California is in a housing crisis. For a sense of its scale:
We're lucky that people want to move here. Newcomers want to participate in the opportunities available in our state, but a shortage of places to live makes it hard for them to make those contributions.
This is not a new problem, but for the first time there's a proposal facing the state legislature that could make a dent: Senate Bill 827 (SB 827). The bill would change zoning around transit to allow for mid-rise housing.
I've seen countless scary-sounding headlines like "Housing bill could result in 85-foot tall buildings on El Camino". I totally understand where these fears come from—I grew up around there, and it's frightening to think about how the places I love might change.
However, when I dug into the numbers, not only were my fears alleviated but I actually got really excited. Rather than the community-destroying godzilla it's been made out to be, SB 827 will make neighborhoods far more vibrant, eco-friendly, and equitable.
To get an intuitive sense of what SB 827 would make possible, some friends and I created renderings to illustrate its potential. We picked a few vacant but promising lots located near transit throughout the state. In a few years they could be a new home for some friendly new neighbors. Use the sliders below to see what they could become!
Most places in California have effectively legislated that the housing supply remain fixed. Meanwhile, demand skyrockets. These restrictions take the form of low-density zoning, which puts a tiny cap on the number of people who can participate in the community. People are then forced to compete for what limited housing is available, which pushes prices up.
The status quo disproportionately hurts the disadvantaged. Our current policy is making the state less diverse, displacing minorities and vibrant, edgy experimenters by pushing up rents to levels that only white collar professionals can afford to pay.
This shortage doesn't only hurt the people who want to move here. In reducing overall mobility, it stagnates the economy for everyone. Economists estimate that land-use restrictions reduced U.S. GDP as a whole by roughly 9% each year since the 1960s. (Even if we assume that's an order of magnitude off, at 0.9% per year, that compounds to a doubling of the economy that we missed out on!)
SB 827 would do away with a lot of these arbitrary regulations that restrict where people can live. It would allow supply to begin to respond to demand, bringing us an important step closer to reining in the absurd cost of living in California.
Housing prices in cities have risen faster than wages, pushing people ever further from their jobs. The result is tedious commutes, traffic congestion, and lost productivity. About 1 in 20 Bay Area commuters spends more than 90 minutes traveling to work, and that number is rising. That time would be better spent doing literally anything else, but we've given these workers little choice. Workers are forced to make a tradeoff—spend all of their time commuting, or spend all of their savings on housing close to work. Many people are opting out all together, moving out to settle down in more affordable regions.
This is not the natural ebb and flow of supply and demand. We have imposed an artificial shortage on housing similar to monopoly pricing that results in deadweight loss. Current rules allow people who already have access to all California has to offer to exclude others from those same opportunities. This massively disadvantages the large number of people who are excluded at only a slight short-term advantage to the people who are already here.
Californians pride themselves on welcoming newcomers, but this is a hollow ideal if we don't create places for them to live. SB 827 would alleviate this artificial restriction, and its focus around transit would minimize any additional strain on our infrastructure. It would allow more people to contribute to California's thriving economy, which is good for everyone.
To achieve California's environmental goals, we need to revisit local zoning laws. These restrictions mandate low-density housing around transit, which limits the number of people who can use it, induces sprawl, and pushes people to drive more.
If people can live near transit, they'll be able drive less. This is a big deal—40 percent of California's carbon emissions are from transportation, so making a dent in this number is key to reducing our overall environmental impact. A study from the Urban Land Institute found that policies to promote compact growth—like SB 827—could cut vehicle travel by 40 percent.
"It'll give us a much better chance of meeting our climate goals," said Senator Scott Weiner, who proposed the bill. "We'll never meet them with our current land-use patterns."
We make massive investments in California's transit infrastructure, but they go underutilized. The core of the problem is that local zoning rules restrict the number of people this infrastructure can serve.
When a neighborhood reaps the benefits of regional and statewide projects, their development plans should reflect the resources that the broader community has funneled their way. I sympathize with the desire for local control, but it's unfair and inefficient for a place to reap the benefits of investment by the broader California community if they don't respond in kind by welcoming neighbors that infrastructure was intended to serve. It just doesn't make sense to spend millions of dollars on a new transit hub surrounded by low-density sprawl.
SB 827 would go far in righting this imbalance. The bill would cut some of the red tape around building around transit, enabling us to make the most of our transit investments.
A concern I hear a lot is that this bill could damage neighborhood character due to overcrowding, ugly condos, and so on. Again, I sympathize with this fear. As a Bay Area native, San Francisco's unique charm holds a special place for me, and I don't want the Painted Ladies to be replaced with a massive condo.
Fortunately, housing people and building beautiful neighborhoods are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they complement one another!
Paris, perhaps the most beloved city in the world, is a good illustration. It's gorgeous and does not feel overcrowded, so most people are shocked to learn that Paris has higher population density than New York City. A big part of what people love about the city is just how accessible everything is, which is only possible when there's a critical mass of people to support an abundance of shops, cafes, and transit. They manage to do this even while working with an 8 story limit throughout most of the city! Paris simultaneously supports a dense population and is one of the most livable cities in the world. We can do that in California, too, without sacrficing what we love about our communities.
Here are a few pointers to get started learning more about California land use and how SB 827 would impact the state:
If you have any questions, disagreements, or additions, please email me at [email protected]! I (obviously) love discussing this stuff, and with an issue of this complexity there's always more to learn.
Also please note that amendments to the bill were made in early April that make some of the specific details in the renders incorrect.
We're at an exciting inflection point. A pro-housing coalition has been building steam, and the movement includes grassroots groups, Governor Jerry Brown, legislators across the state, businesses of all sizes from every industry, and more. Legislation of this ambition would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but now it's just a matter of time.