Sacramento Bee: Local zoning is getting in the way of housing

February 22, 2018

By Mott Smith And Ethan N. Elkind

For a long time, being an environmentalist meant stopping things – dirty power plants, the clear cutting of trees and new dams.

But in the battle against climate change, we must build – specifically, more affordable homes for our growing population.

The perfect place to build these homes is near major transit stops, so residents don’t have to drive for every errand and can avoid contributing to traffic and pollution. A recent UC Berkeley and Next 10 study showed that doing so would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 1.79 million metric tons a year, equivalent to taking 378,000 cars off the road.

Fortunately consumers want walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. So why aren’t we building more already?

The unfortunate answer is that too many California cities and counties impose zoning restrictions that make it practically impossible to build low-cost, walkable housing. For decades, state leaders have allowed these local zoning policies to proliferate, to the point that the state now faces a severe housing shortage.

In response, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, has introduced landmark legislation to encourage more housing near transit. Senate Bill 827 would increase allowable density, eliminate minimum parking requirements and modestly raise height limits, depending on the location.

The result would be potentially millions of new walkable, transit-oriented homes over the coming decades that will solve many of California’s most pressing housing challenges. First, they would benefit the environment by reducing sprawl, traffic and air pollution. Second, these homes would boost transit ridership and the finances of struggling bus and rail networks. Third, they would help narrow income inequality by lowering home prices. Finally, they would provide numerous high-wage construction jobs.

Despite these benefits, opposition to the bill will be formidable. Leaders from some communities fiercely defend exclusionary zoning, sometimes out of understandable concerns about traffic and parking, but other times out of bigotry. Advocates for low-income renters are concerned that a development boom may displace these residents, even though our housing shortage is worsening gentrification. And even Sierra Club California recently opposed this bill, partly out of concern that a backlash might discourage new transit projects but also because it fears new development. Yet these opponents have failed to provide proposals of their own to deliver desperately needed housing to Californians of all incomes.

Change won’t come easy on hot-button land-use issues. But the status quo that so many groups defend drives the very problems we most need to solve – sprawl, environmental damage, transit disinvestment and gentrification.

We can only address these problems through bold action to boost California’s housing supply in the places we need it most. SB 827 is a long-overdue reform that will help the state rebuild its middle class, boost transit ridership and preserve the environment and quality of life that Californians cherish.

Mott Smith is co-founder of Civic Enterprise Development and a director of the nonprofit Council of Infill Builders and can be contacted at Ethan N. Elkind is director of the climate program at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley law school and can be contacted at