Marin Voice: We need more housing near public transportation

February 25, 2018

By Scott Wiener

Do you think more people should be allowed to live near public transportation? If so, I hope you’ll consider supporting Senate Bill 827, a bill I’m authoring to allow more people to live near transit, to reduce gridlock and carbon emissions and to address our massive housing shortage.

California’s cost of housing is strangling our state. People are being driven out of communities. Young people can’t afford to live where they grew up. Workers can’t afford to live near work and are pushed into crushing commutes, thus undermining our climate goals and creating horrendous gridlock.

Employers are considering relocating out of state, or moving expansion plans to other states, because their workers can’t find housing.

At the heart of our housing crisis is a simple fact: California has been growing for decades without adding nearly enough new housing to absorb that growth. Experts estimate our state’s housing deficit at nearly 4 million homes. That deficit grows by 100,000 each year, as the state adds less than half the new homes we need annually.

Recently released data shows that 97 percent of California cities fell short of their housing goals. Marin met just 33 percent of its already-low countywide housing goal. To put that number in perspective, each year Marin builds a mere one home for every 35 Marin high school graduates. Where are all those young people going to live?

To address our state’s profound housing shortage, I’m authoring SB 827, which allows more housing near public transportation by ending the ban on small- and mid-size apartment buildings. Areas around transit are exactly where we should be focusing new housing.

In Marin, these areas include locations within a half mile of SMART train stations and ferries and within a quarter mile of high-frequency bus stops.

Currently, all too many transit hubs in the state are zoned exclusively for single-family homes, which limits who can live near transit, pushes low-income and middle-class people away from transit, forces people into long commutes and increases highway gridlock and carbon emissions. SB 827 does nothing more than legalize small- and mid-size apartment buildings near transit.

Allowing more homes near public transportation has multiple benefits. First, it will help us reduce our huge housing deficit. A recent study by McKinsey Global Institute concludes that permitting more homes near transit is the most effective way to add the housing we so desperately need at the scale that we need.

Second, for cities that have inclusionary housing ordinances (requiring that a percentage of new homes be affordable to lower income people), allowing more housing near transit will increase the number of affordable homes at no cost to taxpayers.

Third, allowing more housing near transit will reduce carbon emissions — helping us meet our climate goals — and ease the gridlock we are experiencing on our freeways and roads.

SB 827 does not change how projects are approved. Instead, SB 827 provides that if a project is within a half- mile of a major transit hub or a quarter-mile of a high-frequency bus stop, cities will allow higher density and heights of between four and eight stories, depending on the size of the street. In effect, SB 827 allows small- to mid-size apartment buildings where they are currently banned near public transit.

Since introducing SB 827, my office has been working diligently with a broad range of stakeholders to make the bill as good as it can be. We continue to welcome constructive feedback.

California’s housing status quo just isn’t working, and we need change. Over the past half century, our state has pursued a “housing last” policy, viewing housing as a problem to be avoided and erecting obstacle after obstacle to new housing. We are long past the point where we can view housing as a problem. Housing is a solution, and it’s time to remove the obstacles and move toward a “housing first” policy.

Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is a state senator representing San Francisco and northern San Mateo County. Before being elected to the Senate, he served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Read the op-ed on the Marin Independent-Journal website