New on the IJ: Housing close to transit hubs is a time-tested model

Last week, IJ columnist Dick Spotswood wrote that he had a revelation: The best ways to provide new homes in Marin are to add housing to downtowns, emulate downtown forms, and add second units.

It may have been a revelation to him, but it’s not news to the Coalition for a Livable Marin — CALM. We’ve been advocating for just such an approach since we were founded.

Spotswood wrote the foreword to Bob Silvestri’s pro-sprawl manifesto, but he’s starting to understand the wisdom of Marin’s small, dense, rail-oriented downtowns.

Up until the 1940s, Marin was built to maximize ridership on our old light-rail system, the Interurban. Planners put high-density commercial and residential buildings right up next to stations and less-dense homes farther out.

The layout was deliberate. While people today often drive from parking space to parking space on their way home to run errands, yesteryear’s Marinites would walk from shop to shop to run errands on the walk home.

People taking Golden Gate Transit can often still do that, especially at one of the downtown hubs. Take the 27 from the Financial District to San Anselmo, pop into Andronico’s or Comfort’s for the night’s dinner, then walk home.

Most wonderful about this sort of development is how it’s used when people aren’t commuting. Kids can stop by the doughnut shop on a Saturday, parents can watch the street from the coffee shop, and seniors can live their days seeing neighbors and family without ever setting foot in a car.

Marin ought to encourage people to live in places like this, not just for the sake of affordable housing or greenhouse gas emissions but for the health of the town.

Continue reading on MarinIJ.com

Delay tactics plague the county housing element

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

by Lotus Carroll, on Flickr

As the county comes down the home stretch of approving its housing element (HE), opponents of the element, led by Marin Against Density (MAD) and Community Venture Partners (CVP) have taken up a tactic of delay. Calling the effectively two-year process a fast-track giveaway to developers, they have called for extending the process out from the end of January to the end of next May.The delay is simple political posturing. Opponents should return to debate over substance, not timetables.

The current HE finds its roots in the 2013 County Housing Element, passed before Plan Bay Area and its raft of tweaks to affordable housing policy in the region. In essence, the county copied the list of affordable housing sites from the 2013 element, developed after an intense yearlong debate, into the 2014 element.

This has opponents crying foul. The 2013 element was based on an old housing needs assessment, when the region required the county to find room for affordable 781 units. The 2014 element needs to only find space for about 185 units. By copying over the last element’s list to the current list, opponents argue the county is accommodating many more homes than the state requires.

This position glosses over the effect of the 2013 element: the Housing Element simply identifies sites already zoned for housing.   The affordable housing sites declared to the state through that element are in the general plan today. Whether the county lists these sites or not, these sites’ legal status will remain unchanged.  The opponents’ argument, that this increases housing opportunities in Marin, is flat wrong.

To fight this, opponents are apparently planning on delay tactics.

Led by Community Venture Partners (CVP), an anti-Smart Growth nonprofit run by Bob Silvestri, opponents are arguing the county timetable is a “fast-track.” First, they were upset that the county was submitting the element to HCD for review without apparently realizing the review was non-binding. CVP declared on their website:

On Monday, August 25th, the Draft of the Marin County “Housing Element” (HE) for the 2015-2023 planning cycle will have its final review by the Planning Commission before being sent to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in Sacramento.

The Planning Commission will actually hold their last hearing on November 17 to review feedback from HCD, followed by at least two hearings by the Board of Supervisors that have yet to be scheduled. CVP goes on:

The County is fast-tracking the review, submittal and approval of the HE unnecessarily. The County has until May 31st of 2015 to gain final certification of the HE from HCD, without risk of penalty of any kind.

CVP is mistaken here, too. While Marin would not be subject to state penalties, MTC has declared it will prioritize regional transportation funding for cities and counties that submit their HE by January 31, 2015. CVP is gambling the county can challenge MTC’s rulemaking, but that’s hardly “without risk of penalty of any kind.”

Testimony from MAD supporters at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting indicate the aim isn’t to allow more time for public comment but to give opponents a chance to organize. They begged the supervisors to do what the Larkspur City Council did with their Station Area Plan: accede to opponents’ demands. If the county does not, CVP has issued a fundraising appeal for a $15,000 legal team to sue the county over the HE.

From a political standpoint, MAD and CVP are working with a shrewd strategy. A delay that allows them to organize hands them a victory and momentum, which will make the extra four months of organizing that much more effective. As well, a delay keeps housing in the news. The unusual back-to-back Housing Element processes has served as kindling to their cause. Keeping the news cycle on housing will help them maintain the angry fires for a bit longer, which will bleed into the next election cycle.

Unfortunately for the county, this strategy is terribly unproductive. Rather than focus on solutions to the regional housing shortage, CVP and MAD have chosen to set themselves up as populist outsiders. CVP’s policy proposals, such as they are, are buried beneath cries of an unjust fast-track bureaucracy. And, by using a strategy of delay, both CVP and MAD are placing their own political needs above the county’s policy needs. They are putting millions of dollars in regional, state, and federal transportation funds at risk for political gain; whatever legal mess comes from it will be left to taxpayer-funded county lawyers.

There are sites within the Housing Element that deserve scrutiny because of their location. However, this is not a reason to delay the HE or to put county transportation funds at risk. Democracy must be about compromise, not threats of lawsuit.

—–

Coalition for a Livable Marin (CALM) has a new petition out that asks the Board of Supervisors to respect the original timetable for approving the HE and support the housing element more broadly. Emails from CALM have asked supporters to make their concerns known in a way that doesn’t put the county’s future at risk. I and other steering committee members of CALM have pushed to include more about the organization’s stances against greenfield development and auto-oriented density.

What you can do today is sign up for CALM’s newsletter and sign the petition to the Board of Supervisors.

Anti-smart growth advocate defends urbanism

It’s not often you’ll find people arguing against smart growth while also arguing for urbanism. When it happens, one wonders if it was a mistake. That seems to be the case with a screed penned by Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute in Oakland, though his argument is worth highlighting.

While arguing that density isn’t a very effective way of decreasing greenhouse gases, he makes the market urbanist argument I’ve made time and again in this blog:

If governments ended their war on home construction, builders could buy the land they need to construct the housing that local people want, not housing that politicians and smart-growth activists want. That would increase the stock of affordable housing and help the environment too.

While McQuillan digs at smart growth, his critique more aptly applies to our country’s existing urban policies. We have spent so long trying to structure and restrict where and how our cities grow, especially within already built-up areas, we’ve made our cities totally unaffordable for those who want to live there and our suburbs too far from the core for those who want the big-yard, drivable lifestyle.

McQuillan adds: “[H]ere lies the folly of government master plans to control growth. People are not chess pieces to be moved about at the will of politicians and bureaucrats. People have dreams and aspirations for themselves and their families.” And yet through policies that have been in place for over 60 years, politicians and bureaucrats have played a helluva lot of chess with our lives.

If governments like those in Marin lifted density and parking controls and focused instead on maintaining small-town character, if they stopped artificially segregating commercial and residential uses, if the federal government stopped its $450 billion annual subsidy for single-family home development*, if the state stopped subsidizing 70 percent of road maintenance and construction with sales taxes and other non-user fees, perhaps we’d see some equilibrium return to our transportation and housing markets. We wouldn’t need regional housing quotas or ABAG or affordable housing grants because the housing market would simply meet the demand.

It’s unfortunate that only one kind of government intervention – the kind he doesn’t like – is the target of McQuillan’s ire. The massive and ongoing interventions in our real estate market deserve just such a libertarian flaying.

*Yes, that’s almost a half-trillion dollars every year in direct and indirect subsidies for single-family home development.

Hat tip to Save Marinwood for the article.

Point of agreement: Second units are a good way to add new housing

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

A second unit. Image from Decker Bullock.

Though the pages of this blog are often critical of the so-called “slow growth” philosophy of development stasis, its activists hold up second units as a solution to our housing crunch. While I won’t go so far as to say it is our only solution, they are certainly part of the mix.

Marin’s housing market is faced with two housing shortages. It is part of the overall shortage of housing in the region – the cause of the troubling spikes in rent in San Francisco, major displacement of the poor in Oakland, and threats to our open space in the far East Bay.

The other shortage is a local lack of small units, namely studios and one-bedrooms, in Marin. This has meant a steady increase in small-unit rents at a faster rate than either wages or the county’s rental market at large.

Second units offer a way to deal with both without dramatically altering the appearance of our neighborhoods. Though regional trends will be a far greater weight on our overall housing costs than new development, it would help solve the problems in our county’s submarket. And, for the region at large, it would allow some housing development to ease North Bay demand.

I say this is a point of agreement with slow growth because, well, they’ve said it often. Frequent TGM commentor Richard Hall certainly thinks so, with comments all over the place about it. Bob Silvestri, too, came out in favor of this strategy in his book (PDF, page 51). The IJ and Patch comments sections are rife with other examples.

My initial concern about allowing this sort of infill development was that it isn’t targeted, but actually that’s just fine. The reasons for the current ban on in-law units are familiar: traffic and parking. Planners feared that allowing second units would cause residents to park on the street (a big no-no in the 1970s) and put undue stress on the big arterial roads like Freitas Parkway and San Marin Drive.

But really, most of Marin’s mid-century sprawl and early 20th Century development is well-suited to the distances traveled by walking and biking. Shopping is typically within a half-mile, as is a bus line. There should be more than enough capacity in our neighborhoods for more small units.

To make this reality, two big changes should happen. First, the state needs to recognize second unit expansion as a viable method to expand affordable housing under its RHNA affordable housing structure. At the moment, it is not.

Second, towns and cities need to allow second units in their residential neighborhoods, preferably targeted in areas that are within walking distance of transit and shopping. Conversion of existing structures should be allowable by right, in other words buildable without more than city staff approval. New construction might go through a planning commission process, perhaps requiring approval from adjacent neighbors.

To really be affordable housing, towns and cities would need to ensure at least some units are built. To do this, they should offer incentive programs to householders who want to build the units. New buildings can be expensive to build well, and incentive programs would ensure these units are of good quality. Just lowering the permit fees could do the trick.

If the county makes it easy for these amateur landlords to take Section 8 vouchers, it would be a major boon to Marin’s affordable housing needs.

Because of the acrimony between the slow growth and smart growth factions in Marin, it’s imperative we embrace the areas where we can work together for a common goal. Second units are the area where we can, and where we must. If Republicans and Democrats can come together for a budget deal in the US House of Representatives, surely we can come together in our living rooms, pubs, and town halls.

And, since the end result would be a greater Marin, that’s something we could all celebrate.

 

Market-rate housing is just as important as subsidized housing

Controversy swirls around the Wincup apartment development in Corte Madera, and the IJ has published a piece detailing every complaint, from the size to the traffic to the fact that it won’t be “affordable” housing.

While there are problems with the piece (they couldn’t find one person who liked it? Or someone who was interested in renting there?), the myth that market rate housing does not help the cause of affordable housing, brought up by a neighbor, is one that we’ve addressed here and bears repeating.

The housing market in the Bay Area is fundamentally constrained, especially at the top. There simply is not enough supply to go around, and so prices are artificially high. A house that might go for $250,000 elsewhere goes for $850,000, and an apartment that might go for $700 a month elsewhere goes for $1,500 here.

Since there’s not enough super-luxury housing for the wealthy, they look for regular luxury housing, displacing the modestly wealthy. Modestly wealthy folk, whose luxury housing is now out of their price range, look for middle-quality housing, displacing the upper-middle class, who look for lower range housing, and so on down the line until the poorest get knocked off entirely.

Traditional affordable housing tries to build housing that’s been set aside for those poorest folk, but that’s only a stop-gap. Without a functional housing market, they’ll never get enough government largesse and charity. The construction of market-rate housing, shifts some wealthier folk back up the ladder, giving space for the poor and lowering prices across the board.

Now, a single project in Corte Madera won’t do this for the whole Bay Area, but it’s counterproductive to denigrate a project for not being “affordable.” We need a stratified, healthy housing market to solve our region’s affordability problem. Market-rate housing, from ultra-luxury on the Embarcadero to just somewhat lux in Marin, is the only way to do that.

The form of Wincup may be off. It may be monstrous, even. But don’t knock it for its prices.

Mid-week links: Marin Transit

Marin County

by jay d, on Flickr

The latest Marin Transit board meeting was one full of change and surprise. Amid increasing ridership (though it fell in June), MT posted a $1.5 million surplus, which will go into a rainy day fund. To keep ridership on the up and up, the agency hired a new communications and advertising consultant, who will manage MT’s branding, website, social media, and communications strategy. IJ reporter Nels Johnson, however, seemed to think the $300,000 consultant was taking the agency “for a spin.” And, in the name of efficiency, the MT board cut Route 222, which got less than 3 riders per hour in June. Elsewhere:

  • There was so much public comment about Marin’s new housing element that the Board of Supervisors had to postpone its debate until next week. (Patch) On a side note, whoever’s idea it was to bring in a saxophonist to lead the potentially rancorous crowd in singing, “There’s still a lot of love in Marin!” is brilliant. (IJ)
  • The Civic Center Drive upgrades look fabulous, but now that they aren’t in a PDA TAM may need to rescind its funding. (Patch)
  • A driver hit a bicyclist in Fairfax yesterday by turning left through a bike lane, sending the bicyclist to the hospital with a broken collar bone. Though the circumstances seem like they warranted an investigation or a failure-to-yield citation, the driver was not cited by police. (IJ)
  • The costs of demand-responsive bus service, promoted by Bob Silvestri as the ideal transit, make it an ineffective replacement for traditional bus service. (Listen Marin)
  • The lack of BART in Marin is apparently because we’re classist and racist and always have been. (The Grid) Except, y’know, that’s not at all why we don’t have BART.
  • TAM should take on all the causes of congestion on Highway 101, not just cars, according to Corte Madera Mayor Diane Furst. She sat on a working group to draft an alternative plan to flyovers on the freeway. (Marin Voice)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge will close for a full weekend next year for the installation of a new movable barrier. This will be the first time in the bridge’s history it will be closed for more than a few hours. (IJ)
  • Parking minimums can severely constrain construction, either driving up rents in the building or preventing new construction altogether and contributing to a housing shortage. Affordable housing advocates take note. (Sightline)

Politics

  • San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren hits rival Maribeth Bushey-Lang hard, saying her need to recuse herself over issues like SMART make her unfit for service. (IJ)
  • The move to recall Supervisor Susan Adams failed to attract enough signatures, and Save Marinwood is not happy. Interestingly, no signatures were submitted to the county, so we’ll never know how far short the recall came. (IJ, Save Marinwood)
  • Paul Mamalakis examines the race for Novato City Council. (Advance)

The zoning board should not be our nanny

2701 Shattuck

2701 Shattuck. Image from the developer.

There’s an apartment building being debated in Berkeley, and it’s not a bad proposal. At 60 feet tall, it would be about as tall as other buildings facing Shattuck. 2701 Shattuck would include 70 studio apartments (PDF), ranging in size from 307 to 344 square feet. It’s close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to Telegraph and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes. It will be built on what is now a fairly ugly vacant lot, and contribute $1.4 million to the city’s affordable housing fund.

Fifteen neighbors nearby aren’t happy with it. They cite the height and the proximity to detached housing nearby, common stuff. But they also cite on the size of the units and the relative lack of activities in the neighborhood. A zoning commissioner, Sophie Hahn, concurred, comparing the units to “penitentiary housing” and said there wasn’t enough room for “intimacy.”

Though I don’t want to speculate more on the concerns of massing and proximity, the others strike me as a damaging sort of condescension.

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some other hangout, I’m not so concerned about my home’s size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live on a Mill Valley hillside, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise off the Embarcadero.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it’s the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are “a new style of tenement housing,” I get upset. And when a policymaker (Sophie Hahn) says of studio apartments, “It’s a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing,” that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

The purpose of any market is to allow people to make their own decisions about what they want. I think beef tongue is disgusting. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat it. I mean, there must be something wrong with someone who wants to chew on something that has the texture of their own tongue. I also hate cilantro; it tastes like someone made nausea into a flavor and called it an herb. But advocate to ban these foods? Limit them to certain designated Mexican restaurants, perhaps, Vietnamese restaurants be damned? Of course not; it’s preposterous to even consider. I can make my own opinions without asking others to agree with me. That’s freedom.

So it’s not the place of any zoning commission to pass judgment on the lifestyles of the people who live in certain kinds of housing. Their purpose is to determine whether a project meets the zoning code, whether its visual and traffic impacts will unduly harm surrounding neighbors, and whether it will be a safe and sanitary place to live. Nor is it their purpose to determine whether a project is financially viable or not. It’s the developer’s job to determine that. And, in a free society, it’s nobody’s job but mine to determine whether my lifestyle is a bleak and lonely one or not.

Once government steps into personal preference, it becomes a nanny, tut-tutting our choices of home and neighborhood. Sophie Hahn, and the neighbors whom she agrees with, should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.

Cross-posted with Vibrant Bay Area.

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