Our Take on the Great Housing Density Debate

Housing near Caltrain - photo credit Mark KahnUpdate: On April 9, 2018, Senator Wiener announced new amendments to SB 827 that address some of the concerns outlined in this post. See our follow-up post from April 10, SB 827 Moves in the Right Direction. On April 17, SB 827 died in the Assembly Transportation and Housing committee. We expect new bills in the next legislative session will attempt to address the same issues, and we are hoping for an inclusive drafting process where the opposing sides can find more common ground. We're looking forward to working towards a proposal that is powerful, durable, and fair.

Everywhere we go, people are talking about SB 827, a powerful bill introduced by Senator Scott Weiner (SF) that would allow much more housing near transit throughout California.

TransForm has been working at the intersection of transportation, housing, and land use for over twenty years, and we’ve never seen such energy around this nexus. The bill would create a “transit-rich housing bonus” by overriding certain aspects of local zoning within ½ mile of transit. The most powerful provisions include:

  • Allowing building heights of at least 45 feet, and up to 85 feet (approximately 4-8 stories).
  • Exempting housing from minimum parking requirements, which can drive up the cost of homes, take up valuable space, and enable more driving.
  • Exempting housing from maximum densities, i.e., number of units in a building — an important change that could catalyze development of smaller, lower-cost units.

These changes have the potential to greatly increase the number of market rate homes, and enable them to be produced at lower price points. New renter protections to mitigate direct displacement were added to the bill on March 1, and provisions for affordable housing are forthcoming. The authors also intend to scale back the geographies affected by the bill.

More homes near transit can be a powerful answer to some of California’s most challenging problems. The right zoning changes have the potential to help address the housing crisis, social and economic inequality, climate change, and our traffic and transportation woes, all at once. Such a solution is tantalizingly easy to imagine, but surprisingly difficult to realize.

There is particular urgency, and also the most risk, for low-income people, communities of color, and other underrepresented groups that are the most vulnerable to cost pressures, displacement and exclusion, climate impacts, and air pollution. A solution that does not work for these communities is not a real solution.

We’ve been listening to and talking with our allies -- who are on both sides of the issue -- as well as the bill’s authors, since soon after it was introduced. We’re extremely grateful to Senator Weiner and co-authors Senator Skinner and Assemblymember Ting for their bold leadership on this urgent issue.

This post outlines our concerns, and then a set of recommendations to consider. The long list is not intended to undermine the bill, but to identify a set of strategies that can improve it. TransForm’s goal is to help get a bill that is powerful, durable, fair, and avoids unintended consequences (of which there can be many), especially for low-income people and communities of color.

Our Concerns

We share the persistent concerns about direct and indirect displacement laid out especially well by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Housing California, and the California Rural Legal Assistance Fund in an excellent letter explaining their “oppose unless amended” position.

Current and future provisions to prevent direct displacement must be effective and easily enforced. Communities of color have endured long-term underinvestment and exclusion due to redlining, and are already dealing with intense displacement pressure and gentrification. This bill could inadvertently intensify that, which would be unacceptable.

Even if the bill brings housing prices down, the market alone will not meet the housing needs of the lowest income households. Without a well-tailored mechanism to ensure a significant portion of the new homes encouraged by this bill are affordable to people with low and extremely-low incomes, it will not prevent the indirect displacement that is tearing at the social fabric of so many communities.

There is also very real potential for a backlash that could threaten state engagement on land use and zoning for years to come. The bill needs to carefully account for varied contexts across the state to avoid such a backlash. Developments that are too far out of scale with their surroundings, like eight-story buildings popping up in suburban single-family neighborhoods, could make the bill’s reforms short-lived.

Falling short on traffic reduction goals would also bring repercussions. Traffic is the number one reason communities are rejecting development (and will continue to, as pointed out in a recent poll). Many of the communities in the initial geography of the bill actually have higher than average per capita driving, as we’ll show below. If the bill survived in the short-term, but greatly increased local traffic congestion in some areas, it could cause a backlash in the long run. New housing resulting from SB 827 must minimize vehicle trips and the resulting local congestion and air pollution.This is critical for climate goals, as well as for reducing negative impacts on local communities.

Consider the cautionary tale of SB 1, last year’s bill that provides sorely needed funding for transit and infrastructure with a gas tax, which is facing the threat of repeal at the ballot box this fall. If the opposition measure qualifies and passes, it will not only repeal this critical funding, it would make future transportation funding harder to secure by requiring any future gas taxes to be passed by voters.

And finally, the scope and impacts of legislation as powerful as SB 827 should be modeled and understood from the start. Yet there was no clear way to see transit-rich housing zones until Sasha Aicken created transitrichhousing.org after the bill was introduced. Even that isn’t exactly accurate, as many cities don’t have their street widths all mapped and available on GIS.

The bill’s authors have been very open to suggestions, which we appreciate. And we look forward to the next round of amendments that may narrow the geographic scope of the bill and add inclusionary housing provisions to ensure a minimum amount of affordability. But SB 827 has struggled to win over many would-be allies, and spent precious time fixing problems that could have been avoided with a more inclusive drafting process.

We believe SB 827 needs to address all of these concerns to be truly successful.

Our Recommendations

Our recommendations fall into five categories.

Ensuring affordability and equity

  • Value capture to increase affordable housing stock. This bill should capture enough of the value created by upzoning to significantly increase the quantity of affordable homes and help stabilize vulnerable communities. It should create a significant net increase of affordable housing, probably through an inclusionary zoning mechanism. But it should also account for local context — areas with very high rents can bear high inclusionary levels that may be infeasible in other areas.
  • Stronger, enforceable renter protections. Upzoning increases property values and will exacerbate displacement and exclusion if stronger protections are not put in place. For example, the bill could strictly limit demolition of rental units and affordable housing, strengthen tenant protections, and ensure no net loss of affordable housing in transit station areas.

More inclusive conversations about potential improvements 
These should include experts, advocates, and stakeholders with diverse viewpoints, who share an interest in the bill’s success. Ideally, some of the learnings and findings from these sessions, especially ones that underpin changes to the bill, should be readily available online.

Greater sensitivity to local context 
The bill currently treats all land use types the same (the exception being where zoning prohibits construction of housing as a principal or conditional use, e.g. areas that are exclusively industrial). There are several mechanisms to modify the application of the bill, based on context.

  • Different treatment for different land uses. The bill should consider whether heights on some land use types (such as existing commercial corridors and transit station parking lots) could be higher than other land use types (such as single-family home neighborhoods). This UrbanFootprint analysis of three station areas shows how we can predict zoned housing capacity in various SB 827 scenarios.
  • Consider “Missing Middle” housing types. SB 827 would allow heights of 45 to 85 feet, depending on distance from transit and the width of the street. It’s worth considering how to densify certain single-family home neighborhoods in a way that is more sensitive to local context and less likely to inspire a NIMBY revolt. Dan Parolek of Opticos and others have put forward “missing middle” designs that get over 80 units per acre with 25- to 30-foot buildings.
  • Vary requirements according to the size of the proposed development. Some provisions, such as on-site transportation amenities and inclusionary zoning, may not be feasible when adding one or two units to a parcel (though an in-lieu fee may be feasible). But inclusionary requirements absolutely make sense when adding 100 units. Maximizing benefits may require the bill to differentiate between development size.
  • Place a maximum unit size on developments. One of the unintended consequences of the bill could be vertical McMansions, especially in areas with high land costs and small lot sizes. A maximum unit size could help from keeping land valuations from rising just for the sake of extra large single-family homes enabled by the bill.
  • Refine criteria for transit capacity. There are many ways to look at transit capacity in a more granular way. For example, TransForm led the campaign for MTC’s 2005 Transit-Oriented Development Policy, which has different requirements for zoning based on transit types — BART, light rail, bus rapid transit, ferry, etc. GIS allows consideration of transit headways in ranges, not just in terms of a single threshold.

Ensuring traffic and climate benefits
If done poorly (think luxury development with abundant free on-site parking adjacent to transit) new development could add to local traffic and lead to lower transit speeds, higher transit operating costs, and lower ridership. Traffic congestion is often the top reason communities rise up against new development. Besides locating near transit, there are at least three strategies with strong empirical evidence that they reduce vehicle trips from residential developments. TransForm’s GreenTRIP Connect tool can model the individual or combined impact of those strategies:

  • Expand on SB 827’s exemption from parking minimums — explore parking maximums. Building parking is expensive and takes space and money that could be used to build more units or lower rents. Just as importantly, availability of on-site parking increases vehicle ownership and driving. Parking maximums could help neighborhoods from getting clogged with (more) traffic.
  • Providing on-site transportation amenities for residents. Our research shows that residents’ proximity to transit — especially for higher income households — does not ensure they will use it. From transit passes to sheltered bike parking or car share memberships, on-site sustainable transportation benefits reduce the need for residents to own vehicles and drive. These are important to increase mobility for residents with limited means, and to promote sustainable choices for those who could choose to drive. GreenTRIP strategies are now required by three cities and BART, and this bill should consider them for larger developments.
  • Maximizing affordability. We know that higher income households near transit drive more than twice as much and own twice as many vehicles as low-income households near transit. That is an additional and crucially important reason to maximize the number of lower cost and dedicated affordable homes.

A clearer understanding of the bill’s geography and impact
It is critical that there be a map that reliably delineates the geography of the bill, especially as the boundaries may change during the amendment process. There are powerful analytical tools available to model the real-world effects of SB 827, including:

  • UrbanFootprint, which in just a few hours of work created data-driven scenarios for the effects of SB 827 surrounding three BART stations. It could be used to understand how the zoned housing capacity changes with changes to some of the variables described above.
  • TransForm’s GreenTRIP Connect tool can inform the conversation with instant location-based projections on the climate and financial impacts of various parking ratios, on-site transportation strategies, and affordability levels. For example, a quick test of a some suburban areas currently covered by the bill, like this scenario in Fremont, show how new development could bring higher than the county average Vehicle Miles Traveled and greenhouse gas emissions, per household. Additional development in those places may get us towards housing goals, but not necessarily climate or congestion goals. 

Whether the bill continues in this legislative session or comes back in the next, we will do what we can to make it the best bill possible, and one we can support. The scale of the bill is comparable to the scale of the problem, but the current level of complexity is not.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.