Ask the grumpies: How to address the affordable housing crisis in expensive cities

Yet another pf blog asks:

What policies do you think are best to address the affordable housing crisis in expensive cities?

Definitely not rent control!  I cannot tell you how many lectures I’ve suppressed on this topic when being a tourist.  (Instead I say, “Sorry!  I’m registered to vote in another state and cannot sign your petition.”)

The big answer is:  Loosen up zoning to allow more high-rise apartment buildings to be built.  It is as simple as that, so long as you make sure that the developers and additional taxes contribute to the additional pressure on local public goods.  But there are a lot of SF suburbs that only allow 2 or 3 stories to be built.  The second big answer is reliable public transportation (my favorite is light rail, but commuter rail and buses with special highway lane access are also good) to places outside that have affordable housing so people can commute to work.  Even our best subway and elevated systems could use expansion in terms of number of trains, number of lines, and just plain maintenance.

7 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How to address the affordable housing crisis in expensive cities”

  1. rose Says:

    That ‘Public Transportation’ point is key. For SF suburbs BART is a common transportation line and it has been suggested that high rise housing near the BART stations will help. EXCEPT they also say with BART right there there is no need to provide parking spaces for each unit as people will use BART instead of cars. BUT, grocery stores are more than a mile away from many Bart stations, and the bus system other than at commute hours may only run every 1-1 1/2 hours, and not at night. In Portland they are building some high rises with NO parking at all for any residents … because public transportation, therefore cars not needed. That ignores reality. PEOPLE OFTEN NEED TO GO PLACES WHERE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION DOES NOT GO. Like stores, doctors, hospitals, schools, jobs, visit senior members of family, etc. Distances seniors cannot walk, that people with small children cannot manage. UBER/LYFT/taxi is super expensive for fixed income or low income people. High rise car parking near BART means being alone after dark walking out of view of others which equals potential victim of crime. AND, today being on BART is increasingly putting yourself into a crime zone especially at non-commute hours where there are fewer people to come to your aid…..
    AND, how do you get to public transportation routes without car and where do you store your car while using the public system. Back when I worked a normal traffic day car commute was 1 hr each way, a bad day was 1 1/2 to 2 hrs each way. Public transportation with 3 transfers was close to 2 hrs each way. Reality bites, unlike major cities in other countries, in SF area public transportation does not have supporting transportation/access. Even before we talk about the BART stations/escalators/elevators being public latrines.

    • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

      I checked the Lyft price for a trip we need to take later this week in San Jose. It is estimated at $17.66 for 8.9 miles—about $2 a mile. That is fairly expensive, but slightly cheaper than 3 people taking public transit at $6–$6.75 each (and much faster—the public transit requires a transfer and takes over an hour).

      Taking Lyft for a daily commute is probably not cost-effective, but for weekly errands, it is probably cheaper than owning a car.

      Transit-centered development requires retail and services, not just housing, to be clustered around transit centers. The SF Bay Area has not been good about doing such development.

  2. Matthew Healy Says:

    My friend David Smith who runs the Affordable Housing Institute often uses the phrase “zoning themselves Blue in the States.”

  3. SP Says:

    Grumpies for mayor!

    Rent control emotionally feels appealing to those who can’t afford the housing market – but I agree with your assessment that it isn’t a real solution for the long run. I wonder if in CA specifically prop 13 impacts prices since it promotes less turnover of the housing stock? Or maybe that is a separate issue with less impact on this.

    We had a property (was a large area with several buildings, think like a school or something) that was being sold recently, and the neighbors banded together to attempt to prevent it from being developed into more housing, and only sold to a similar school-type organization. This is in a very residential area where more housing would have fit right in, although the ongoing construction for years would have been a pain and high density housing may have been out of place. They ultimately where successful in their lobbying and it was bought by an organization and maintained, but it was NIMBY in action and really sad to see. Even if it was probably better for our own property value, etc. (although it was further away and wouldn’t have impacted us so much).

    • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

      Prop 13 definitely acts to reduce housing development, because housing costs more in services than it provides in property taxes, so local governments have had strong incentives to favor retail development, which brings in sales tax as well as property tax. Prop 13 also reduces turnover of both commercial and residential property.

      We also have rampant NIMBYism, as people try to block any high-density housing that might lower their own property values.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    I have thought about this a lot, but not read anything (yet). Like you, I’ve thought that we need to increase supply, ideally by increasing density. The problem is: profit-seeking developers of course want to start with the cheapest property, which means that low-income people end up priced out of their neighborhoods. And the new stuff is always billed as “luxury.” Grr.

    Then in my city, we try to legislate that some percentage of new units be “affordable,” but really they mean subsidized. (Also, in the one area I checked out, the “affordable” housing was more expensive than my house, and you couldn’t have it unless your income was lower than mine, so I wouldn’t call it affordable at all.) I really think people ought to be allowed to have housing that is NOT the most expensive they could possibly afford.

    I’ve thought it would be better if developers who are greatly increasing density should have to make some of those units available, affordably, for the current residents (renters as well as owners). Indefinitely. (But that’s sort of like rent control, but only for certain people, and would surely also have negative repercussions.) Or grant them enough to be able to live in another part of town. The current residents’ choice.

    My town is trying to change zoning rules and people are freaking out and talking about history and cultural importance to fancify/disguise their NIMBYism. So my best idea is to increase the density of just a few areas at a time. And then some people can live in awesomely connected dense spaces, and other people can live in their McMansions with their big yards. We do have some higher-density building in the area where an airport was removed, and it’s very popular, though they still segregate the retail and residential–and we haven’t seen a single first-floor living arrangement that wheelchair accessible, so that’s not why.

    And, yes, ideally we switch to mass transportation. But how? My best idea is that some parts of town get re-done as high-density urban areas like are all over Europe, with businesses on the bottom floors and residences upstairs. Have parks and neighborhood grocery stores every block or two like in Spain. And start off with parking garages around the periphery, so that people from other parts of town can visit without actually driving through the place. Have mass transit within these parts of town, with stops at the parking garages as well. Eventually demand for parking will diminish and you’ll be able to tear them down and building something good.

    Europe wasn’t always dense; I wonder how they transitioned.

  5. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    This made me think of some SF area friends who are vehemently against high rises in the city. I get that it changes the skyline and all but.
    . we need housing. I do worry about places in our city where they’re pursuing higher rise building than is considered normal but don’t seem to have made any adjustments to the surrounding infrastructure and I worry we’re just going to have a massive mess in downtown as a result.

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