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Yes, California needs taller, denser development near transit. But not at the expense of affordable housing

Yes, California needs taller, denser development near transit. But not at the expense of affordable housing
Construction cranes loom over a development site along Figueroa Street near the L.A. Live entertainment and hotel complex in downtown Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)

California has the sixth largest economy in the world, but the state still has the nation's highest poverty rate. Why? Because of the staggering cost of housing. When housing expenses are tallied with incomes, U.S. Census officials estimate that one in five Californians live in poverty.

For the last year, California lawmakers have rightly made solving the housing crisis a top priority. They passed several bills during the last legislative session to streamline development permits for builders in order to ease the shortage of available residential units, and to fund low-income housing developments. They are also putting a $4-billion affordable housing bond on the November ballot.

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Now Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has proposed perhaps the biggest bill of them all — SB 827 — empowering the state to override local zoning laws to let developers build taller and more densely around rail stations and bus lines (if they offer frequent service during rush hours). The bill would let developers put up buildings between four and eight stories tall, even if local zoning codes don't allow it. (The greater height would be allowed to projects closer to transit lines and on major streets.) The bill would apply not only in commercial areas but also in single-family zones, which have often been exempt from similar "upzoning" proposals in the past.

Wiener argues that left to their own devices, cities will continue to develop in an unsustainable fashion, allowing mostly low-slung apartments and single-family houses. That will exacerbate the state's housing shortage — an estimated 3.5 million more homes are needed by 2020 to meet population and market demands. And it will continue a pattern of sprawl that encourages people to rely on polluting vehicles, which increase greenhouse gas emissions and hasten climate change.

Los Angeles could use a nudge on the issue of greater height and density near transit stops.


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Wiener is right. Traditionally, cities and counties make land-use decisions. In theory, that local control allows cities to meet their housing obligations in a way that gives neighborhoods a voice in the process and an opportunity to shape development. In practice, however, local control too often means "no" to new development. Most cities in California have failed to permit enough housing and they've shied away from denser, compact development that would be more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly.

So, yes, the state needs to play a larger role in pushing local governments to approve more housing near metro stops. But what is the appropriate role for state lawmakers and how much local control should they take away?

The bill would have a major impact on Los Angeles, where huge swaths of the city are close to transit stops or bus lines. Los Angeles has recently embarked on an ambitious effort to work with neighborhoods to update the city's 35 community plans and to rezone land around transit stations — much of which could be rendered moot by SB 827.

To be sure, Los Angeles could use a nudge on the issue of greater height and density near transit stops. The Expo Line Transit Neighborhood Plan is the city's first effort to encourage more homes, shops and jobs along a transit line — but it exempts nearly 90% of the land around the Westside stations, including many single-family neighborhoods. That's a missed opportunity to allow more density, such as triplexes, fourplexes and townhomes, that could be compatible with single-family neighborhoods.

But here's a potential problem with the bill: By setting blanket height and density increases statewide, the bill, as currently written, could eliminate key affordable housing incentives and protections designed to reduce displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods.

After voters passed Measure JJJ in November 2016, the city enacted a Transit Oriented Communities incentive program that encourages developers to build taller, denser projects (and with less parking) near transit stops — if the developer includes affordable housing. The policy also requires developers to replace any affordable units they demolish in the course of building new projects.

That program would be undermined by SB 827, which would upzone land around transit stops for any residential development, even if it did not include affordable housing. That's a concern because the development of rail lines and the opening of new stations can often spur gentrification and displacement. Yet low-income workers are three times more likely to ride transit than wealthier workers, who are more likely to own cars and drive.

California clearly needs to make it easier to build housing. And it makes sense to concentrate new housing near mass transit to encourage people to get around without cars. Surely lawmakers can come up with legislation to push cities to approve taller, more dense housing near transit without completely overriding local control or undermining existing efforts to incentivize the building of affordable housing.

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