By Josh Cohen.
That California is in the midst of a statewide housing crisis is not a particularly controversial statement. A 2016 report from the McKinsey Global Institute puts some stark numbers on it. Real estate prices are rising three times faster than household incomes and 50 percent of the state’s population cannot afford housing. The state is also adding new residents faster than it’s building housing. To address pent-up demand, McKinsey found that California will need to build 3.5 million homes by 2025.
While there’s widespread agreement on the fact of the crisis, there is very little on how to address it. California State Senator Scott Wiener has proposed a radical solution: removing density limits and parking requirements and up-zoning every transit-oriented neighborhood in the state. The controversial bill has drawn support from YIMBYs, the tech industry and others who say bold action that spurs lots of new housing construction is the only thing that will make a dent in the problem. It has garnered opposition from some mayors, neighborhood councils, low-income community groups and the Sierra Club California chapter who oppose the loss of local control, oppose new housing in general and worry the bill could accelerate gentrification and displacement in low-income communities and communities of color.
“The lack of housing affordability is harming our state’s economy as companies consider moving elsewhere because their workers can’t find a place to live. It is severely undermining our climate goals as we push people into longer and longer commutes. It harms our diversity as lower income people and people of color are pushed out of urban cores. It undermines the health of communities and families,” says Wiener.
His goal is to spur construction of tons of housing built near transit — not only increasing the supply, but increasing it with supply that doesn’t necessarily require people to use cars as their primary or only mode of transportation. If passed, his bill would preempt local residential zoning restrictions for areas within a half-mile radius of a major transit hub or a quarter-mile radius of a high-frequency transit corridor with no more than 15-minute waits between buses or trains. Maximum buildings heights could be between 45 and 85 depending on the neighborhood. Wiener points out his bill just raises maximum height limits, it doesn’t set a minimum height for developers and areas that have already been up-zoned to allow those heights won’t see further height increases. The bill would also get rid of minimum parking requirements and density limits for housing construction.
“For a long time we have allowed local communities almost complete latitude whether to build any housing at all,” says Wiener. “California has lots of major transit hubs zoned exclusively for single family homes and other low density housing as far as the eye can see. It makes no sense to have low density zoning around major transit infrastructure. That’s exactly where we should put high density housing.”