Does Land Use Planning Equal Unaffordable Housing In San Francisco?

Randal O'Toole blames land use planning for high housing costs in San Francisco in this op-ed column.

"...as recently as 1970, Bay Area housing was as affordable as housing in many other parts of the country...What happened in the 1970s to make Bay Area housing so unaffordable? In a nutshell: land-use planning."

O'Toole criticizes legislation enacted by local governments since the 70s and ties its impacts to social justice, economic mobility, and so-called progressive attitude.

O'Toole also criticizes the planning efforts to mandate construction of affordable units -- "The solution to the Bay Area's housing affordability crisis is not a few units of affordable housing, but widespread land-use deregulation that will make housing more affordable for everyone."

Full Story: The high price of land-use planning

Comments

Comments

Randal wants no planning.

Today, residents of Houston, Texas, can buy a brand-new four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath home on a quarter-acre lot for less than $160,000. That same house would cost you more than five times as much in Marin or Contra Costa counties, seven times as much in Alameda County, and eight to nine times as much in Santa Clara, San Mateo, or San Francisco counties.

Sigh...sadly, a segment of the population will find this argumentation resonant.

There's higher demand in the Bay Area than Houston because of the multitude of amenities there. Hence the land shortage and higher prices.

Yes, lovely Houston is surrounded by beautiful mountains, scenic ocean, dozens of institutions of higher learning, moderate climate, and lacks fire ants. No, really: all kinds of people I know are clamoring to move to Houston to be closer to Tahoe and the wine country and SoCal beaches and Salinas Valley produce and Yosemite and Shasta Lake and Marin Co and Chinatown and the UC/CSU system.

The benefits of protecting open space are particularly questionable. The 2000 census found that nearly 95 percent of Californians live in cities and towns that occupy just 5 percent of its land...representing a sad distortion of social priorities.

Red herring. Greenspaces add to quality of life and are amenities and hence have use and amenity value (which are social priorities). Greenspaces not only offer stress relief via attention restoration, but increase property values nearby in addition to providing places for kids to play. Maybe we should pave over Central Park so the low-income folks can have their space too instead of that questionable open space.

Good for us that groups like SACOG and others with thoughtful members aren't swayed by this type of argument.

Best,

D

Have you ever lived in Houston?

Quote:
"Sigh...sadly, a segment of the population will find this argumentation resonant."

Yeah, normal middle-class folks who can't afford a home in the Bay Area.

Quote:
"There's higher demand in the Bay Area than Houston because of the multitude of amenities there. Hence the land shortage and higher prices."

Hmmm....you might want to check out the numbers. The Houston CMSA has grown at a much faster rate than the Bay Area over the last decade. In fact, over the last five years, the City of Houston alone has added more population than the entire Bay Area combined...so mcuh for less demand. Yet their housing prices have remained well below the national average...hmmm, maybe it's the other part of the price equation (supply). What land shortage, the artificial one? I see open land all around plus plenty of room to build up in the Bay Area, the problem is you can't because of artifically imposed restrictions...that's what's creating higher housing prices...did you even read the article, or did you just respond in a knee jerk fashion?

Quote:
"No, really: all kinds of people I know are clamoring to move to Houston..."

Wow, you must not get out much...did you check the numbers yet...more people are moving to Houston than the Bay Area. Even if all the things you say about Houston are true (which, admittedly, many are...crappy climate, lousy geogrpahy) then why do more poeple move there than to the Bay Area? According to you people should be beating down their doors to get here...yet more people are moving to Houston, which is the armpit of the world according to you?

Quote:
"Greenspaces add to quality of life and are amenities and hence have use and amenity value (which are social priorities). Greenspaces not only offer stress relief via attention restoration, but increase property values nearby in addition to providing places for kids to play."

Again, did you even read the article? He implied that green spaces have benefits, but every benefit has an associated cost. The question is if the cost is worth the benefit? Are open space laws and other property restrictions worth the cost of creating a place no normal person could afford to live? San Francisco has the lowest amount of children of any major city...not a lot of kids enjoy those social benefits you're touting.

Quote:
"Maybe we should pave over Central Park so the low-income folks can have their space too instead of that questionable open space."

Talk about a straw man. He was clearly talking about things like farm preservation in Livermore and urban growth boundaries...way to throw in some hyperbole. Also, you're still missing the point, low-income folks who can't afford a home because planning laws have made it too expensive to buy one won't be enjoying any of the green space created becasue they will already have moved away.

Quote:
"Good for us that groups like SACOG and others with thoughtful members aren't swayed by this type of argument."

Yeah, god forbid normal middle-class folks have a chance to live and raise a family in the Bay Area...we have to reserve more places for the rich and childless. Please drive up housing prices even further SACOG, disregard any semblace of eceonomic reasoning and keep passing laws to increase my property value. That way when I cash out and move I can retire.

Ricardo

Yes, I have

Yes, Ricardo, I was born and raised in Houston. I moved out as soon as I possibly could, and would never consider returning. I will gladly pay as much for a studio here in Cambridge, MA as I would pay for a detached single family home in Houston. Why? Probably for the same reasons you’re not leaving San Francisco: I can walk, bike, or ride the subway to work, people actually walk on the sidewalks…but you know the story.
By all means, increase the housing stock. The most efficient way to do so would be to build high density single and multi-family residences near existing development, transit stops, etc. This isn’t rocket science.
We have a land shortage in MA too, created not by smart growth advocates but by minimum lot requirements in suburbs, which ensure precisely the sort of development that makes Houston such a regrettable city.

Clay

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

You are of course both right

On the one hand, Houston (despite its many nasty qualities) is doing a better job of attracting people and retaining families than San Francisco- and maybe its low housing prices have something to do with it. Many people will take cheap over beautiful if that's what is necessary to have what they consider a decent amount of living space.

On the other hand, I would certainly rather live in San Francisco if I could afford both places.

So to make Northern California a decent AND affordable price for middle-class families, you are going to have to plan less and deregulate more- but deregulate first and foremost near existing development and in a way that promotes walkability, so families won't have to live in Houston-like conditions to have Houston prices.

I agree

It's not a land shortage when you have plenty of land but you're not allowed to build on it...it's a government imposed price control basically. I'm all for building high density housing near transit, but try and do that in a place like Boston or San Francisco. You can't, you'll get thousands of planners and city officials talking about "out of context development" "community benefits zoning" "public input" "why don't you build five units instead of twelve"...everyone's allowed to have their finger in the pot, and nothing but luxury condos and retail space gets built of all the red tape and politics.

I disagree

Actually, the Massachusetts legislature recently passed two laws – Chapters 40S and 40R – that provide financial incentives to communities that agree to build dense, transit-oriented development. The problem is not the government. The problem is that if any planning director in, say, Wellesley, advocated for such development, his eyes would be clawed out by the well-manicured nails of nimby soccer moms who will not stand for their precious little ones to share classrooms with the grubby offspring of the middle and lower classes. Phrases like “government imposed” grossly distort and oversimplify the situation.

Clay

Yes, NIMBYS are disgusting.

Yes, NIMBYS are disgusting. However, I will remain of the opinion that only because the government has so overreached its bounds on property regulation that the well-connected can use government to squash whatever it is they don't like (development-wise). Simple private citizen action could not stop development without getting the government to intervene on their behalf. Wasn't that the orginal intent of zoning in Euclid anyways...to stop apartments from being built near single-family homes?

We have some BANANAs

Wasn't that the orginal intent of zoning in Euclid anyways...to stop apartments from being built near single-family homes?

Euclid was about police power and enforcing zoning districts to separate incompatible uses as constitutionally allowed. The apartment buildings were a buffer between industrial and SFR and not primary to the case.

And I just gave a lecture recently on NIMBYism, and my preparation for this lecture didn't find a widespread groundswell against gummint overreach as you want to believe. It's grounded more in protection of space, investment and property values. Just because you are emboldened doesn't mean your views are close to the majority.

Best,

D

My minutae on Euclid might

My minutae on Euclid might very well be off, but wasn't the heart of the matter that Euclid didn't want to become Cleveland...with all the apartment dwellers and factories...so Euclid passed land use laws regulating land uses to basically prevent Clevelandization?

Whatever my views are, pointing out that NIMBYs are only succesful because they can lobby government to do their work for them is hardly controversial.

I Blame NIMBYs, Not Officials

In Berkeley, at least, the planners and officials are generally backing transit-oriented development, but a huge horde of NIMBYs usually comes out to oppose each project -- prolonging the approval process, making it much more expensive, and discouraging most developers from proposing projects. As evidence, I will try posting an article from our local newspaper.
Charles Siegel

bot searches

There must be some bot searches out there for the benefit of property-rights/anti planning laws folks, who seem to be gathering in increasing numbers to pass along the boilerplate argumentation to a new URL not yet saturated with their words. Nonetheless, we press on:

Planning laws are passed by elected officials acting on the behest of their consituents. Constituents with access. For example: the reason Glaeser bemoans the lack of land in the Northeast is because the constituents with access asked the electeds for large-lot zoning to protect their property values. A different example of forces at work: in my town, the market has driven home building to change to large homes on 1/5 ac lots that the legacy resident here can't afford.

Certainly Euclidian zoning has flaws, but eliminating zoning isn't going to find enough land to fill demand for housing in the Bay Area. In the Central Valley, housing demand outstrips supply there too, despite the lot sizes being larger and there being an ever-elastic growth boundary.

There are, simply, too many people moving to CA for the amenities. That's why I moved away, BTW. Too many people with less and less space.

Best,

D

No, I read planetizen everyday.

Quote:
"There must be some bot searches out there for the benefit of property-rights/anti planning laws folks, who seem to be gathering in increasing numbers to pass along the boilerplate argumentation to a new URL not yet saturated with their words. Nonetheless, we press on:"

No, just former planners tired of people with no knowledge of economics and a know-it-all attitudes, traits I found common in most of my planning colleagues.

Quote:
"Planning laws are passed by elected officials acting on the behest of their consituents. Constituents with access. For example: the reason Glaeser bemoans the lack of land in the Northeast is because the constituents with access asked the electeds for large-lot zoning to protect their property values. A different example of forces at work: in my town, the market has driven home building to change to large homes on 1/5 ac lots that the legacy resident here can't afford."

You actually just agreed with Randall O'Toole, although you're getting your terminology mixed up. Large lots reqs., open space protection, height req are all artificial impediments to development which drive property prices up. However, they are most definitely not the free market at work, they are government imposed restrictions on the operation of the property market. It's the government picking the winners here (at the behest of special interests of course). The market still acts through these restrictions of course, which is why you get big houses on small lots in your town (single-family zoning only, so builders max value by building bigger houses...many would build multi-units if they could, but the law forbids it). I'm gonna go out a limb say that we both actually want the same thing, we just disagree on how to get there... Plus I love how planners want to reuturn to the urban forms of the past when those forms sprang up organically, with no rules at all.

On Euclidian Zoning, of course eliminating it would not get rid of the housing shortage, as much of the cost of housing is attributable to the delay and risk of the entitlement and permitting process...but it might help. Of course you could build enought housing to satisfy demand in places like the Bay Area, but it might involve highrises, and we couldn't have that now could we...we might offend a planner's aesthtic sensibilities.

Good times on the comment board.

Apparently I need to get a partial refund on my tuition, to get my money back on the econ classes I took - they didn't include free market fetishization. Do you know how I can do this? Thank you in advance.

And my reaction was driven by your standardized binary argumentation. See, I just mirrored what I saw. Not very fun, is it.

However, there is hope, as you say: I'm gonna go out a limb say that we both actually want the same thing, we just disagree on how to get there... which is true.

Best,

D

True, true. I wasn't very

True, true. I wasn't very civil and I apologize. I will continue to be a free market fetishist and you can continue to be a planning totalitarian and hopefully we can both arrive in the same beautiful urban spaces.

Ricardo

De nada.

Thank you. As I implied in my 'dichotomist' point, just because you want to impose your views as widespread doesn't make me a planning totalitarian according to your projection. You have no idea of my views on the suitablity of traditional Euclidean zoning and planning concepts, as I haven't expressed them.

Best,

D

There's the rub

No, I do not know your specific postions on euclidian zoning and other planning concepts, but you've certainly expressed pro-planning positions in other comments, and planning by it's very nature seeks to impose one's vision in place of another's. Totalitarian...not quite, but definitely leaning that way.

Ricardo

Nope.

...and planning by it's very nature seeks to impose one's vision in place of another's. Totalitarian...not quite, but definitely leaning that way.

You don't know the first thing about the profession. Good luck in educating yourself enough to be able to speak to the subject.

Best,

D

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