Category Archives: high density
How The Wealthy Use Zoning To Keep Their Families Rich

Richard Reeves, a U.K. native, takes Americans to task in a New York Times op-ed for pretending that we’re not a classless society.  He points out how the wealthy use local housing policies to protect their wealth, advantage their children, and prevent the lower classes from accessing educational and job opportunities:

Things turn ugly, however, when the upper middle class starts to rig markets in its own favor, to the detriment of others. Take housing, perhaps the most significant example. Exclusionary zoning practices allow the upper middle class to live in enclaves. Gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible. Since schools typically draw from their surrounding area, the physical separation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom. Good schools make the area more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses. The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes. For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000).

Considering that zoning was essentially invented as a tool for racial exclusion and white supremacy back in the 1920s, Reeves’ argument is pretty damning. As America’s income inequality worsens, local housing policies that prevent new multifamily developments only exacerbate the problem, from a moral, economic and environmental standpoint.

Google Goes Infill, While Apple Goes Full Donut Sprawl

Perhaps a metaphor for their approach to innovation, Apple is fully embracing the sprawl office model of the past, while Google embraces the future with talks to build a downtown San Jose campus near rail.

Apple’s soon-to-open donut office.

The Apple “donut” campus (photo right), set to open soon in Cupertino, is a giant parking lot with an office building on top, no matter how many solar panels and EV charging stations the company boasts about adding.  It was Steve Jobs’ last vanity project, and at heart it’s firmly of the decade he was born — the auto-oriented suburban office campus of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Google looks to be following other advanced tech companies, like Amazon, LinkedIn, and Salesforce, by exploring options for a high-rise, infill mixed-use office right next to the future high speed rail stop and current Amtrak and Caltrain depot in downtown San Jose.

Silicon Valley is an an absolute housing and traffic crunch, due to those cities’ willingness to permit office sprawl but no accompanying housing.  The choice by Apple will only reinforce that failed dynamic, while Google’s efforts show that the worker of tomorrow does not want to repeat the insanity.

How To Persuade NIMBYs
One of the frustrating aspects of arguing with those who oppose new housing in their neighborhood is the typical dodge-and-weave around Econ 101 issues.  As any first-year econ student will tell you, more supply of housing will lower prices.  But many NIMBYs instead argue that more housing just drives up prices by gentrifying neighborhoods, when the exact opposite is true.
Noah Smith describes these typical arguments made by housing opponents and offers these suggestions on how to respond to them:
1. Econ 101 supply-and-demand theory is helpful in discussing these issues, but don’t rely on it exclusively. Instead, use a mix of data, simple theory, thought experiments, and references to more complex theories.
2. Always remind people that the price of an apartment is not fixed, and doesn’t come built into its walls and floors.
3. Remind NIMBYs to think about the effect of new housing on whole regions, states, and the country itself, instead of just on one city or one neighborhood. If NIMBYs say they only care about one city or neighborhood, ask them why.
4. Ask NIMBYs what they think would be the result of destroying rich people’s current residences.

5. Acknowledge that induced demand is a real thing, and think seriously about how new housing supply within a city changes the location decisions of people not currently living in that city.

6. NIMBYs care about the character of a city, so it’s good to be able to paint a positive, enticing picture of what a city would look and feel like with more development.

For a less politic take on how to advocate for housing, Seattle’s (aptly named) Dan Savage pulls no punches when it comes to what it will take to improve housing and rapid transit in our urban centers:
Housing scarcity—exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of this city zoned for single-family housing—deserves as much blame for the displacement crisis as gentrification. More. And unlike gentrification (“a once in a lifetime tectonic shift in consumer preferences”), scarcity and single-family zoning are two things we can actually do something about. Rezone huge swaths of the city. Build more units of affordable housing, borrow the social housing model discussed in the Rick Jacobus’ piece I quote from above (“Why We Must Build“), do away with parking requirements, and—yes—let developers develop. (This is the point where someone jumps into comments to point out that I live in a big house on Capitol Hill. It’s true! And my house is worth a lot of money—a lot more than what we paid for it a dozen years ago. But the value of my house is tied to its scarcity. Want to cut the value of my property in half? Great! Join me in calling for a radical rezone of all of Capitol Hill—every single block—for multi-family housing, apartment blocks and towers. That’ll show me!)

Both pieces are worth reading in full, especially for those concerned about the lack of new housing supply in our job- and transit-rich urban centers.

LA Metro Will Slowly Re-evaluate Its Entire Bus System In Light Of Declining Ridership

Falling transit ridership is a nationwide problem, but it’s particularly a setback in Los Angeles, which is investing like crazy in transit due to two recently passed transportation sales tax measures.  Laura Nelson covered the recent ridership decline in the Los Angeles Times and what L.A. Metro plans to do about:

Metro bus ridership fell 18% in April compared with April 2015. The number of trips taken on Metro buses annually fell by more than 59 million, or 16%, between 2013 and 2016.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 former riders underscores the challenge Metro faces. Many passengers said buses didn’t go where they were going — or, if they did, the bus didn’t come often enough, or stopped running too early, or the trip required multiple transfers. Of those surveyed, 79% now primarily drive alone.

In an attempt to stem the declines, Metro is embarking on a study to “re-imagine” the system’s 170 lines and 15,000 stops, officials said. Researchers will consider how to better serve current riders and how to attract new customers, and will examine factors including demographics, travel patterns and employment centers.

Meanwhile, as Metro explains in its outlet The Source:

Metro has not embarked on such a systemwide effort since the 1990s so it is timely given the significant expansion of the Metro Rail system this century, growth of municipal operator services and the popularity of other transportation options (i.e. ride hailing services such as Lyft and Uber).

As I blogged earlier, it was easy to dismiss prior reports of falling ridership, but now is definitely a good time to take it seriously.

But Metro won’t exactly be hurrying to get to the bottom of this.  The bus system review isn’t planned to be completed until April 2019, which will then require public hearings later that year.  So any actual changes won’t go into effect until December 2019 — at the earliest.

Two years seems like a really long time to study this issue, although Los Angeles does have an enormous system.  Still, a little urgency could be in order.  And in the meantime, the agency could focus on one immediate step that is guaranteed to boost ridership: require local governments with major transit stations to relax restrictions on adjacent development.

And Metro could start with the recalcitrant neighborhoods around the new Expo Line.

Otherwise, we’ll have to wait a while on any results from the bus study.

Expo Line Station Neighborhoods Have Weak Plans For Development

New apartments by the downtown Santa Monica station, which ain’t happening hear other stations along the Expo Line.

The Expo Line from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Santa Monica travels a highly congested corridor in the job-rich but housing-poor Westside of L.A.  While the multibillion rail line has been successful so far in exceeding ridership projections, it could still fail to live up to its full potential unless the station neighborhoods allow more compact, rail-oriented development to generate enough riders for the line and minimize the taxpayer costs.  Not to mention this part of town badly needs housing in areas that don’t require car commuting.

So it was a big deal last month when the City of Los Angeles released the draft Exposition Corridor Transit Neighborhood Plan, which governs the land use for the neighborhoods around the line within the City of Los Angeles.

Steven Sharp over at Urbanize LA took a deep dive into document.  His verdict?  The plans are tepid at best with no strong vision for the kind of density required to make good use of the multi-billion rail line:

While a small but significant step towards a more transit-oriented future for communities surrounding the Expo Line, the Expo TNP [transit neighborhood plan] falls short in terms of scale and scope when compared to planning around rail lines in other major cities.

On the opposite side of the country, Washington Metro stations are surrounded by dozens of walkable town centers in southern Maryland and northern Virginia.  Other existing commercial hubs, such as Tyson’s Corner, are being gradually retrofitted for pedestrians following the introduction of passenger rail service.

In contrast, the proposed Expo TNP walks a fine line between maintaining the status quo and creating the transit-oriented communities implied by the project’s name.  The station subareas which would be rezoned for higher density development represent less than 13 percent of the total land area encompassed by the Expo TNP, as the vast majority of properties are excluded from land use changes on account of their R1 and R2 zoning.

The properties that would be upzoned under the plan are almost exclusively commercial and industrial sites, where current occupants are less likely to oppose new construction.  Although a change in land use may be appropriate for these properties due to the arrival of the Expo Line, the fact that wealthier residential blocks nearby were left untouched speaks to the continued political clout of Los Angeles’ homeowners.  This is perhaps best highlighted by the Westwood/Rancho Park Station, which is surrounded on all sides by million-dollar houses, and was more-or-less ignored by the Expo TNP.

All of which makes me want to renew my call to shut down or otherwise reduce service to under-performing stations along the line. If the locals are not going to allow appropriate development in these choice areas, then these stations shouldn’t slow riders traveling from the dense downtowns on either end.

Where To Build Housing In California Through 2030: Join Berkeley Law’s Webinar On May 17th

California isn’t building enough housing to meet jobs and population growth, and what housing is getting built is happening too much in sprawl areas on greenfields.  While this greenfield-focused development may please pro-sprawl conservatives, it will worsen traffic and air pollution and keep the state from meeting its long-term environmental goals.

To discuss where and what type of housing the state should be encouraging, please join me for an upcoming Berkeley Law webinar on May 17th from 11am to noon. We’ll be discussing the recent report from UC Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) and the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, commissioned by Next 10.

Right Type, Right Place is the first academic, comprehensive evaluation of the potential economic and environmental impacts of infill housing development — compact housing in already urbanized land near transit, jobs and services — on California’s 2030 climate goals under Senate Bill 32 (Pavley).

In addition to me, the webinar will feature:

  • Nat Decker, researcher at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation
  • Colleen Kredell, Director of Research, Next 10

Registration is now open.  Please tune in and send us your questions!

How Bad Is San Diego’s Regional Transportation Plan? Report From California Supreme Court Argument Today

The California Supreme Court heard argument today in a case that has big implications for regional transportation planning in California’s cities (Cleveland National Forest Foundation et al. v. San Diego Association of Governments et al. [People, Intervener and Appellant], S223603).  Those transportation investments in turn have big effects on where housing can go.

The case involves San Diego’s horrible regional transportation plan, developed back in 2011 by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).  The plan happened to be the first in the state to have to comply with SB 375, a law linking transportation investments with land use policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  But while the plan reduced short-term greenhouse gas emissions, it projected them to rise out through 2050.  Since SB 375 only required reductions through 2035, SANDAG thought it could get away with slacking in later years, contrary to state policy on long-term (2050) climate goals.

Environmental groups, along with the California Attorney General’s Office, sued SANDAG under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), arguing that San Diego’s agency inadequately considered the plan’s effects on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  SANDAG lost in the trial court and then in the appellate court.

Despite the losses in the lower courts and the “bad facts” for SANDAG, some of the justices today were surprisingly skeptical of the argument that the CEQA environmental review documentation was done poorly.  Justice Goodwin Liu in particular seemed to indicate that he thought the environmental review was up front about the inability of the plan to meet the 2050 goals and that it may have done sufficient work disclosing to the public that impact.

But Janill Richards, arguing for the Attorney General’s office, did a nice job explaining that the document is not just about SANDAG being able to shrug off a bad impact but requiring reasonable (feasible) mitigation, such as alternative fuel charging and local climate action plans.

The other justices were silent, except for Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who also asked a lot of questions along the lines of Justice Liu.

Given the silence of the other justices and the “bad facts” for SANDAG in this case, I’d still guess that the Supreme Court will affirm the lower courts’ decision and require SANDAG and other agencies to do a better job evaluating impacts out to 2050 in their CEQA documentation.

But it may be a closer decision than I expected, given some of the concerns expressed about burdening agencies with too much oversight from the courts on these long-term issues.

LA Parking Policy Reform Conference — May 16th At City Hall

If there’s one local land use policy most to blame for constricting transit-oriented development, killing the walkability of neighborhoods, adding to traffic, and encouraging sprawl, it’s excessive parking requirements.

How so? High parking requirements add tremendous costs to new developments, which get passed on to renters and home buyers. The extra parking stalls simultaneously limit how big a building most developers can build, which limits the number of units and therefore the available supply to stabilize prices.

High parking requirements also encourage driving, which hurts walkability and adds to the traffic. And they represent a waste of space, dedicating more land to asphalt than houses, stores, and offices, which encourages more development out in sprawl zones.

So why do local governments require so much of it? Simply put: ignorance and fear. Ignorance of how much parking is actually needed (most parking requirements come from boilerplate planning texts with no relationship to actual demand), and fear that there won’t be enough parking if government doesn’t require it.

My dislike for parking requirements is why I’m happy to help promote an upcoming conference at Los Angeles City Hall on parking policy reform options, on Tuesday May 16th. The event is being organized by the nonprofit Council of Infill Builders and Los Angeles City Councilmember Jose Huizar.

Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the L.A. Department of Transportation, will provide the keynote, and a panel of experts will discuss parking reform options for the various cities and county of Los Angeles.  Finally, the event will feature the release of the new report “Wasted Spaces” from the Council of Infill Builders with policy recommendations for L.A.

You can see the conference agenda for more details.  Register to attend soon, as space is limited in the room atop City Hall.

Your Friendly Reminder That Californians Pay Way More Than Everyone Else For Housing

A recent compilation of housing data shows that of America’s 27 biggest cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles rank #1 and 2 respectively in the ratio of median housing cost to median income. This is worse than traditionally expensive cities like New York City and Honolulu.

In these two California cities, you need 14.1 and 12.3 times the median income to buy a house. The best ratio is in “rust belt” places like Detroit and Cleveland, with not bad ratios in the sun belt cities of Houston and Dallas.

Sure, Californians get a lot for the high price: access to good jobs, incredible weather, beautiful scenery, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lots to do. But life doesn’t have to be that difficult for people here if the state would allow more housing to be built in infill urban areas to help stabilize prices.

Here’s a handy chart that investmentzen.com put together documenting the ratios:

This Map Ranks The Affordability Of Houses In Major U.S. Cities (Relative To Income)

Via: InvestmentZen.com

Understanding NIMBYs

nimbyNIMBYs are at the heart of California’s biggest economic and environmental problems: high housing costs, sprawl, and air pollution. These not-in-my-backyard residents have too-often successfully sued, lobbied, and cajoled their local governments to kill new housing, pushing home prices and rents through the roof and any new development out into sprawl areas far from jobs.

Adding insult to injury for those struggling with high housing costs, many of these NIMBYs were fortunate enough to buy homes in the state back in the 1970s when housing was plentiful and cheap and property taxes were low (and still are for them, thanks to Prop 13).

So if reaching these NIMBYs (or at least out-organizing them) is the key to solving the housing and environmental problems, how should we understand their motivations?  To this end, Richard Florida in City Lab recently examined a white paper by Paavo Monkkonen that explores what motivates NIMBYism.  Florida summarized the four main factors in the report:

  • Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.

  • Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.

  • Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.

  • Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.

To counter NIMBY effects, Monkkonen recommends more inclusive and regionalized planning, improved enforcement of existing land use laws, and better framing of local planning decisions through more data, in order to assuage local concerns.

From my experience observing NIMBY behavior around proposed housing and new development in cities and towns, these categories make sense.  But I think they can be broadened and simplified to three main ones:

1) NIMBYs with practical concerns about new development, like concern over parking and service constraints, described above.  These individuals are the easiest to work with because their concerns are often valid and can be addressed with smart public policies, like removing parking requirements to discourage automobile ownership among new residents, or appropriate fees to fund services and infrastructure investments.

2) NIMBYs who hate density.  These are individuals who genuinely believe that even something like a three-story building is essentially a skyscraper, and that skyscrapers are ugly, terrible, and confine people to rabbit-hutch like existences.  I categorize these types as essentially anti-urban.  There’s not a whole lot that can be done to alleviate their fears, absent showing them photos of elegant density and exposing them to the genuine joys of urban living, with its convenience, vibrance, and exposure to cultural activities that city living can bring.

3) Racists and bigots.  These are individuals, usually in well-off neighborhoods, who fear that new development will bring in racial or ethnic minorities or low-income people who are not “worthy” of the benefits of an affluent neighborhood.  There is not much that can be done to reach these individuals, in my experience.

What does this categorization mean for housing advocates?  Well, the best option is to try to split Group #1 off from the NIMBY mass, through dialogue and openness to mitigation measures.  Or alternatively, they can simply try to out-organize all three NIMBY groups, by pulling together coalitions of young people, renters, labor unions, and some smart growth advocates, for example.

That out-organizing process has been happening in Los Angeles, with the defeat of Measure S.  If it continues, even members of Group #1 may find themselves left out of the process.  That may not be a bad thing, if they demand excessive mitigation measures.  But in the short term, they represent the most reachable NIMBY group.

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