There IS a crisis, but Wiener’s a Pied Piper. 

For more information: check out for an analysis of SB-50 and its impacts. One surprise for me: the AARP, exceedingly cautious when it comes to advocating for saving Medicare ands Social Security from unrelenting attacks, quietly endorsed SB-50. When their representatives refused to return phone calls, we dropped out of the organization. 


Robert Brokl is an artist/community activist. He and his husband, Alfred Crofts, were married in 2004 and 2008 in SF City Hall, and both were leaders in the successful effort to pass the Berkeley gay rights ordinance, before being approved in Oakland and then San Francisco, as depicted in the movie, Milk.