What will it take to get upzoning and affordability right?

Joshua Stark Headshot

Rendering of Agrihood Senior Projects in Santa Clara, a GreenTRIP Certified develompentA powerful solution to California’s housing affordability crisis should do at least two things: reform zoning restrictions to allow for more housing density near transit, and ease the intense pressures that make housing unaffordable or insecure for millions of Californians. Both are critically important; we can’t do one without the other. And it’s also essential to understand the interplay between these two imperatives — including how housing density and affordability impact public transportation and the people who rely on it.

All things being equal, we absolutely want to see more housing near transit. But in these realms, all things are far from equal. High quality transit raises nearby property values, and so does upzoning. TransForm continues to have concerns about likely impacts of upzoning without adequate affordability protections: accelerated gentrification, downward pressures on transit ridership, and increasing land speculation in black and brown communities. These are problems already, and we can’t afford to make them worse.

Until lawmakers and advocates across the state can come together and reconcile the need for upzoning with the need for affordability, statewide zoning reform is unlikely to happen. We commend Senator Scott Wiener for elevating the issue and working towards a solution, starting with SB 827 and continuing with SB 50. Those efforts have moved in the right direction, but they have not yet struck the right balance. Assemblymember Richard Bloom has also made a commendable proposal with AB 1279, which is still in play and focuses on enabling affordable homes in high-resource areas.

More on what we like about these legislative efforts later in this blog, but first it’s important to focus on what hasn’t been clear enough in the public debate: why we need greater affordability near high quality public transportation, and why solutions should prioritize the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Why does affordability near transit concern us so much?

Simply put, market rate transit-oriented development (TOD) can be a market failure for public transportation. Higher income people who live near transit don’t use it nearly as much as lower income people who live near transit. We also know that without a market intervention, property near high-quality transit is unaffordable to most transit riders, and rising prices displace low-income residents. In order for TOD to fulfill its promise, it must be as affordable as possible.

That’s one important reason why BART, LA Metro, VTA, and just last week Caltrain, have all committed to ensuring that between 30-35% of the housing developed on their properties will be affordable.

We wrote a report about this with a long but very descriptive name: Why Creating and Preserving Affordable Homes Near Transit is a Highly Effective Climate Protection Strategy. In it we found:

  • Lower Income households drive 25-30% fewer miles when living within 1/2 mile of transit than those living farther from transit. When living within 1/4 mile of frequent transit, they drove nearly 50% less than higher income households.
  • Higher Income households within 1/4 mile of frequent transit drive more than twice as many miles and own more than twice as many vehicles as extremely low-income households near transit.

This seminal report on the pitfalls of not ensuring affordable homes in close proximity to transit also documents how unchecked property value increases that follow transportation investment feed the transit death spiral — when loss of transit ridership drives service cuts that drive further loss of ridership. Adding insult to injury, when gentrification and speculation push struggling families to places without high-quality transit, they lose time and money to long commutes (if they can afford a car at all), and emissions and traffic congestion increase. Upzoning near transit must be designed to buck these trends, not accelerate them.

To ensure TOD does reach its full potential for the climate, equity, and transit ridership, any new development made possible by zoning reforms should include as many affordable homes as possible. It may not be financially feasible to require significant affordability with less than 10 units, but it is possible to capture some of the value created by upzoning near transit and pay into a local affordable housing fund, which should be spent on affordable homes close to transit.

Our GreenTRIP Certification program promotes the kind of transit-oriented development we need throughout California. GreenTRIP Certified Projects right-size parking in multifamily developments near transit, and provide sustainable transportation alternatives to help residents drive less. To date, we’ve certified nearly 50 projects in the Bay Area with over 9,000 units, of which 40% are affordable. Meanwhile seven cities, transit agencies, and other entities have adopted GreenTRIP strategies into their codes. GreenTRIP speaks to traffic and parking concerns that often stymie new housing development. GreenTRIP Connect, our free tool designed for advocates, city officials, and developers, can quantify the climate benefits of transit-oriented development, especially with right-sized parking and affordable units.

There’s a lot to like about statewide upzoning efforts so far

TransForm absolutely wants to increase housing density near transit and jobs. With sufficient protections for affordability and against displacement, we’d love to see fourplexes in many urban single-family zoned neighborhoods, mid-rise apartments near frequent transit stops, and greater affordable densities in high-opportunity zones. Too many cities, for too long, have failed to approve enough new home-building, which should have been required to go along with the tens of thousands of new jobs added over the last decade. Some statewide zoning reform is in order to address the resulting crisis.

We also appreciate the protections we saw in SB 50 against direct physical displacement, and lifting parking minimums for projects within a certain distance of transit. Land near transit is at a premium, and it should be prioritized for affordable homes, not parked cars. The exceptions made for “sensitive communities” are an important concept, but they need to go farther.

When we combine these concepts with robust affordability assurances, we will have a real solution — not only to help address California’s housing crisis, but for many communities’ public transportation problems, as well.

This runs much deeper than upzoning

Local land use zoning and transportation planning has a dark, disturbing history of racism and class discrimination. From redlining and segregated housing development to the destruction of low-income communities of color to build highways and transit infrastructure (and the list goes on), powerful decision-makers have used land use and transportation policies to maintain or exacerbate entrenched social and racial divides for generations. As if that weren’t enough, many of these unfair policies also have profoundly negative impacts on air and climate pollution, while placing vulnerable communities on the front lines to face those impacts.

It’s time to start explicitly shaping local plans, zoning laws, and transportation policy to repair the wrongs of the past. People most at risk of being torn from their social fabric, or who already have been, those who commute more than 90 minutes to work each way, people without a safe place to sleep at night — their needs should guide whether and where new housing is approved, and their entire communities will benefit. Equitable community planning takes time and money, cultural humility, patience, and a willingness to build authentic relationships. We’ve seen such investments pay off when they happen, and they need to happen more.

TransForm has worked closely with environmental justice and equity allies for years, to provide expertise on land use and transportation policies in language accessible to all, and to further develop our own understanding of policy impacts on black and brown communities. More often than not, we see an almost complete gap in direct representation by low-income and disadvantaged communities in the process of policy development. Until policymakers make these processes more democratic and invest in the participation of underrepresented groups, the rules for how cities are built will continue to be blind to their needs, which are all of our needs.

Our commitment to equity runs as deep as our commitment to smart growth. Last month, many of our allies who work with and for the most vulnerable people in our state formally opposed SB 50. We share their concerns even as we support many of the concepts in SB 50. Any bill addressing upzoning would need to make major moves in their direction to earn our support. We support AB 1279, and look forward to its advancement and refinement in this legislative session.

Real solutions to the housing crisis will move us towards fairness, affordability, and climate protection. They will address past harms, not perpetuate them. They will make our communities healthier and more connected. These solutions are within our reach, and they are also the ones that can win.



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.