Mid-Week Links: This Part Hurts

This is a rather long presentation, but it lays out the essence of how car traffic hurts culture, hurts neighborhoods, and what to do about it.  I’ve been to talks like this in DC but this is the first time I can really share one with you.  And if you work in transportation or the planner’s office, this ought to count as continuing education, so bust out the earphones and popcorn.

Marin County

  • Former Supervisor Hal Brown died this week of cancer, and the respect Ross Valley and Marin had for him was evident in editorials and memoria. (Pacific Sun)
  • Mill Valley urbanists, attention!  Have a say in the direction of your town and join one of the Mill Valley 2040 committees charged with drafting the new general plan.  Applications are due March 14, so get on it. (IJ, Town of Mill Valley)
  • San Anselmo urbanists can have a bit of their own fun, too, as this Saturday the town council will weigh resident priorities for the next 2-5 years at a special meeting from 10am-12pm.  After the meeting, a survey will be put online for people who could not make it. (Patch)
  • SPAWN, a nonprofit whose goal is to restrict construction near creeks had its own San Geronimo demonstration home red-tagged by the county for building without a permit next to a creek. Neighbors that had run afoul of the group in the past were furious at the hypocrisy. (IJ)
  • There may still be some useful Q&A to be had with Fairfax Councilmember David Weinsoff, who happens to be Fairfax’s delegate to ABAG, though the discussion may have descended into Agenda 21/CittaSlow madness. (Patch)
  • Untangling the affordable housing mess caused by redevelopment agencies’ abrupt closure on February 1 will take quite a while to untangle, but surely the State Legislature can handle it, right? (Pacific Sun)
  • Marin is the least affordable place to live in the Bay Area, if one adds the cost of transportation to the cost of housing.  A new study shows that Marinites spend an average of 56.3% of their income on housing and transportation, compared to the 39.5% San Franciscans spend. (Chronicle)

And…: Sausalito repaves a street that hasn’t seen work in 70 years. (IJ) … San Rafael’s plastic bag ban chugs along despite a threatened lawsuit by plastics makers. (Patch) … Stand Up for Neighborly Novato will merge with Novato Housing Coalition so as to better focus their efforts to promote affordable housing in the city. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Arlington County, Virginia, has a number of bikes in its vehicle fleet, saving them money on gas, car maintenance, and also on employee health benefits and sick days.  How might Marin’s communities utilize bicycles in their vehicle fleets?  (Patch)
  • SimCity 5 announced, and the shouts of urbanists around the world rose as one. (Stop and Move)
  • Amtrak wants to restrict the number of bikes allowed on Capital Corridor trains, as around 10% of riders now bring their own bicycle and it’s becoming a nuisance to non-bikers.  Amtrak ought to strongly encourage bicycling, however, as active living and bicycling culture tends to go hand-in-hand with rail ridership. (Sacramento Bee)
  • Since the ban on cell phones while driving went into effect in California, traffic deaths have dropped an astounding 22%, the largest drop since CHP started keeping records. (Mercury News via IJ)
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Leaving ABAG Would Be a Mistake

Image from the Town of Corte Madera

Over the last year, rage against the Bay Area’s alphabet soup of regional authorities has simmered just below the surface of Marin politics.  Although the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) got its share of hate for banning fires over Christmas and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) caught flack for housing mandates around SMART, it was the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process that drew the most fire by forcing localities to zone for more housing.  Marinites think their cities are already built out and so were incensed that an unelected agency could tell them to zone for more development.  The frustration has finally boiled over in Corte Madera, and there’s a push for the town to leave ABAG.  It would be a mistake if it did.

Background: The State of Local Control

The RHNA process comes once every seven years, driven by a state mandate to accommodate affordable housing within the state’s regions.  Sacramento directs regional agencies – ABAG in the Bay Area, SANDAG in San Diego – to assess housing needs in the area and assign a number of housing units regional towns, cities, and counties must zone for.  Marin has had trouble keeping up with the RHNA cycle and only now are the last towns finishing their housing plans.  Unfortunately, they took so long to finish that the next RHNA cycle is about to begin, dropping voters with more homes to zone for just as they figured out how to zone for the last bunch.

This cycle will be different.  ABAG is working with MTC, BAAQMD, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission (BCDC) to develop a regional Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), tying housing allocations to transportation, air quality, and water quality.  This unprecedented level of regional coordination means communities will need to work within the still-incomplete SCS or face financial penalties, as the regional agencies control and disburse a great deal of federal and state funds.  After going through a round of grueling negotiations over the last cycle’s allocations and angst over the loss of local control, the SCS is just one more thing for local politicians to worry about.

Pulling Out

Into this walked Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilwoman Carla Condon.  For months she has argued that the association is trampling local rights, pursuing a social engineering project to make Corte Madera look like Oakland.  Mayor Bob Ravasio concurs, and would rather receive housing allocations directly from Sacramento.

I’m on record against these allocations – they distort the housing market and do rob cities of local control.  Yet I also know these allocations can do a great deal of good.  The densities mandated are not excessively high, and are met or exceeded in many parts of Marin, and they can give municipal councils an excuse to add housing near transit and historic downtowns.

Withdrawing from ABAG, as Corte Madera is considering, would not change either of those realities.  By dealing directly with the state, Corte Madera would be setting itself up to deal with a bigger bureaucracy with less chance of coming out on top.  As well, pulling out of ABAG could create a logistical mess for Corte Madera at other regional agencies, as transportation funding and support will be tied to the RHNA process, making even more work for town staff to sort out the inconsistencies with every other government in the region.

Far better would be for Corte Madera to spearhead a Marin County housing subregion.  ABAG allows localities to create subregions that can assign their own affordable housing needs.  Although ABAG still gives the subregion a total number of units, the subregion can assign those units however it likes.  A hypothetical Marin subregion would reestablish a modicum of local control over the allocations, allowing amenable cities, like Mill Valley or San Rafael, to take more units while others, like Corte Madera or Novato, would receive fewer.  Allocation would happen through the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers, so all localities would have a say in how allocations are made.

Alas, such a subregion would apply not to this coming RHNA cycle but the next, as the deadline for subregional formation passed last March.  As well, it’s unlikely Corte Madera would be able to pull out of ABAG for this coming cycle either, meaning any reform will need to come from within ABAG or be in preparation for the rather distant future.  Given the major bureaucratic reforms coming with One Bay Area, it’s too soon to say if the regional agencies will be too difficult for Marinites to handle.  In the interim, Councilwoman Condon should focus more on shaping the final RHNA numbers to Corte Madera’s liking than trying to pull the city out of the ABAG altogether.

The SMART Area, Part 1: Land Use

Looking east on Fourth towards downtown. Photo from the Downtown SMART Station Area Plan

Over the next few days I’ll be posting my impressions and comments regarding the San Rafael SMART Station Area Plan.  It’s such a large, complicated, and potentially game-changing document that it needs more than just a single post.  Today we tackle land use.  Subsequent posts will examine parking, mobility, and the future of the area.

San Rafael has released its draft downtown SMART Station Area Plan, and I must say that I’m excited.  So many good policies are wrapped into this – reducing parking requirements, form-based zoning, traffic calming, street engagement – that it has the potential to change the face of San Rafael and Marin by showing what can be accomplished with sensible zoning and real walkability.  While not a 180-degree turn in local planning practices, it’s pushing that direction.  If comments from the Planning Commission are any indication, there’s a hunger to go all the way, and that can only mean good things.

If you’re just joining us

San Rafael’s Station Area Plans cover the immediate areas around the upcoming Civic Center (for another post) and downtown SMART stations.  The downtown station will be located at the current site of Whistlestop Wheels and will be the terminus for the system’s Initial Operating Segment (IOS), which will extend north to Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa, roughly 37 miles away.

To prepare for the incoming train, San Rafael convened the Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives from San Rafael; the San Rafael Redevelopment Agency; SMART; the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District (GGB), which operates GGT; Marin County; Marin Transit; and the Transportation Authority of Marin.  Their mission: to create the first real transit-oriented, mixed-use communities in Marin since the end of the Northwest Pacific Railroad in 1941.

This location is almost antithetical to transit-oriented development, located as it is next to the elevated section of Highway 101 that cuts San Rafael in half.  Second and Third are extremely busy arterials that function as extended freeway ramps, and the area is dominated by parking lots and auto-oriented uses, such as gas stations and body shops.

Almost antithetical, but not quite.  The station neighbors the Bettini Transit Center, which has buses departing frequently to all over the Bay Area and sees thousands of riders per day, and the Fourth Street commercial corridor.  Existing residential neighborhoods have a strong walking component, even under the freeway.  In other words, the neighborhood may be ugly but it is the transit and commercial nexus of the county, and that makes it ripe for redevelopment.

Better zoning

The key to development in this area is fairly basic: make it a place people want to walk around in and stay through safe sidewalks and streets, calm traffic, interesting sights and sounds, and high degrees of connectivity.  This is exactly what the plan advocates.

For land use, the plan recommends increasing height limits along Heatherton to 66 feet, enough for five-story structures, and to raise the limit to 56 feet along Irwin, as well as along Fourth Street to Grand.  Within these zones, the floor-area ratio would be raised to 2.0 and 1.5, respectively, while both areas would see density requirements lifted.  Residential uses would not count towards FAR, while parking minimums would be relaxed, although not eliminated.

I wrote last week about the need for residential development within the core, and the above would aid immensely in this endeavor.  Conceptual plans for the blocks immediately surrounding the station show the possibility of hundreds of new homes.  Given that a household can support 73 square feet of retail, just the example developments would support close to 20,000 square feet of retail.  Given the slack retail market in San Rafael, this will be a major boon to neighboring businesses.  With office development and the centrality of San Rafael to Marin, retail is likely to do extremely well.

The Montecito Neighborhood Association, which represents homeowners along Fifth Street between Irwin and Grand, complained that increasing height along Fourth on their block would overshadow their homes, and I’m inclined to agree.  Really aggressive land-use liberalization could accomplish the same goal of pulling the downtown core across the freeway without increasing heights at all.  Perhaps the city could lift lot coverage maximums, implement a setback maximum, and lift parking requirements while maintaining a two-story height limit.

I hope that the Montecito Neighborhood Association will not come out against larger portions of the plan than just those that would effect their own homes, and so far they have limited their strong opposition to just those recommended changes on the eastern side of the freeway. If they do begin to oppose developments in places that would not effect their homes, San Rafael could have a problem on their hands.

I’m concerned about crowding out the possibility of a second track through town, however.  If the system performs better than anyone expects, it could lead to major problems down the line and severely limit capacity.  I don’t want planning now to put a ceiling on the system if we don’t have to.

In any event, these land use patterns are new and innovative for Marin.  The Planning Commission was strongly in favor of the plan, and some even wished it would go further, instituting parking maximums or abolishing the minimum altogether, but they also felt that San Rafael was not ready for that sort of thing.  This sort of change comes slowly, and the Station Area Plan is the first step.

Mid-Week Links: The Right Kind of Parking

So people sometimes think I’m a geek; I bore them to death with talk about LOS and bike lanes and units per acre, but when so much can be done with just bike parking I can hardly shut up.  Marin, despite its cycling culture, has very little bicycle parking in its downtown cores.  Replacing one car space every other block with bike parking in downtown San Rafael, for example, would add 50 bicycle parking spaces for only 5 car spaces.  As well, putting the bikes where drivers need good sight lines would make the program even better.

The North Bay

SMART construction has officially begun!  For the moment it’s just survey teams and a sign, but the $103 million contract has sparked the first construction work of the project.  Construction will be from Santa Rosa’s Jenning’s Road station, added back in during contract negotiations and now relocated to Guerneville Road, to the Civic Center.  Meanwhile, RepealSMART is turning to paid signature-gatherers to qualify for what they claim is the qualifying target: 14,902. They’ve acknowledged they wouldn’t be able to meet either of the two higher proposed numbers: 30,000 or 39,000. (Press Democrat, IJ, Business Journal, Watch Sonoma County)

  • Tea party protesters interrupted a One Bay Area public planning meeting in Santa Rosa.  I hope Marin’s meeting will be more civil. (Press Democrat)
  • There is a problem with the Wincup development in Corte Madera.  Apparently the parking garage is going where a new freeway ramp – part of the Greenbae Interchange Project – is supposed to go, and TAM isn’t happy. (Pacific Sun)
  • Larkspur has a pedestrian bridge design. (Patch)
  • BioMarin is expanding to the San Rafael Corporate Center, lowering the city’s office vacancy rate from 40% to 12%. While office employees only support 4 square feet of retail, it is a chance to build more street life in eastern downtown. (Patch)
  • The Novato pot club has done what the Fairfax club could not: survive. Although neighbors and city and federal officials want to shut down the club, owners are soldiering on after winning an eviction suit from their landlord, who complained there was marijuana smoking on the premises. (IJ)
  • The driver of an Aston Martin caused a four-car crash on Highway 101 after losing control of his vehicle and clipping another driver’s car.  The highway closed for 30 minutes. (IJ)
  • Larkspur Landing could get parking fees on 160 of its “prime” parking spots for only $65 per month.  GGT is mulling the move to help close the Bridge District’s 5-year, $87 million deficit, although the program would only amount to $625,000 over that time frame. (IJ)
  • A cyclist severely injured himself on Alexander Avenue on Wednesday when he lost control of his bike and crashed into a guardrail.  Sausalito wants to redesign Alexander Avenue to make it safer for the many cyclists who use it to get to and from the Golden Gate Bridge. (IJ)
  • Terrapin Crossroads lives, and it’s heading to the Canal to take over the site of Seafood Peddler. The approval process is expected to be handled administratively, as Seafood Peddler already had most of the appropriate permits. (Pacific Sun, IJ)
  • Design and zoning issues could become a political issue in San Anselmo now that Councilman Jeff Kroot is involved in a spat with a neighbor over a planned expansion of Kroot’s home. (IJ)
  • High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are not financially viable on Highway 101 through Marin, according to a TAM study, without upping the carpool requirement to 3 passengers. It’s just as well, as HOT lanes would cripple any casual carpooling initiative in the county. (IJ, The Greater Marin)
  • Healdsburg wants to fix an old bridge for $12 million, but don’t have the money to do it.  Federal officials are skeptical of the plan and appear to prefer replacing the bridge for $25 million. (Press-Democrat)

Mid-Week Links: Onward and Upward

Dipsea to Tourist Club

The Dipsea Stairs

It has been an extremely busy weekend apparently, with retrospectives, bond sales, HSR criticisms, new laws, and more.

Marin County

  • Mill Valley’s alleys and stairs, pedestrian shortcuts up and down the hills that cars can’t manage, are one of the signatures of the town. Photographer Skip Sandberg has taken it upon himself to document them all. (IJ)
  • Golden Gate Transit is now 40 years old.  Born out of a transit victory in 1969 that stopped a second deck on the Golden Gate Bridge, GGT – despite its many faults – has proven itself invaluable to the North Bay time and again. (IJ)
  • SMART has jurisdiction over the Measure Q repeal effort, according to the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters. This bodes ill for RepealSMART, as they have called the signature threshold SMART wants unobtainable. (IJ)
  • The monthly federal tax exemption for transit decreased on January 1 from $230 to $125 – roughly half the cost of a Marin-SF commute – thanks to Republican obfuscation in Congress. The exemption for parking increases from $230 to $240.  (SF Examiner)
  • Sausalito wants to redesign Alexander Avenue to be more bike-friendly, widening shoulders and potentially adding a tunnel.  Public comment on the plans are open until January 27. (IJ)
  • Mill Valley wants to update their 1989 General Plan in just 18 months. They met last night and will meet again on January 17 to discuss the scope of work. (Patch)
  • A driver struck a teenager in Petaluma just after New Year’s.  The boy suffered major injuries but is in stable condition. (Patch)
  • Richardson Bay’s Aramburu Island will be transformed into a nature preserve 50 years after the development that spawned it fizzled in the early 1960s. (SF Chronicle)
  • Marin’s plastic bag ban and paper bag fee are now in effect.  If changes from Washington, DC’s similar bag fee are any indication, Marin’s fee will work wonders on peoples’ habits. (IJ)

The Bay Area

  • The Sustainable Communities Strategy, branded as One Bay Area, will mean major changes for the region as regional agencies try to limit greenhouse gas emissions. ABAG and MTC are planning a tour to explain the state-mandated plan as its development gets under way. They’ll be at the Marin Civic Center on January 17. (Mercury News)
  • San Francisco now allows storefronts facing the street to build “parklets”, extensions of the sidewalk that use up at least two parking spaces, and they’re popping up everywhere. (SF Chronicle)

State of California

  • Most of California’s redevelopment agencies will likely be shut down after losing their court fight against Governor Jerry Brown’s austerity budget, although cities promise there will be more litigation. The agencies captured property taxes to fund themselves, which the Governor said was a drain on local and state budgets. (LA Times, Pacific Sun)
  • LA will soon follow San Francisco’s example and install a downtown performance parking system. While performance parking seems to be the future, it may be wise to understand parking’s past. (Los Angeles Magazine)
  • California communities can now round down their streets’ calculated speed limits, rather than being forced to round up. (Land Line)
  • CAHSR should not be funded just yet, according to a review group with heavy clout in the state Legislature.  Governor Brown may push forward anyway. (LA Times, SF Chronicle)

The Greater Marin

  • Ottawa, Ontario, is planning out the areas around its light-rail stations stations.  The city – as big and diverse as a county – specifically wants to upzone in choice areas, and doing so is just as complicated as one might think. (Ottawa Citizen)
  • Vancouver, BC, is building new micro-apartments in a trendy neighborhood and renting them for $850 a month, showing the folly of the unit-per-acre density limits ubiquitous in Marin. (Grist)
  • Don’t abandon the public process so easily – project outcomes are positively correlated with participation.  I’m looking at you, SMART. (Next American City)
  • A whole mess of new transit projects start construction starts up this year across North America.  It’s a good thing. (Transport Politic)

Mid-Week Links: Buffering

MCBC does wonderful work on bike paths, getting the whole county connected, but it neglects the needs of better on-street bike lanes and what they could do to improve the streetscape for all users.

Marin County

Novato’s city council meeting Monday night was four hours of non-stop affordable housing policy excitement. In sum, the city will allow second units to be built at market rates but, citing concerns over current residents of illegal second units, will not give amnesty to those illegal units. The fee to build the second units will come down, and the city will look into how to encourage second unit construction. The city will not implement an affordable housing fee on commercial developers, known as a commercial linkage fee, but did not rule out exploring it in the next housing element in two years. (City of Novato, IJ)

  • Fairfax is concerned that expanding White Hill Middle School will add more traffic to the town’s roads. Unfortunately, the school’s remote location 1.5 miles from downtown means mitigation will be tough. (IJ)
  • Once again, a car accident closed a direction of Highway 101. This time, all southbound lanes were closed. Only minor injuries were reported. (IJ)
  • Marin Transit will reevaluate its Novato bus lines over the next week to determine how to improve ridership. Ideas include extending the 49 and combining the 51 and 52. GGT should work with Novato to improve access, perception, and urban form in the area. (News Pointer)
  • It’s official: Gary Phillips is mayor of San Rafael, Gary Lion is mayor of Mill Valley, and Denise Athas is mayor of Novato. (IJ)
  • San Rafael extended a moratorium on opening new group homes of seven or more people. (IJ, Patch)
  • Another week, another pedestrian struck in Novato. The man suffered minor injuries while crossing De Long Avenue near Sherman Avenue, a block from downtown. (IJ)
  • Apparently Marinites like their government and are willing to pay to keep it going at current levels. (IJ)
  • Safe Routes to School has dramatically altered the behavior of students in Marin, shifting 8% of single-student car trips to walking, biking, transit, or carpooling. (IJ; TAM report available here [pdf] on page 183)
  • Mill Valley is testing a way to electronically comment at city council meetings, which can be done here. A certain blogger you know will probably take full advantage. (IJ, City of Mill Valley)
  • San Anselmo is showing its community colors by supporting a woman who has had a particularly tragic year: foreclosure, breast cancer, and the tragic death of her husband while on vacation. (IJ)
  • Cutting trees is a big issue in San Geronimo Valley, where tree-cutting fees are up to 30 times what they are in incorporated Marin. (IJ)
  • The eviction of Fairfax’s medical marijuana dispensary will go forward. (IJ)
  • The Transportation Authority of Marin approved about $1 million in bike/ped projects at its last meeting. (IJ)
  • Peaking of bike/ped projects, the IJ editorial board wonders whether the $15 million bike/ped bridge over Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is worth the money. (IJ)
  • Just to be clear: Stand Up for Neighborly Novato doesn’t like the idea of housing at Hanna Ranch. If you want to comment on the sprawl development, please do: Novato City Council has scheduled discussion on the project for December 13. (IJ, Patch)
  • The runway at Novato’s Gnoss Field could be extended without major environmental impact. (IJ)
  • SMART and other projects are now evaluated under a cost-benefit and target analysis from MTC. The results were mixed. (Press Democrat)

The Greater Marin

  • San Francisco will soon allow drivers to pay for parking via cell phone. Since Sausalito is emulating the city’s performance parking practices, might cell phone parking come to Marin soon as well? (SFGate)
  • Cotati’s HOV lanes are now open to vehicles. (North Bay Business Journal)
  • The suburban office park – a la Marin Commons, Fireman’s Fund and Hanna Ranch – is disappearing. (Times)
  • Marin is better poised than most to take advantage of the shift away from suburban office parks and towards centralized development: with the SMART train, strong downtowns and some local political will, commerce might still look to Marin to relocate, even if not in the typical places.
  • ABAG and MTC have been awarded a $5 million federal grant to promote sustainable communities. (Transportation Nation)
  • Population growth has slowed dramatically in California. While the state grew at a rate of 0.7% per annum, Marin grew only by 0.53%.
  • In planning there is a concept known as Level of Service, or LOS, which is widely used and places auto traffic at the top of the planning pyramid.  In San Francisco, that metric is being challenged at last. (The Atlantic Cities)
  • SANDAG has released a Sustainable Communities Strategy under Senate Bill 375.  How long until ABAG does the same? (ClimatePlan)

ABAG Density and Affordable Housing: Neither Are What They Appear

Every seven years, the cycle returns.  The Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG, fulfills its California-mandated duty and examines the state of housing in the Bay Area, using the data to assign affordable housing quotas to its member cities and counties.  The following year or two sees each government in Marin haggle over where to wedge affordable housing zones without wrecking the neighborhood.  As Marin goes through this process yet again, it’s worth examining whether the process is really as bad as all that, and it’s worth wondering whether ABAG’s – that is, California’s – process even works.

Your Town Is Denser than You Think

Courtesy of Google

Rowhouses in Washington, DC: 22 to 44 units per acre

California mandates that all affordable housing zones meet one of two densities: 20 units per acre for cities smaller than 50,000 people, 30 units per acre for those larger than 50,000.  In Marin, some of the more partisan opponents to affordable housing use these density requirements to paint a picture of a Marin County overrun by poverty and crime, with apartment projects stretching into the skies.  They think of Oakland’s inner-city problems of the 1980s and believe that this is what will happen to Mill Valley and Novato if we allow any development.

It is clear from their imaginings that these partisans don’t realize how dense the mandates actually are or how dense their own city already is.  To imagine 30 units per acre, think of two-story rowhouses on a tree-lined street.  Each is a three bedroom, one bath home with a backyard, parking along a back alley, and a deck.  The example above is about 22 units per acre, more than the requirement.  This means the homes could be 10% wider, or could have small side walkways.

Duplexes in San Anselmo: 30 units per acre

The higher of the density requirements is 30 units per acre, we can look to duplexes with front garages.  These three-story duplexes on Forbes Avenue in San Anselmo count, and are about 30 units per acre.

If we want to go really crazy, take a look at those rowhouses above.  Each has what’s known as an English basement – a small, basement apartment, the equivalent of an in-law unit.  This 22-unit development is actually 44 units per acre!  Skyscrapers?  Hardly.  And if you think these are sardine cans, look at the profile local real estate blog DCMud did on a similarly-sized place near the Supreme Court: 3 bed, 2.5 bath.

California Mandates Explained

Although density itself should not be a problem, there’s a reason Marin has the mandates.  The State of California has mandated that regions “share the load” of accommodating for future population growth and has entrusted regional organizations, such as ABAG or the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), with determining how the region’s counties and municipalities will share.

In 2008, ABAG released its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, describing how much it believed the Bay Area population would grow and projecting regional demand for affordable housing.  (If you’re really curious about the process, you can read all about ABAG’s decision on their website.)  However, those mandates say that jurisdictions need to zone, not build, affordable housing of a certain type, with certain ratios for very low, low, moderate and above moderate income levels.  That means that a city can meet its quota by zoning that all new development in an area meet or exceed the ratios given by ABAG.

Does This Make Sense?

There is no doubt that the Bay Area is an expensive place to live.  Rents in Marin are as high as Washington, DC and parts of New York City, running about $900 per month per bedroom.  If one factors in the cost of car ownership and transportation, renting in Marin can easily be more expensive than San Francisco.  People, it seems, want to live here, but the price is too high for most.  At first blush, creating affordable housing seems to be a good answer.

Affordable housing does have a certain logic to it: prices are high, so control the price to make it lower so more people can afford it.  Unfortunately, what this really creates is a housing shortage, driving up the market price even further.

The economics of supply and demand say that when a commodity is scarce but demand is high, the price of the commodity goes up.  When the commodity is plentiful or demand is low, the price goes down.  In either case, there is enough of the commodity to go around among the people that can afford it; there is equilibrium.  When there is a cap on the price, it’s not as profitable to create the commodity so less is made, but it’s more affordable so more people can buy it.  With less being made and more being sold, there is a shortage.  This is what happens with affordable housing.

When San Rafael mandates that, say, 20% of a housing project must be below the market price, the developer has that much less incentive to build the project.  Often, the developer will entirely forgo the project and no housing is made, whether affordable or not.  This means that everyone that would have lived in that building has to look somewhere else for their housing, driving up competition, and therefore price, for those units that do get built, forcing more shoppers to the affordable housing alternative.  California’s mandates create affordable housing, but they also drive up the price of market-rate housing and increase the pressure to build more affordable housing.  It’s a vicious cycle.  The more demand there is for affordable housing, the higher the price goes.

Interestingly, affordable housing does serve one purpose well: income diversity.  Housing markets, if left alone, create affordable housing ghettos – think “the wrong side of the tracks”.  For the poor, the ghetto multiplies the problems of poverty and reduces opportunities for those that live there.  As well, ghettos are typically far from jobs, increasing the cost of transportation for those that can least afford it.  For the rich, their own wealthy areas insulate them from people unlike themselves, increasing prejudice against the chronically poor, such as new immigrants or minorities.  For both the rich and poor, the isolation means they cannot empathize with the other: the poor child can’t see herself being a doctor like her friend’s dad and the wealthy child can’t understand how much she has.  Economic segregation can be just as damaging to a society as racial segregation.

Affordable housing mandates are not the only tool in the legal toolbox to combat the problem.  Although California mandates affordable housing, it offers concessions to developers that do more than their mandated share, including increased units per acre variances from local zoning regulations.  California should replace the mandate system entirely in favor of a concessionary system, allowing developers to choose how much housing to make affordable and how much to make market rate.   A concessionary system would decrease the intensity of affordable housing construction but increase overall housing supply, driving down prices and affordable housing demand.

California’s mandates aren’t nearly as bad as they appear, but they are significantly more wrong-headed than one might imagine.  They won’t make Novato into the Tenderloin but they cannot solve our housing shortages.  That job is up to governments and developers; for the moment, though, the State is just getting in the way.