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A Green House Divided

Old-guard environmentalists believe a housing bill could induce disaster. A newer guard touts it as a savior. On the front lines of a generational civil war.


Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2018 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

“This is a bad bill, and bad bills get killed.”

Kathryn Phillips did not mince words when she visited the Sacramento office of San Francisco state senator Scott Wiener one day this winter. The director of Sierra Club California and a decades-long combatant in the state’s environmental battles, Phillips wanted Wiener to know that her group would vehemently oppose his Senate Bill 827, which both its supporters and its opponents believe could introduce the most radical changes to California’s land-use policy in a generation. “I gave him a warning,” she says later. There would be no suggested amendments from her organization. No negotiation. No compromise. “The thing we oppose is the heart of the bill.”

Wiener knew that the rejection from the state’s most august environmental group was coming. If passed, his bill [UPDATE*: SB 827 was killed by the Senate's Housing and Transportation Committee on the day that this story was published] would override cities’ ability to dictate what kind of housing gets built near mass transit hubs, including BART stations, Amtrak and light-rail terminals, and city bus stops. It would allow new buildings of four to eight stories in height to be erected nearby, regardless of previous zoning restrictions, and no matter what the neighbors think. (Once another state law factored in, those buildings could reach as high as 10 stories.) It is, essentially, an antidevelopment environmentalist’s worst nightmare, a legislative hatchet that severs local communities’ ability to fully control their own future.

But to Wiener and a critical mass of urban planners, smart-growth advocates, and YIMBY activists, it’s also an idea whose time has come. As the state’s housing crisis worsens, SB 827 tries to save two birds with one stone: It puts downward pressure on home prices by increasing the supply of new infill housing, while coaxing people out of their carbon-spewing cars and onto mass transit in order to help California reach its ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets. 

Phillips’s threat to sink the bill stung Wiener. “I am used to that reactionary NIMBYism from the local Sierra Club chapter,” he said in March, “but it was very disappointing to see the statewide [chapter] do that. It’s a really unnecessary disagreement.” Especially since, by the state Sierra Club’s own tally, Wiener is as green as they come. Last year, he voted with the recommendation of the group on every bill on its scorecard. “I share a lot of core beliefs and values with the Sierra Club,” Wiener said of the organization founded by John Muir in 1892. 

The wounded feelings go both ways. Wiener’s proposal, which Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called “the most important idea in American politics today,” has cleaved California’s environmental movement in two. On one side sits an older generation, forged in the small-is-beautiful battles of the ’60s and ’70s. On the other sits a younger group galvanized by fears over global warming and housing affordability. “There really is a generational shift happening,” says Matthew Lewis, a Berkeley-based environmental communications consultant who supports the bill. “The younger generations are freaked out about climate change and really do reject car culture. The environmental movement is being pushed into a change that was not anticipated [by older members].”

Howard Penn, the head of the state’s Planning and Conservation League, which had not taken a position on the bill as of press time, has worked in the field for decades, watching the rift grow a little more each year. “The environmental movement coming out of the ’60s and ’70s—its frame, its characters, the way it was built—is totally different from today,” he says. For environmentalists who came of age when “development” meant modernist megaprojects conquering the very earth, that mindset may be too deeply ingrained to ever change. “Think about what communities have had to deal with in the last 20, 30, 40 years,” Penn says. “Wouldn’t you want to say no first, too?” These are the environmentalists who still hold fast to the influential warning sounded by Martin Heidegger, who in the 1950s surveyed a world transformed by hydroelectric dams, coal mines, radar stations, and runways for jet airliners and warned of the danger of man delusionally “exalt[ing] himself to the posture of lord of the earth.”

SB 827, however, forces these environmentalists to say no to a different question concerning technology. To oppose the bill on environmental grounds is to reject the broadly accepted scientific conclusion that a primary cause of climate change is the car commutes of people who live far away from their jobs. “Climate change splits the movement,” says bill supporter Ethan Elkind, the director of the climate program at UC Berkeley School of Law, because “the most important way to address it, unless we deindustrialize, is to build things. The environmental movement was started to stop building things.”

Elkind poses the challenge to the Sierra Club as though it’s a parable: “What do you do when building something produces an environmental good?”

Kathryn Phillips’s and Brian Hanlon’s
respective offices sit on opposite ends of the K Street strip in Sacramento, a few blocks north of the state capitol. You can walk between the two buildings in less than 10 minutes, but the two lobbyists have never met in person, which is odd because—metaphorically, at least—they worship at the same church. Like all true believers, they both save the fiercest invocations of hellfire not for infidels, but for heretics.

The 35-year-old Hanlon is a granola-eating vegetarian Boy Scout who grew up rambling in the woods of Virginia and inhaling episodes of Captain Planet. He now bikes to work as a lobbyist and the president of California YIMBY, a pro-development advocacy group (the acronym, in case you missed it, stands for Yes in My Back Yard). The movement’s man in Sacramento harbors ambitions as big as the peaks in Yosemite, which he visits yearly. “SB 827 is a proposal commensurate with the scale of the crisis,” he says. “It’s going to force people to pick sides.”

Hanlon criticizes Phillips’s ideas as backward-facing NIMBYism that refuses to grapple with the realities of climate change. The Sierra Club, he says, “needs to make a decision. We are not going to hit our greenhouse gas targets if we do not start building a lot more housing near jobs and transit.”

Phillips, 62, graduated from UC Berkeley in 1978 and worked as a freelance science journalist for almost two decades, penning a book on endangered frogs and another on native plant gardening before going back to school for public policy at UCLA and working for the Environmental Defense Fund and the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. She took her current role at the Sierra Club in 2011.

Phillips dismisses the “so-called YIMBY movement” as a front group for developers and “young professionals,” grilling me on where Hanlon’s funding comes from and characterizing him as belonging to “a small universe of people who are fairly obnoxious. I see their tweets.” (Urban designer Jason King: “The @SierraClub’s opposition to SB 827 is a perfect example of the faux-progressivism rampant in California.”)

Hanlon drafted the germ of the proposal before turning it over to Wiener, which is not uncommon among advocacy organizations in Sacramento. As Hanlon wrote his draft, he checked in with environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California League of Conservation Voters, and NextGen America. His proposal drew on decades of scientific studies that show that dense, transit-oriented development lowers per capita carbon emissions. Building more downtown Berkeleys and fewer Rosevilles is not just a best practice of modern-day urbanism; it’s the holy grail of 21st-century environmentalism. “Everything is polishing brass on the Titanic if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

One of those studies, which Elkind coauthored, argues that without much more infill development—constructing new buildings within already dense urban areas, rather than on former farms or wildlands—the state would have difficulty reaching its greenhouse gas reduction targets. Using data from the California Air Resources Board, Elkind analyzed three housing scenarios between 2015 and 2030: the same amount of infill (48 percent of the state’s total housing construction), a medium-size increase (74 percent), and a significant increase (100 percent). As infill rose, carbon emissions declined. The middle scenario saved 0.89 million metric tons compared with the baseline, and the most aggressive one saved 1.79 million metric tons—equivalent to removing 378,108 passenger vehicles from our roads.

Elkind’s study is one of many. A separate 2015 report from the environmental think tank Energy Innovation makes a similar point: “Smart land use policy, in combination with technological advances in the energy sector, will be critical for the state to achieve its ambitious 2030 decarbonization target.” Dense infill development around mass transit could, it estimates, reduce our emissions by 61,000 metric tons a year by 2030—in addition to saving the average household $1,000 to $4,000 annually in gas for its cars.

A 2014 study by Christopher Jones, a scientist in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, found that Marin County’s household carbon-related emissions averaged 46.8 metric tons annually, the third-highest amount in the Bay Area, behind Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. Meanwhile, the average San Francisco household emitted 38.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Though it doesn’t feel intuitively true, the data points in one direction: You live more sustainably in the concrete jungles of San Francisco or Oakland than you do in bucolic Marin.

By this standard, Wiener lives a life as green as his voting record. He owns a condo in the Castro, one block from a Muni metro station. Four stories tall, it houses 39 units. It’s one of many similar buildings that went up across San Francisco from the 1930s through the ’60s. Before the postwar suburban shift, he points out, this was how people lived. Then, in two waves of downzoning, San Francisco voters—for what they thought to be progressive reasons—banned the construction of similarly sized new buildings. “We’re just trying to unban them,” Wiener says, “so that more people can have housing.”

For Wiener, Hanlon, and Elkind, as long as environmentalism means reducing the amount of carbon we produce, it means living in cities: crowded, hot, asphalt-filled cities. Despite decades-long fears of the population bomb, it matters much less how many people there are and much more where they are dispersed. You might not feel as connected to the land as you would living in the middle of nowhere, but per person, you’re a lot gentler on the planet.

“I don’t want
us painted as not understanding what the problem is,” Phillips says, sitting in the beige conference room at Sierra Club California’s second-story office. “We know there’s a housing problem. We want infill development.” It’s just that Wiener’s bill, in her view, takes a chain saw to a problem that requires a pruner.

The Sierra Club, like an ancient tree, has grown tangled branches. There’s the national organization, which has its headquarters in Oakland, as well as 13 local chapters across the state, including one in the Bay Area. Then there’s the state organization, which Phillips runs. “We don’t do any of the fun stuff. We don’t hike or camp—we don’t have parties,” she says. “What we do is worry about the state legislature and regulatory agencies.” 

Hers is a tricky job, because it requires balancing the policies set by the national organization with the views of volunteers—and donors—in the local groups. Just making a recommendation on the year’s legislation takes weeks of work by Phillips and her analysts, an effort that culminates in a marathon all-day Saturday meeting with a volunteer committee of locals who give a thumbs-up or -down to her recommendations. “It’s a deliberative process,” she says, which is Sacramento code for slooooooooow.

Unlike Hanlon, who believes the single most meaningful green issue is climate change, Phillips—who drives three miles to work from a single-family house in an outlying Sacramento neighborhood—takes an expansive view. “You find us taking all sorts of positions on what normally wouldn’t be thought of as conventional environmental issues,” she explains, because “social justice is part of the way you get to environmental justice.” The state Sierra Club weighs in on climate change, to be sure, as well as other green issues like open space and wildlife pre­servation, hiking trails, and coastline access and views, but also on affordable housing programs, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, rights for farmworkers, healthcare reform, rent control, and voting law.

In part, the organization takes on those problems because its local members want it to. Some of those same members tipped Phillips off about Wiener after his hard-won 2016 state senate campaign against their favored candidate, Supervisor Jane Kim, who’s now running for mayor of San Francisco and leading rallies in opposition to Wiener’s bill in the less dense neighborhoods on the city’s west side. “They did not endorse him. He doesn’t like them; they don’t like him,” Phillips says of the Sierra Club’s Bay Area chapter. “I was warned when he came up here that he was anti-CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] and pro-development.”

She didn’t pay him much attention at first: “I’ve got 10,000 other issues,” she says. But when Wiener introduced SB 35 last year—his successful attempt to speed approvals for housing—Phillips, sensing trouble, assigned a legislative analyst to focus on housing issues. Sierra Club California opposed SB 35 but—out of respect for other environmental groups that supported it—didn’t lobby hard against it. That’s in keeping with a long-standing Sacramento tradition in which the state’s environmental groups try, at least in public, to present a unified front.

This year, the dam broke. The state Sierra Club went one way, while the Natural Resources Defense Council, Climate Resolve, and Environment California went the other. Phillips advances two arguments against SB 827: that it would fuel displacement, and that neighbors opposed to upzoning would seize upon it as an excuse to block mass transit projects. The second concern Wiener dismisses as “silly.” (In a Medium post, he wrote that it would give people who oppose new transit infrastructure 11 unreasonable arguments to make where once they had 10.)

But the first criticism he takes seriously, and he penned amendments to the bill that would provide a “right to remain” to those displaced by new construction and require that any axed subsidized housing be replaced. Plus, communities without affordability ordinances would have to reserve a variable slice of new construction for low- or moderate-income residents. He still disagrees with Phillips’s premise, though. “Building new housing is not what causes displacement,” Wiener says. “It’s the failure to build enough that does.”

Although Phillips says she supports infill development around mass transit, it’s hard for her to locate an actual place in California where she supports new buildings. This is also true of the Bay Area chapter, which in recent years has opposed the 8 Washington condo tower near the Embarcadero, the redevelopment of Treasure Island and the Hunters Point Shipyard, the expansion of Park Merced, and the new Golden State Warriors stadium. Recently, the chapter opposed a 66-unit development in the Western Addition because it would replace an auto repair shop it deemed historic.

With regard to upzoning near transit, Phillips rules out Sacramento, where some neighborhoods, she thinks, would use upzoning as an excuse to block new transit, concealing what she calls “racist” reasons under a civilized veneer. Nor does she think it’s appropriate in more outlying areas like Folsom, where a transit stop under the bill would lead to an upzoning too near wilderness areas. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea in San Diego, where taller buildings would block views of the ocean, nor does she support it in major cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, where “people who live in rent-controlled buildings worry about bigger and bigger buildings coming toward them.”

As she finishes enumerating those exceptions, she adds, echoing the national organization’s policy line, that “we see the value of infill higher-density development around transit.”

It’s a contorted position, and not incredibly convincing. For that reason, Wiener and his allies have been joyously teeing off against the Sierra Club as the irrational public face of the opposition. Using aging, raging landholders as the new symbols of climate change denialism is much more palatable than attacking other groups that have come out against SB 827, including social justice organizations representing minority communities as well as the city governments of Los Angeles and San Francisco, both of which voted to oppose the bill.

In response to some of those concerns, in early April another round of amendments was made to the bill: It was narrowed to override local control only near the busiest transit stops, the height limit on new projects was lowered to three to five stories, and the requirements wouldn’t go into effect until 2021. Although the Sierra Club’s state chapter was still reviewing the amendments at press time, Phillips says she does not anticipate the group’s stance changing. 

Phillips had expected to play the inside game against SB 827 this year, releasing her opposition letter early so that state legislators who had qualms about the bill would have enough time to negotiate a compromise (or, better yet, kill it in committee). That’s what she tried to do with SB 35 last year. “We’re just working the system the way that we normally do,” she says.

Right after she released her letter, though, Wiener went public, tweeting a link to an article by Elkind blasting the California Sierra Club and saying, “In bizarre anti-environmental move, Sierra Club opposes #SB827, my bill allowing more infill housing near transit. Allowing ppl to live near transit is among most impactful moves we can make to reduce carbon emissions.” Wiener made that point again in a March front-page article in the New York Times about the state Sierra Club’s opposition, saying that the group was “advocating for low-density sprawl.”

Wiener is also tapping into a debate that’s happening within the Sierra Club itself. In August, the Sierra Club’s magazine, published by the national office, ran an article by its managing editor that praised YIMBYs and asked, “How do you convert a NIMBY into a YIMBY?” This created bad press for Phillips, and many of the people I interviewed for this story asked me to ask her about the article, which she has never spoken about in public.

Does she agree, I ask, with the story’s conclusion that there is “a clear correlation between urban density and reduced carbon emissions”?

“I don’t think I would disagree with it,” she says. “I guess what I think is disturbing is the tone of the conversation. It just becomes an attack.”

She adds, “There’s tons of development that goes on in the state that environmentalists don’t oppose.”

Wiener’s bill has
a long way to go before it becomes the law of the land. Two state senate committees—Housing and Transportation and Government and Finance—must vote on it (neither vote had taken place by press time). And if it makes it out of both committees, then through the senate and the assembly, the bill needs to pass the muster of Governor Jerry Brown, who has remained silent so far.

But to get a sense of what SB 827 could do to the Bay Area’s landscape, it’s useful to jump on BART going any direction out of San Francisco. Let’s say the yellow line to Pittsburg/Bay Point. As you look out the windows at West Oakland and MacArthur, take a picture in your mind: The clusters of midrange buildings that pop up around those stations are what it would look like someday in currently low-lying Rockridge, which would rise gradually over the years. As the train passes to the other side of the Berkeley-Oakland hills, the transformation becomes more radical. In Orinda and Lafayette, five-story apartment buildings would mix with existing one- or two-story single-family houses, similar to what’s transpired over the years in Walnut Creek, with its blend of taller buildings and cottages. Imagine the people who live in those buildings streaming to work on the train: We’d need a lot more BART cars, that’s for certain. Past there, cities like Pittsburg and Bay Point might grow less rapidly than they have historically—maybe even contract a little, as people moved closer to the urban centers.

All of this change could alter the communities along the yellow BART line radically, Wiener acknowledges. For those in inner–Contra Costa cities like Lafayette or Pleasant Hill, it would mean sacrificing some of the semirural, city-in-a-garden feel that they moved there in search of. But increasing housing supply, he believes, would mean that their children would someday get to live there too. “We built an enormous swath of the country around driving,” he says. “When you make it impossible for other people to live near you, especially if you live near public transportation, that’s not environmental.”

“I would never tell people where they have to live,” he concludes. “But for the many of us who want to live in an urban setting near transit, we should have the right to make that choice.”


*UPDATE: The story has been amended to include the results of the first Senate committee hearing on SB827, in which legislators voted to kill the bill. Wiener has vowed to bring a revised version of the bill up for vote in a future session.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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