For Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, the magnitude of the state's housing crisis hit close to home last week, when he walked out of a CVS Pharmacy in downtown Palo Alto and nearly walked into a homeless person using a plastic bag as a toilet.
Berman, who served on the City Council between 2012 and 2016, returned to City Hall on Monday to update the current council about the state's efforts to address the housing shortage, the pension crisis and the devastating wildfires that continue to ravage large swaths of the state.
Berman's own housing bill, which would have required community colleges to make their parking lots available to homeless students, was not one of the 18 bills to get through the Legislature and get signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Responding to amendments that Berman argued significantly weakened the bill, Assembly Bill 302, Berman agreed to put the legislation on hold and make it a "two-year bill."
The last legislative session has been a busy one on the housing front, with Newsom signing 18 bills earlier this month. This includes Senate Bill 330, which was authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and which restricts the ability of cities to reject housing proposals that meet "objective zoning standards" or to require these projects to reduce the number of units. The list also includes Assembly Bill 1482, a bill from Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco that caps rent increases and provides eviction protections for tenants.
Berman said he expects to see many housing bills in the next legislative session. In the prior session, the Legislature focused on protecting existing tenants, he told the Weekly. Now, lawmakers need to move ahead on legislation that expands housing supply, he said
"There's a lot more we need to do as a state, a region and a city to address the homelessness and housing crisis we have," Berman said.
Among the most contentious bills still on the table is Sen. Scott Wiener's SB 50, which would require cities to allow four- to five-story apartment buildings to be built in areas close to transit, including in areas currently zoned for single-family residences. Berman, who voted in favor of Skinner's and Chiu's bills, told the Weekly that he hasn't taken a stance on the Wiener bill, which remains subject to further negotiations and amendments.
• Listen to a podcast by CalMatters of a debate between San Francisco’s Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener and Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch about the state's housing affordability crisis.
To date, council members have largely opposed SB 50, framing it as an attack on local control (Vice Mayor Adrian Fine is the only council member who has publicly supported the legislation). Councilwoman Lydia Kou, who has consistently spoken out against SB 50, noted that most of the housing bills recently passed in Sacramento are unfunded, making it difficult for cities to properly analyze and implement them.
Berman noted that while funding often isn't included in these bills, the state budget does include about $2.75 billion in grant funding for housing programs and homeless services.
Council members also asked Berman for an update on state efforts to fund early childhood education, address transportation challenges and defend the state against wildfires. Councilman Greg Tanaka urged Berman to try to obtain more funding for "grade separation" at rail crossings — a project that the city has been studying for years. Given that Palo Alto has the second-busiest Caltrain station on the corridor, the benefits of improving local intersections extend well beyond Palo Alto, Tanaka argued.
"The payback is not just for Palo Alto, but everyone in region — everyone who has to come to Palo Alto to work. It makes it more feasible for people to live farther from jobs," Tanaka said.
While Berman said he will continue to fight for grant funding for grade separation (a realignment of the rail corridor so that train tracks would not intersect with local roads), he was less assertive when Fine asked him about the prospect of allowing cities to charge tolls on major streets. Fine pointed to East Palo Alto, which has floated the idea of turning University Avenue into a tolled road.
"It's definitely an interesting concept and something that could help communities like East Palo Alto and Palo Alto where you have certain corridors that are just jammed," Berman responded.
Berman also supported Palo Alto's recent adoption of a "carbon neutral" electric portfolio. This, he argued, makes Palo Alto "the perfect kind of test bed" for phasing out natural gas in new construction — an idea that the council will consider on Nov. 4.
At the same time, Berman echoed Newsom in criticizing the existing electric utilities, which he blamed in large part on the wildfires that are continuing to devastate large swaths of California.
"It seems like half our state is on fire right now," Berman said. "The current structure of our utility system is not meeting the needs of our 40 million residents. The fact is that decades of neglect and greed that have permeated through these companies have led to a situation where their current utility infrastructure isn't able to withstand the increased and heightened weather events that we now find ourselves having because of climate change."