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:
NIMBYs 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.
California’s housing shortage has been well documented. But the obvious solutions to the problem — like eliminating local land use restrictions on new growth — have been stymied in part by infighting among the housing advocate community.
The split involves affordable housing advocates and those who want more market-rate development. Here’s the basic summary of their positions, as I see them:
- Market-rate housing advocates typically want barriers to all new housing removed as quickly as possible. They usually support policies to subsidize affordable housing for low-income residents but mainly want to see housing of all types built as fast and cheaply as possible.
- Affordable housing advocates want more subsidies for affordable housing and more affordable units required of market-rate projects. In that aspect, they often align with market-rate developer advocates. But they are also protective of low-income neighborhoods from gentrification, which they primarily blame on new market-rate developments in these neighborhoods, and so will often oppose market-rate projects in low-income areas. They also use existing land use restrictions on market-rate development as leverage to extract more affordable housing units or dollars. As a result, many of these advocates tend to want to keep the status quo (at least for market-rate development restrictions) and limit new development to prevent gentrification.
This split was perhaps most prominent back in 2011, when a bill to reduce excessive local parking requirements statewide on new housing near transit was opposed by affordable housing advocates. Why? Many of these advocates use high parking requirements as leverage to extract more affordable units. Using the state’s “density bonus” law, they can trade reductions in parking requirements for more affordable units.
The split also appears when it comes to raising dollars for affordable housing production. Affordable advocates will attempt to extract the most fees and affordable units they can from market-rate development, which in turn makes market-rate development harder to build.
But there’s a solution to this problem that leaders on both side could support: a separately funded, statewide source of permanent dollars for affordable housing. A separate source of funding would go a long way to eliminating the incentive for affordables to oppose or weaken market-rate development.
Such a plan has been proposed in the legislature, such as SB 2 (Atkins), which would impose a $75 fee on recorded real estate documents to fund affordable housing. But its future is murky, absent more broad-based support.
To be sure, such a fund wouldn’t solve the concerns that affordable housing advocates have about gentrification caused by specific market-rate projects, and it may not reduce their resistance to alleviating local land use restrictions when those restrictions could lead to more affordable units. But at least they would no longer have an incentive to extract higher fees from market-rate development, and a bigger pot of money for affordable units across the board may reduce their desperation to claw every bit they can from new projects.
In the long run, California will not be able to subsidize its way out of the affordable housing crisis. It would require billions of dollars we don’t have. And in fact, most low-income residents don’t live in subsidized housing but rather in the market-rate housing of yesteryear, which has now come down in price with age. So the more we fail to build market-rate housing today, the more we limit affordable units for future generations.
It’s not an easy fight to solve, but a permanent source of dollars for affordable units is not only the right thing to do on its own merits, it could ease our housing debates going forward.
Pretty much everything boils down to land use, at one level or another. Certainly housing and office development is traditionally within that sphere, but so is energy development, when we think about siting new transmission lines or solar farms. Even electric vehicles involve permitting and siting public charging infrastructure.
Tonight on City Visions, KALW 91.7 FM, I’ll talk with Ken Alex, Governor Brown’s senior adviser and director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), which helps the state set land use policy. We’ll talk transportation, housing policies, water, and climate change. And beyond local government matters, Ken also helps the state with its international climate efforts like the Under 2 MOU.
Tune in or stream at 7pm tonight, and please send in your questions or comments for Ken to address on the air.
UPDATE: audio available here.
With the release of the new report Right Type, Right Place, Capitol Weekly ran an op-ed from me and co-authors Carol Galante and Noel Perry this week, summarizing some of the benefits of an infill “target” scenario for new housing in California:
The target scenario provides more housing that meets market demand for compact, walkable neighborhoods. While rents and home prices would be slightly higher in these neighborhoods on average, monthly household savings on commuting and other travel expenses, along with monthly savings on utilities, would more than make up the difference.
And infill has other advantages for our society. Switching from business as usual to the target scenario would save California 1.79 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. That’s like taking 378,000 cars off the road; it would help us meet our climate change and air pollution goals. At the same time, our economy would fare better under the target scenario. Annual growth would be $800 million higher than under the business-as-usual scenario.
One benefit worth discussing but not captured in these economic and environmental metrics is quality of life. How do you put a dollar value on someone now having access to a decent home near high-quality jobs and in good neighborhoods? To being able to spend more time with family and friends and less in exhausting and expensive commutes?
Ultimately, infill is more than just about numbers. It’s about access to a better life for everyone, and the cleaner environment that goes with it.
California isn’t building enough housing to meet population growth, while the new housing that does get built is happening too often in the wrong places, like on open space far from jobs. Meanwhile, new climate legislation for 2030 will likely rely on the average Californian reducing his or her driving miles by allowing residents to live closer to jobs and services.
So how do we reconcile these two trends?
Certain leaders in the building industry — primarily sprawl developers — have cried gloom and doom, claiming that the state’s climate goals will drive up costs for everyone and result in less housing getting built.
But a new report releasing today 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, found the opposite result.
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). We examined three scenarios: business-as-usual housing development, a “target” infill scenario with more multifamily and attached housing in close-in neighborhoods near rail transit, and a mixed scenario in between the two.
While the business-as-usual scenario results in more car-dependent housing farther away from jobs and schools, the infill target scenario meets the same demand, spurring economic growth with a much smaller carbon footprint. Target scenario benefits include:
- Annual economic growth that’s over $800 million higher than business-as-usual
- Annual reductions of 1.79 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the business-as-usual scenario, which is the equivalent of taking 378,000 cars off the road and almost 15 percent of the emissions reductions needed to reach the state’s Senate Bill 375 (Steinberg, 2008) targets from statewide land use changes
- Lower overall monthly costs for average households
Meanwhile, residents — both new and existing — would see significant quality-of-life benefits in the target scenario. More housing would be available close to good jobs, meaning shorter commutes in better neighborhoods, while existing residents would see more retail and services coming to their neighborhoods to accompany the new residential growth, further reducing overall driving miles.
But this development won’t happen on its own. It’s not because of market forces though. Most people would like a walkable neighborhood close to more amenities, and many households (particularly without children) simply don’t need a big suburban house, with all the upkeep and costs.
But local governments simply don’t allow this kind of housing to get built, and the state has been lax on trying to force their hands and address the housing shortage and traffic problems. Meanwhile, in under-performing markets near transit, the state has not provided local governments with the needed financing tools to jumpstart private investment.
As California lawmakers consider over 130 bills this year to address the state’s housing crisis, the report provides several recommendations for policymakers to consider, such as reducing barriers and increasing incentives for regions that generate infill housing, creating anti-displacement policies to protect affordable housing, and directing more funds towards public transit and affordable housing.
You can access the report via CLEE’s website or Next 10. So far, the report has gotten media coverage from sources such as the Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, and Sacramento Business Journal. I also co-authored an op-ed on the report in today’s Capitol Weekly, along with Next 10’s Noel Perry and Terner Center’s Carol Galante, which summarizes the findings.
Hopefully the report will inform housing debates going forward, resulting in a California that builds enough housing to meet environmental goals while benefiting the economy at the same time.
Measure M is one of the most promising ballot measures to pass in Los Angeles County in recent years. It offers $120 billion in long-term sales tax revenue to fund transportation projects — the kind of money that can help transform mobility in the region.
But the money brings perils, too, which I describe in a Los Angeles Times op-ed today:
If history is any guide, L.A. transit leaders have a habit of prioritizing politically expedient projects over ones that would benefit more riders. Faced with NIMBY opposition, our leaders too often cave.
Just look at the Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica, a route that remains hampered by slow travel times after transit leaders failed to give the train priority over automobiles along city streets. Additionally, failure to push through with adequate development projects along the route denied this expensive rail technology an easy ridership boost.
Will transportation leaders similarly compromise away good Measure M projects until they go bad?
To answer this question, it’s important to understand what a “good” project entails. Cost-effectiveness — using the fewest dollars to move the most people the greatest distance — is key. Projects should attract maximal ridership, based on existing population, job density and service quality. Potential ridership, based on the feasibility of building more housing, retail and offices within walking distance of stations, is another crucial determinant. (The failure of the anti-growth Measure S in the recent L.A. election adds even more weight to this component.) Finally, projects should maximize reductions in overall driving miles, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
The piece details some immediate tests facing Metro leaders and offers recommendations to ensure that they make smart decisions. The long-term future of LA in many ways will be determined by these short-term actions.
It was a big victory last night for the Los Angeles economy and environment. Voters decisively rejected Measure S, a city measure that would have essentially frozen development for at least two years, with incredibly detrimental effects on local rents, housing prices, construction jobs, and sprawl.
The measure garnered just 31.5 percent of the vote, as LA Curbed reported. A broad coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, and homeless advocates, coupled with almost all major political leaders (including the governor), mobilized against it. Homeowners groups largely comprised the pro side.
Despite the broad opposition, many smart growth advocates were nervous about the vote. It’s a low-turnout election in March, and homeowner groups were really playing up the “overdevelopment” and “corrupt City Hall” angle to the measure. And on the heels of Brexit and Trump, it seemed plausible that Los Angeles voters would succumb to the same anxiety over changes in their communities, coupled with distrust of elites.
But the positive outcome won’t solve the development challenges in Los Angeles, as even the anti-Measure S groups conceded. The city suffers from a lack of comprehensive planning to ensure growth happens in the right places (near transit, largely) and to avoid the project-by-project approval processes that open the system up to abuse and inefficiency.
My hope is that the coalition that assembled against the measure continues to stay engaged on this issue of long-term planning in the city. They may even find common cause with some of the pro-S forces.
But for now, smart growth advocates and environmentalists can breathe a huge sigh of relief that ballot box planning didn’t rule the day.
Los Angeles voters face a major decision on Tuesday: will the city retreat from future growth in existing urbanized areas, worsening its current path of income inequality, economic decline for most of the population, severe traffic and air pollution? Because that’s what Measure S would largely achieve.
The measure would effectively halt new development for the next two years that involves any planning changes, putting development pressure on areas currently zoned for more development, usually in disadvantaged communities. The result will be a broken status quo that will only get worse, keeping Los Angeles only affordable to the very wealthy and displacing or pushing everyone else out into sprawl and far from good-paying jobs.
I think most sides of this land use battle would agree on one thing: Los Angeles needs better planning to ensure more development in the right places (near transit and jobs). This measure would not help achieve that goal though. It will instead mostly benefit existing homeowners who were fortunate enough to buy their homes at the right time or have the incomes to afford decent housing near jobs.
These individuals fear “overdevelopment” and density in their neighborhoods, and they want government to intervene to prevent it from happening. It’s the Anti-Sanctuary City.
Madaleine Brand hosted a lively one-hour discussion of Measure S yesterday on KCRW radio, featuring many of the leading voices on the issue from all sides:
Fingers crossed that Angelenos make the right call on Tuesday, or the region will have just taken a giant step backward in terms of economic, environmental and quality-of-life outcomes.
And in the long run, my hope is that a defeated Measure S will still spark a long-overdue discussion in Los Angeles about better planning.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I hated to pay for parking. And not just for the obvious reason of not wanting to part with precious dollars. My feeling was that if I had to put up with so much traffic, emissions, and space dedicated to the automobile, the least I could get out of it was free parking.
And now the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies has put together the gory details on the impact of excessive parking requirements on Los Angeles land use, all in a handy infographic:
The information is pretty disturbing but worth understanding to motivate reform. And the most obvious reform is to reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements for new projects, particularly near major transit stops.