If passed as is, SB 827 (Wiener) could have a big impact on neighborhoods adjacent to rail and major bus transit in California by requiring local governments to relax development restrictions there. But simply stating “one-quarter mile” or “one-fourth mile” radius from these stops is not that helpful for most people to visualize where the affected neighborhoods are located, particularly when the bill currently includes some areas with “transit corridors” — and not just transit stops.
Fortunately, a tech-savvy (former Redfin CTO) SB 827 fan with time on his hands developed a very useful interactive map. If you live in California (or interested in what happens here), you can now click on Sasha Aickin‘s map and see how any particular city or county might be affected by the bill.
But perhaps more importantly, regardless of what happens with SB 827 during this legislative process, the map shows the battleground in California where we desperately need more housing to be built. All of the highlighted areas are prime transit-oriented spots, where residents can easily bike or walk to access transit. Study after study shows that development in these areas is what makes or breaks transit ridership.
And for a place like California, with its longstanding housing shortage, it also shows where badly needed new residential development would be most appropriate from an environmental perspective.
Scott Wiener’s revolutionary SB 827 proposal to ease local restrictions on transit-oriented development is part of a growing legislative trend to tie development incentives to proximity to major transit stops. These stops are defined to include those with frequent bus service. As a result, some pro-growth advocates worry that NIMBYs will respond by lobbying their transit agencies to decrease bus service in their neighborhoods so developers can’t access these benefits and build more in their area.
But what about the opposite problem, where developers lobby transit agencies to increase bus service, merely to get some of the permit streamlining and density boosts that would follow? The danger is that transit agencies would comply, perhaps as a favor to a politically connected developer, but the project at issue wouldn’t actually be transit-oriented or otherwise justify the increased transit service.
And a worse situation might involve the transit agency increasing bus service only temporarily to qualify the project for the land use and permitting benefits, and then later reduce the service. The consequence could be a type of “density sprawl” with projects that wouldn’t serve transit (or have transit serve them) and instead increase overall driving miles and pollution.
To be clear, we want to encourage development near major bus stops. And this policy trend of tying incentives to transit proximity started before SB 827. For example, SB 375 (Steinberg, 2008) provides permitting relief through streamlining provisions under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for projects within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop, including frequent bus stops. Similarly, SB 743 (Steinberg, 2013), also relaxes CEQA’s transportation impact analysis for projects in these areas.
But both possibilities of manipulating bus service either to 1) avoid new development in the right transit-oriented areas or 2) facilitate car-oriented projects in less transit-friendly areas would be bad.
What’s the solution? Transit agencies will need to develop strong and transparent standards governing their decisions about when to expand or retract major bus service (defined as 15 minute peak headways during commute times). Follow-up state legislation could potentially accomplish this outcome by mandating such standards on local transit agencies (something these transit agencies would probably hate). Or transit agencies that don’t already have such policies on the books could adopt such standards on their own, perhaps using some best practice examples from around the state and country.
Right now, I don’t think this kind of transit service manipulation is a serious problem, although I’ve started to hear some anecdotes from local transit agencies. But if SB 827 passes in anything like its current form, it may become an issue that policy makers at either the local or state levels will need to address.
In my excitement over SB 827, the new bill that would dramatically boost badly-needed new housing in job- and transit-rich areas in California, I overlooked one potentially important source of opposition: low-income renters near transit. As I described, the bill would limit local restrictions on height, density and parking near transit. I assumed that these changes would mostly affect relatively affluent single-family home neighborhoods near transit, whose residents and allied elected officials often prevent new housing for reasons ranging from the deplorable (racism) to the understandable (fear of more traffic and related hassles).
But for renters and their advocates in existing low-income neighborhoods near major transit stops, the SB 827 approach raises different fears: eviction through displacement and gentrification. They fear the relaxed local government rules under SB 827 will prompt developers to gobble up their existing low-income buildings, evict the tenants, tear down the structures, and then build market-rate housing for people with much higher-income levels. In short, they see SB 827 putting displacement and gentrification in these transit-rich, low-income communities on steroids.
The fear is legitimate, though I believe potentially overstated, depending on the neighborhood. And it’s also something that can be mitigated, with the right policy approach. First, it’s probably overstated because development in low-income communities is not necessarily held back only by strict local zoning. For example, as UCLA scholars Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Tridib Banerjee described in a report examining neighborhoods around the Blue Line light rail from Downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach, low-income areas near the station stops have received virtually no investment in real estate despite sometimes very relaxed local zoning.
The problem in many of these neighborhoods is that demand is not sufficient to attract developers and capital needed to build multistory buildings. These relatively expensive structures must net high rents to justify the higher construction costs. Compounding matters, many low-income neighborhoods often require significant infrastructure upgrades to accompany any new buildings. All of these factors deter developers from investing — not the local zoning codes. Ultimately, capital will flow to the areas that promise the highest return: which means relatively affluent neighborhoods near transit will see the most construction under the SB 827 approach.
Still, those economic dynamics probably won’t by themselves allay the fears of low-income renters and their advocates. Many of the neighborhoods they care about are at risk of gentrification, which means rents could increase, higher-income residents would move in with new construction, and low-income renters forced out.
So what can be done in these situations? There’s a rich literature on the subject, but one of the best ways to mitigate these impacts is to ensure a percentage of the new homes built are available exclusively to people with low incomes. Furthermore, local residents who have been displaced or are at risk of displacement should have priority access to these new homes.
The state already has policies on the books to encourage this type of affordable housing construction, from a now-stricter regional housing needs process (which requires locals to plan and zone for affordable housing in their jurisdiction) to density bonuses for projects that incorporate more affordable units. Local governments are also free to enact their own additional policies to boost affordable housing.
These and other policies may not help all tenants facing displacement, but they would go a long way toward helping many of them — and providing access to better homes for many of them in the process. And overall, new housing near transit will benefit residents of all income levels, including low-income. It will stabilize home prices to allow more residents to live near jobs and save on transportation costs from avoiding long commutes. It will improve public health by reducing regional driving miles. It will provide high-wage construction jobs. It will reduce economic inequality and lack of access to good jobs. And it will unlock the housing that future generations will need to be able to remain in their home communities.
Ultimately, we know we need new housing in California — and lots of it to make up for decades of shortfalls. We should have policies in place to ensure low-income renters gain from this construction. But if we don’t build these homes near our transit- and job-rich areas, then where are we going to build them? SB 827 provides the clearest solution to this decades-long problem in the making. But policy makers should take care to address the concerns of low-income renters who might otherwise stand to lose under this otherwise badly needed legislation.
As I blogged yesterday, the proposed SB 827 is the first truly revolutionary approach to boosting housing in the most environmentally and economically friendly places in California.
And this morning on Southern California’s KPCC radio program Airtalk, I discussed the bill with host Larry Mantle, Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz (5th District), and Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Association.
The 30-minute discussion surfaced most of the predictable yet flawed objections to the bill, typically raised by homeowners and their allies:
- These new residents in housing near transit won’t really ride the transit, they’ll just add to the local congestion. Mostly false: proximity to transit is a major determinant of how likely people are to ride it. However, it is true that lower-income residents are more likely to ride. But even locating middle-income residents near transit is still better than locating them far out of the city, where they’d have long drives leading to more overall traffic and pollution, or encouraging them to gentrify existing neighborhoods due to the lack of new housing supply. And as we’ve seen in urban areas like the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington DC, professionals will ride transit if it’s convenient to their work.
- New housing near transit will only add to parking and traffic congestion in my neighborhood. Yes, possibly in the immediate areas. But if the new developments don’t oversupply and under-price parking (and SB 827 relaxes minimum parking requirements) and instead offer better transit, walking and biking access, people will be more likely to choose to avoid the traffic. And overall traffic across the region will decrease with more in-town housing, which means less pollution and regional congestion for everyone. Otherwise, the alternative is more sprawl housing.
- Transit isn’t functional in L.A. right now, so there’s no need to build more housing near it. This is to some extent a circular argument. If there’s not sufficient housing (or other development) near transit, then as a result it won’t serve many of the places people want to go. Only by encouraging that development near rail and other high-quality transit — as opposed to waiting decades for rail to go to the right places — can the system be successful. We see this all around the world with well-functioning transit lines.
The discussion and listener comments are worth hearing, because they track the typical objections to the bill’s proposals. As I wrote yesterday, SB 827 will be a huge political effort. But at the same time, it presents an opportunity to discuss the facts with the persuadable part of the electorate.
California State Senator Scott Wiener just introduced the bill I’ve probably been waiting for since I started following land use and transit in California. SB 827 would dramatically scale back local government restrictions on housing near major transit stops (see the fact sheet PDF).
These restrictions by local governments have prevented new housing from being built in precisely the job- and transit-rich locations where we need housing the most. They’ve also prevented transit from performing well, in terms of greater ridership and reduced public subsidies, as light rail lines like Expo in Los Angeles serve neighborhoods that don’t allow anything but a single-family, detached home to be built.
Overall, the effect on housing supply from these exclusionary zoning policies has caused severe environmental degradation in the state by encouraging more sprawl and traffic. And it’s caused an economic crisis of unaffordable homes and rents that has squeezed the middle class right out of the state and led to gentrification of low-income neighborhoods.
SB 827 puts a bullseye on these policies. First, among other reforms, it would remove all density limits and parking requirements on any project within a half-mile of a major transit station, defined as anything from rail to a bus stop with at least 15 minute intervals during peak commute times.
As if these changes aren’t enough, SB 827 would prevent local governments from imposing a height limit of less than 85 feet if the development is within one-quarter mile of a “high-quality transit corridor” or within one block of a major transit stop (with a few exceptions), and 55 feet if within a half-mile.
As Sen. Wiener explained in a Medium post:
California has a number of communities with strong access to transit, and we continue to invest in public transportation. Too often, however, the areas around transit lines and stops are zoned at very low densities, even limiting housing to single family homes around major transit hubs like BART, Caltrain, Muni, and LA Metro stations.
Mandating low-density housing around transit make no sense.
Sen. Wiener went on to cite a recent California analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey, which concluded that California could build up to three million new transit-accessible homes in these transit-rich areas:
Along these lines, our analysis at CLEE and UC Berkeley’s Terner Center in the 2017 report Right Type, Right Place found that California could achieve annual greenhouse gas reductions of 1.79 million metric tons if we built all new residential development within a few miles of major transit (not to mention additional savings if you factor in new commercial development in those areas plus reduced driving and pollution from existing residents there).
California has attempted to address this environmental and economic challenge from the multi-decade long underproduction of housing legislatively over the past few years. But most of those bills have been largely ineffectual reforms to planning or way-too-limited streamlining that only adds up to a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile, even relatively robust efforts to subsidize affordable housing are miniscule compared to the scope of the problem. SB 827 is the first one that could really, truly be a game-changer for housing and the environment.
To be sure, SB 827 faces an uphill battle to passage. Wealthy homeowners in single-family neighborhoods, along with their elected representatives and lobbyists, will be out in full force to defeat this bill. They may even have help from advocates of subsidized affordable housing, who often rely on processes to relax these exclusionary local policies as a way to gain concessions to build more affordable units. The parking requirement relaxation provision alone was already attempted back in 2011 as a standalone bill and went down to defeat in the legislature at the hands of the League of California Cities.
But on the upside, the politics in Sacramento around housing have changed in the past few years, as the scale of the problem has become more clear and as constituent groups like the “YIMBYs” have been organizing politically. That means that the bill may eventually survive to passage, albeit in a potentially stripped-down form.
If it goes down to defeat, it will be interesting to see how much support it gets. Because this issue isn’t going away, and neither are pro-housing advocates. They’ll keep coming back until California starts to take steps to address decades of terrible land use policies.
SB 827, as introduced, is the first truly significant step in that direction.
With a rough 2017 on the environment now in the books, here are the top issues I plan to follow in 2018 on climate change:
- A possible boost for electric vehicles from new models and global demand: With the more affordable Tesla Model 3 finally trickling out, plus aggressive EV policies in countries like China, hopefully we will see continued increases in demand for electric vehicles. Here’s an interesting chart on EV adoption worldwide, illustrating in particular the pivotal role that China is playing:
- Impacts of potential oil price increase: OPEC nations have already decided to cut oil production, which could mean that prices will increase with less supply (perhaps even despite more pumping from the U.S. and Russia). If oil prices rise, gas prices will go up, possibly leading to more demand for electric vehicles and other fuel-efficient vehicles and a decrease in pollution.
- Renewable energy’s political headwinds and tax uncertainty, coupled with falling costs: The Trump administration is doing everything it can to boost coal and undercut renewables (particularly with likely tariffs coming on foreign solar panels). And the 2017 federal tax legislation creates uncertainty for wind and solar tax credit financing going forward. But the economics of renewables continues to defy expectations. Here’s a chart with some more details on the rapid progress made in the past few years, including just in 2017:
- More extreme weather & environmental challenges: 2017 was a doozy on extreme weather, with another record-breaking temperature year that included brutal wildfires and hurricanes like we’ve never seen. As the climate continues to warm, expect more of these events, with the potential for them to change the politics around climate. Special mention: the impact of Puerto Rican refugees on Florida politics.
- U.S. state action to fill the federal void on climate leadership: States (and many cities) are continuing to move aggressively on climate. Will we see more states join California’s cap-and-trade program or implement strong greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, including carbon taxes? Will we see multi-state collaborations on climate? This year could provide some opportunities for state gains on climate leadership, particularly in states like Oregon and Washington, plus the continued possibility a regional western-wide grid to facilitate renewable deployment across the western U.S.
- 2018 mid-term elections: A Democratic takeover of at least the House, if not the Senate, would dramatically change the prospects for climate policy in the country. A Democratic House means the purse strings could swing back in favor of funding environmental measures, plus some congressional oversight on agency action (or inaction or worse, in the case of climate change). A Democratic Senate could in turn mean much more moderate judicial nominees who hear cases on agency decision-making on the environment.
Honorable mention: California housing policy. While 2017 was supposed be the “Year of Housing,” much more work remains to be done. Will California legislators finally start to rein in local control over land use, which has prevented sufficient infill housing in thriving metropolises from getting built? And relatedly, will California voters overturn in November the state’s new gas tax increase, which helps fund transit and road repair to serve infill housing?
Lots of interesting issues to follow this year. Thanks for reading this blog — I look forward to covering them all and more in 2018.
Transit advocates never really liked Elon Musk anyway. The billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla has almost single-handedly made electric vehicles cool and desirable. But as I’ve blogged before, the cleaner cars become, the more that progress undermines one of the crucial arguments in favor of transit: that it can reduce air pollution as an alternative to dirty cars. On top of that, many transit advocates simply hate cars. So the idea that cars can now be an environmental “good” (or at least dramatically less bad for air pollution) is hard to stomach (of course, electric vehicles also include buses).
The resentment has popped up numerous times on social media and pro-transit articles, particularly around Musk’s plan for tunneling underneath Los Angeles. The plan seems to mimic existing publicly funded rail transit lines, as Curbed LA described. But instead of transit, the tunnels would feature private vehicles and larger shuttles with “between 8 and 16 passengers” that would ferry through the tunnels on sled-like “electric skates” up to 150 miles per hour.
Transit advocates largely found the vehicle-focused proposal threatening and referred to it as a waste of money that will not solve congestion and likely only induce more of it. They also noted it conveniently serves Musk’s house and office, insinuating that he’s building it to enrich himself.
The tension then boiled over when Musk recently went on a rant against transit:
“There is this premise that good things must be somehow painful. I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time. It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”
Transit consultant and persistent Musk critic Jarrett Walker attacked in kind:
In cities, @elonmusk‘s hatred of sharing space with strangers is a luxury (or pathology) that only the rich can afford. Letting him design cities is the essence of elite projection. https://t.co/gtSVgPkfPo https://t.co/CmCpoIJ5NE
— Jarrett Walker (@humantransit) December 14, 2017
Musk responded on Twitter by calling Walker a “sanctimonious idiot.” Transit advocates in turn had Walker’s back, questioning whether Musk is an “elitist jerk” and generally amping up criticism of his urban mobility vision.
For my part, I question why transit advocates feel so threatened by Musk’s tunneling plans. First and foremost, at this point it doesn’t involve any public dollars. If Musk wants to spend his own money on an ultimately doomed plan to reduce traffic, then what’s the harm to the public? And if he’s successful, why would it be any more of a threat to transit than the current regime of publicly funded roads and highways? And isn’t there the possibility that his work could lead to innovations in tunneling and transport that might actually benefit transit and related development?
I’d also note that it’s somewhat unclear what Musk truly intends with these tunnels. They might end up being more practical for Musk’s beloved “hyperloop” idea, which in turn might be better suited for goods movement rather than people movement, given the potential danger and risk of nausea in the tubes.
Finally, I think it’s worth acknowledging that while Musk’s comments about public transit are inaccurate (not ‘everyone’ hates riding transit), he speaks for a large percentage of people, like it or not. Check out Eric Jaffe’s article on the subject from a few years ago:
Every transit advocate knows this timeless Onion headline: “98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.” But the underlying truth that makes this line so funny also makes it a little concerning: enthusiasm for public transportation far, far outweighs the actual use of it. Last week, for instance, the American Public Transportation Association reported that 74 percent of people support more mass transit spending. But only 5 percent of commuters travel by mass transit. This support, in other words, is largely for others.
Public transit, particularly buses, do not poll well or have a very positive image among vast segments of the public, as I’m guessing a transit consultant like Walker knows. The recent nationwide ridership dip proves the point to some extent, as former transit riders are now choosing more convenient options like Uber and Lyft (or purchasing a vehicle or driving one more frequently).
For multiple reasons, we should all want public transit to succeed: it can foster more sustainable, transit-oriented development, it can provide people of all incomes with car-free travel options and therefore reduce pollution and sprawl, and it can enhance quality of life by supporting dynamic, equitable, community-oriented neighborhoods.
But many people have a negative view of transit, and not without good reason. Musk not only speaks for them, he’s speaking to them. And as long as that public attitude and its underlying causes persist, attacking Musk is at best a waste of time and at worst a failure to address some core challenges facing transit.
Republicans from the House and Senate last week unveiled their compromise conference tax bill. Due to intense lobbying efforts, Republican negotiators seem to have reduced some of the harm I described for renewable energy, electric vehicles, and affordable housing. As Brad Plumer in the New York Times writes, support for renewables is now bipartisan, as Republican states like Iowa produce a lot of wind power, while states like Ohio and Nevada with Republican senators manufacture a lot of clean technology equipment.
Most of the changes in the bill involve corporate tax credits, which are used to finance renewables and affordable housing. First, the conference bill removes the corporate “alternative minimum tax,” which would have made tax credits essentially moot with corporations unable to reduce their taxes below a certain amount. Second, it minimizes the damage from a new provision called the Base Erosion Anti-Abuse Tax (BEAT), which seeks to prevent multinational companies from claiming a portion of production or investment credits. The conference bill allows the credits to offset up to 80 percent of the BEAT tax, which helps preserve the market for the credits among multinational companies (Utility Dive offers a good overview of the details of these provisions).
Wind power is still hurt by the bill, given that the new provisions do not cover the full duration of production tax credits that finance these projects. And by reducing corporate tax rates overall, the bill decreases corporate “tax appetite” that helps drive demand for the tax credits. But it could have been much worse.
Meanwhile, the conference bill continues the tax credit for electric vehicle purchases, which is set to phase out for each automaker anyway based on sales (but the bill reduces tax incentives for transit and biking). This credit has been very important to boosting demand, as University of California, Davis transportation researchers have documented.
Finally, on affordable housing and other infill projects, the draft legislation would preserve most of the tax credits used to finance these projects. It retains the low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC), continues tax-exempt private activity bonds, including multifamily bonds, which are used to finance all sorts of infill infrastructure, and saves the 20% historic tax credits. It also retains new markets tax credits and of course reduces the corporate tax rate to 21%, which presumably benefits many infill developers. You can read more on the provisions affecting housing and land use from Smart Growth America.
Presuming no new issues arise, votes on the compromise bill could come this week and possibly be signed into law before Christmas. Overall, it’s a bill that will add at least $1.5 trillion to the debt, starve government of funds to provide basic services and infrastructure, and mostly benefit the wealthy and large corporations at the expense of middle-income earners.
But for clean technology and housing at least, it went from devastating to just bad.
When SB 375 (Steinberg) passed in 2008, it got a lot of press as a fundamental change in transportation and land use in California. The law would now require regional transportation investments that promote smart growth, with the state setting a metric target for each region to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through less driving.
The law had some immediate problems though, which I outlined after the first regional transportation plan under the law was unveiled in San Diego in 2011. Namely, SB 375 failed to compel any changes in local land use policies, which is where the ultimate authority for permitting new housing lies (the state’s local government lobby added a provision to the original bill that the sustainable transportation plans would not affect local government land use plans).
Now a new National Center for Sustainable Transportation study [PDF] that surveys local land use responses to SB 375 confirms this weak impact on local decision-making. The authors surveyed planning departments in all cities and counties in California regions subject to SB 375 and received 180 responses out of 474 contacted. The found:
A majority of both county and city planning managers report that SB 375 had little to no impact on actions by their city to adopt or strengthen the eight smart growth strategies asked about in the survey. Responses to this effect were especially pronounced for the use of urban growth boundaries and of ag-land and open space preservation, suggesting that cities may have been motivated to support such strategies for other reasons, perhaps even before SB 375.
To be sure, the study highlighted some positives from SB 375 for local governments, primarily related to increased information sharing among them:
At the same time, a majority of cities and counties report that SB 375 has led to increased communication among local governments and other actors about land use issues and has led them to participate more in the regional planning process.
But ultimately the law fails fundamentally to change local government behavior:
When asked about the eight smart growth land use strategies, relatively few local governments anticipate that SB 375 will have a substantial impact on their cities in terms of specific costs or benefits.
In the end, SB 375 will not be a game-changer by itself but a policy foundation upon which more meaningful legislation can build. Examples of more impactful legislation include SB 743 (Steinberg, 2013) and this year’s SB 35 (Wiener, 2017). SB 375 provides some conceptual underpinnings and data to support these newer laws. But without any direct tie to local decision-making, SB 375 as it currently stands will not by itself solve California’s land use and transportation challenges.
Big industry loves to demagogue the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires environmental review for major new projects. But a new survey from the State of California shows that the law barely affects most projects where the state is the lead agency.
The study examined all state-led projects over a five-year period, from 2011 to 2016. First, 90% of the state’s projects were already exempt from the law, due to compliance with legislative or regulatory provisions that exempt certain types of projects. Second, a full-blown environmental impact report occurred less than one percent of the time, while litigation was virtually negligible. Here is the summary chart:
The number of lawsuits filed under CEQA has been surprisingly low, averaging 195 per year throughout California since 2002. Annual filings since 2002 indicate that while the number of petitions has slightly fluctuated from year to year, from 183 in 2002, to 206 in 2015, there is no pattern of overall increased litigation. In fact, litigation year to year does not trend with California’s population growth, at 12.5 percent overall during the same period.The rate of litigation compared to all projects receiving environmental review under CEQA is also very low, with lawsuits filed for fewer than 1 out of every 100 projects reviewed underCEQA that were not considered exempt. The estimated rate of litigation for all CEQA projects undergoing environmental review (excluding exemptions) was 0.7 percent for the past three years. This is consistent with earlier studies, and far lower than some press reports about individual projects may imply.
So while big polluters and sprawl developers and their law firm allies have gone to great lengths to demonize the law and the rare litigation that results, the facts just aren’t matching.
It’s still true that CEQA can be a barrier to new development. But based on the data so far, it’s just not a major one.