Property Rights

California Bill Cutting Back Zoning Could Increase Access to Housing and Jobs for Millions

By greatly reducing zoning restrictions on housing construction, Bill 827 could massively expand opportunity for large numbers of people.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

San Francisco.

As economists and other experts on both right and left have come to recognize, restrictive zoning is one of the biggest obstacles to affordable housing and job opportunities for the poor and lower middle class. Zoning restrictions on housing construction literally lock out millions of people from housing and job markets, greatly lower the potential incomes of the poor and lower middle class, and impeding economic growth. The state of California—especially the San Francisco Bay area—has some of the nation's most egregious zoning rules. A new bill in the California state legislature, sponsored by liberal Democratic state Senators Scott Wiener (San Francisco) and Nancy Skinner (East Bay), and Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting (San Francisco) would radically alter this sorry state of affairs. Henry Grabar has a helpful description at Slate:

Wiener's bill, SB-827, flies in the face of every assumption Americans have held about neighborhood politics and design for a century. It also makes intuitive sense. The bill would ensure that all new housing construction within a half-mile of a train station or a quarter-mile of a frequent bus route would not be subject to local regulations concerning size, height, number of apartments, restrictive design standards, or the provision of parking spaces. Because San Francisco is a relatively transit-rich area, this would up-zone virtually the entire city. But it would also apply to corridors in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and low-rise, transit-oriented suburbs across the state. It would produce larger residential buildings around transit hubs, but just as importantly it would enable developers to build those buildings faster.

As Wiener describes in a Medium post about the bill, a McKinsey study finds that, if enacted, it could well facilitate the construction of some several million new housing units in urban and suburban areas within California. Many of them would be in areas with numerous job opportunities, such as Silicon Valley, which currently shuts out large numbers of people with its zoning rules.

Wiener's bill is not perfect. For example, I disagree with its requirement that buildings within the affected areas have maximum height requirements of 45 to 85 feet (depending on the location), in cases where there were preexisting local height limitations that are lower than that. In my view, the height of a new building should almost always be decided by the owner, not the government. It would have been better to override local height limitations entirely, except perhaps in situations where taller buildings pose a threat to public safety. Nonetheless, the bill would be a truly revolutionary improvement over the status quo. It would simultaneously increase housing and job opportunities for the poor, facilitate greatly increased economic growth, and strengthen protection for property rights.

As Grabar notes, the bill may well be "too radical to pass." It will surely face opposition from some current homeowners and a variety of powerful interest groups, including politically connected developers, influential landowners who benefit from inflated housing prices, and others. But even if it does not pass, it is a valuable addition to the political debate, and could help promote progress by expanding the "Overton Window" of policy options that become a part of mainstream discourse.

As Cornell Law School Dean Eduardo PeƱalver (a leading left of center property scholar), recently wrote in a Facebook post about Bill 827, "[i]ncreasingly, land use law will be where progressives and libertarians meet." It is hard to find a better example of this convergence than combatting restrictive zoning in California. This is an effort that deserves the support of libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and anyone else who cares about protecting property rights, affordable housing, expanding opportunity for the poor, or increasing economic growth.

UPDATE: The original version of this post incorrectly described the bill's provisions with respect to height limitation, which I described as a minimum height requirement rather than a default maximum height that localities can raise, but not lower (I mistakenly following Grabar's description without sufficiently checking it against the text of the bill itself). I apologize for the error, which has now been corrected.

UPDATE #2: It is possible to interpret the bill as imposing the 45-85 foot maximum height limitation only in cases where the local government has a preexisting height limitation of its own, which is lower (it applies, according to the wording, only in cases where "the project is exempted from the local maximum height limitation," which may mean the 45-85 foot limit does not apply in cases where there is no local height limitation at all). That now seems to me the most plausible interpretation of the text. In that event, there would be no height limitation at all for new development projects in areas where the local government chose not to impose one. I have further amended the relevant part of the post, accordingly. I again apologize for not studying this matter as carefully as I should have.

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94 responses to “California Bill Cutting Back Zoning Could Increase Access to Housing and Jobs for Millions

  1. I applaud as better than the status quo, but I smile at the prospect of the legal arguments over “frequent bus route” — bus routes are way too easy to change. I can see the lawsuits claiming politicians changed a bus route location or frequency to favor cronies and abuse enemies, lawsuits over how frequent is frequent enough, advocates lobbying for combining or splitting bus routes to change what zoning it affects … bring out the popcord!

    1. The ambiguous definition problem can be resolved by reading the text of the bill. While “frequent bus route” does not appear in the bill at all, the terms used (such as “high-quality transit corridor” or “major bus stop”) are pretty well-defined. There’s a little room for factual argument over “peak commute hours”, perhaps.

      I totes agree with you that there’s room for shenanigans, although that’s true for all zoning schemes (and mass transit plans) to some degree or another.

    2. I can see the lawsuits claiming politicians changed a bus route location or frequency to favor cronies and abuse enemies

      At least in large urban areas that is actually hard to do. Especially in San Francisco where most buses run off overhead electrical wires and stop in areas that special infrastructure is needed to support buses (e.g. cement padding instead of normal asphalt).

      1. In DC, there are a bunch of zombie bus routs through wealthy neighborhoods that no on rides. But the residents use their clout to keep the routs going, because they want the option just in case.

        1. See also the under-development Milwaukee Streetcar, which almost perfectly duplicates an existing bus route, but just so happens to run between high priced condominium towers on Lake Michigan and downtown office buildings.

          1. I don’t think I’ve seen a single streetcar project that wasn’t a corrupt boondoggle/handout to developers. There’s no reason, in theory, why they couldn’t work, but they’re not typically designed to be actually useful to anyone.

            I’m guessing the Milwaukee Streetcar will: run without fares and infrequently, like every half hour or so. Is that right?

            1. The yellow line in Portland was pretty well placed, finished under-budget and ahead of schedule.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAX_Yellow_Line

        2. Their maids do. You just don’t get up early enough.

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  2. Unshackled developers constructing unlimited apartments with limited to no parking? I cannot think of a single way in which that could go wrong.

    1. Yes, I was somewhat amused by the notion that, if you lived near a bus or train stop, you certainly wouldn’t need anywhere to park a car. But that’s California for you.

      1. Not a city dweller, are you? Retired to a peaceful cul-de-sac somewhere?

        1. Nope, not a city dweller, but my sis did live in a suburb of Chicago.

          Even if the transit system could take her to work, and the market was within walking distance, she had other needs, and where were guests who didn’t live in the city to park?

          Transit without parking only works if it’s all inclusive. And it’s never all-inclusive.

          1. What do you mean be “all inclusive”? I’m being serious, I honestly don’t know. I’m also thinking about my time in Tokyo in which I could get everywhere through Bus, Train, and Foot.

          2. A “suburb of Chicago” is not “living in the city,” as much as it may seem so to you.

            I have never in my life owned a car or, after moving out of the house of college, regularly used one to get around. And I’ve lived in both small, car-centric cities as well as large, transit-oriented ones. It’s much easier to do than you seem prepared to recognize. There are solutions to all of the “problems” you might care to cite.

            Suffice it to say that transit-oriented development makes a lot of sense and is extremely beneficial for people living in dense areas with transit but housing shortages. Repealing parking minimums is a key step towards letting markets decide how much parking supply is needed, and that in turn helps to boost housing supply.

            1. If the new developments in my SF neighborhood are any indication, parking requirements are currently 1/2 of a space per unit. That generally translates to a single level of subterranean parking.

            2. Suffice it to say that you have nothing to offer besides virtue-signaling to your fellow collectivist travelers.

              Vague platitudes about things being “much easier to do” are no evidence of anything besides evidence of your hubris and smugness.

              1. Suffice it to say that you have nothing to offer besides virtue-signaling to your fellow collectivist travelers.

                Oooh, buzz words! You win all the argumentz!

                Don’t take my word for it. Look for pattens of development, land value appreciation, and economic growth in cities with effective transit. Look at studies on how much parking minimums add to the per-unit cost of construction for new housing.

                What’s “collectivist,” when it comes to urban planning, is the mandatory creation of a vast public pool of parking that quickly suffers to a tragedy of the commons-style over-use. Municipalities spend millions of dollars every year just to store peoples’ vehicles, and then impose significant construction costs on land-owners as well. You’re so deep down the “collectivist” hole you don’t even know which way is up.

            3. Simon, you are really getting abused by the car crowd. Pretty funny.

              I lived for 7 years without a car. It was fine. I do think that people who have never had that experience are completely in the dark about what it looks like. A great unknown, therefore strange and scary.

              1. @jdmichels:

                I live 4 miles from work–both within the city limit. It takes 1 hour on public transit, which I’ve taken exclusively for 3 years now, to go those 4 miles. By car, the drive is 20-30 minutes in rush hour. (Biking isn’t an good substitute here given the terrain.)

                So. It’s possible to live without a car but there are significant sacrifices on personal time. 24 hours per month of extra time spent sitting on a bus is not insignificant. And after three years, that bus can be quite “strange and scary” to even the seasoned commuter.

                1. (Biking isn’t an good substitute here given the terrain.)

                  Have you tried it? I’m not closely familiar with the SF terrain, but I know plenty of people bike there. You could probably save even more time (and get some exercise) if you could manage to bike faster than the 8 mph average speed you can get in a car. In transportation circles, a four-mile commute is considered almost a perfect distance for bike commuting.

                  Hell, you could slowly jog to work faster than the bus gets you there.

                  1. @SimonP,

                    Biking in the city is heavily dependent on your origination and destination points. The hills here can be significant but there are known routes to circumvent them. One such route is nicknamed “the Wiggles.” This is the one I’d need to use to get to work because between my home and my office is Mt Davidson and Twin Peaks. The Wiggles turns that 4 miles into a 7 mile ride, still up and over some steep inclines, and would get me to work in about 45 minutes plus whatever time is required to shower and change after. This makes biking a poor substitute for a car or bus in this instance.

                    In SF, the public transit issue I face is that I don’t work downtown. If I did, my BART ride would be 12 minutes. Our public transit system is designed to get people to and from downtown very efficiently–and only to and from downtown. Any other destination involves multiple buses, going slow, meandering around the city, exchanging a cheap ride for your personal time.

            4. “Suffice it to say that transit-oriented development makes a lot of sense and is extremely beneficial for people living in dense areas with transit but housing shortages”

              But not more beneficial than its costs, or there would be enough demand to make doing it profitable without government subsidy.

        2. Yeah, I happen to live in San Francisco, and on the same block as several “frequent bus routes”.

          Transit in SF is a joke. It takes an hour to get downtown from where I live. I drive to San Mateo for work in less time.

          They’ve started this nonsense of requiring fewer parking spaces already with predictable results. Also, they keep making the roads narrower for “traffic calming” and to add bike routes. This also “calms” the buses, of course.

          Doesn’t surprise me this is from Wiener. He’s a collectivist piece of crap. Wants everyone to live in Soviet apartment blocks and ride crowded filthy buses like a good prole.

          1. They’ve started this nonsense of requiring fewer parking spaces already with predictable results.

            Aw, whatsamatter, is it getting harder for you to find “free” parking, now that the government isn’t mandating that private property owners create a glut of it?

            Also, they keep making the roads narrower for “traffic calming” and to add bike routes. This also “calms” the buses, of course.

            Traffic engineering sure is hard to understand when you’re only thinking about your own commute!

            Wants everyone to live in Soviet apartment blocks and ride crowded filthy buses like a good prole.

            Hey, buddy, what would happen to your drive to San Mateo if everyone owned a car and commuted like you did?

            1. I understand “traffic engineering” perfectly. It’s a way for corrupt local politicians to keep friends and family in the construction industry fed and watered with make-work projects.

              I’m perfectly comfortable with everyone traveling by car to wherever they want if we build more roads with private funds, and allow the private funders to collect fees for fast traffic lanes.

              Current “traffic engineering” subsidizes the privileged few who can afford electric cars.

              1. I’m perfectly comfortable with everyone traveling by car to wherever they want if we build more roads with private funds, and allow the private funders to collect fees for fast traffic lanes.

                Ah, so you don’t understand traffic engineering, then.

                There is simply not enough room to accommodate that many drivers. Especially if you try to do it through purely private funding and control. Not only would drivers then indirectly bear the entire costs of the road infrastructure they use – and they don’t currently – but those private owners would have to shell out serious cash to buy all of the property they would have to pour asphalt over. Which, of course, they wouldn’t do, because land is more valuable when it’s being used and not just driven over.

                If you don’t believe me, look at any major toll-funded project in this country over the past few decades. The only places these projects even get off the ground are dedicated, monopolistic corridors – so you can forget the comprehensive road networks you take for granted – and even then private investors demand public guarantees of revenue.

                1. I-95 & I-495 corridor in VA around Springfield has toll lanes in parallel with the standard toll-free lanes. Would you care to revise your statement “The only places…”.

      2. Got a young relative living in Chicago with no car. She actually could get a residential parking pass, but doesn’t want to deal with the cost and hassle of having a car in the city. But the nearest el stop is only a couple minute walk and there’s plenty of shopping nearby, so she’s fine without a car.

        1. Until she has to go somewhere else. Yes, it’s not difficult to get to and from work and the stores you will commonly need without a car in parts of Chicago (and Evanston)

          I still couldn’t have lived without my car unless I wanted to spend vast sums on taxis 10 years ago

          1. Uber and ZipCar combine to completely change the calculus there.

          2. How would those “vast sums on taxis” that you hypothetically could have spent compare against the amounts you actually paid to park, insure, and drive your car?

            I’ll say that, while Chicago is eminently walkable, it certainly isn’t easy to do some things without a car, like go from the south side to the north side, or really between any two neighborhoods not directly connected by a single El line (given the largely hub-and-spoke design of the system as a whole and the inconsistency of the bus lines). So I’ll admit I hailed quite a few taxis while living in Chicago. But enough to feel like I would have been better off with a car? No.

            1. I grew up in NYC, and was without a family car as a child until age 15 or so. I walked to grammar school, rode the subway to high school, and started college on the train, too. My private HS commute was kind of like the regular rush hour commute, crowded, and generally safe. College hours were off the rush hour, and this was the time, particularly after the public schools were dismissed for the day, when young thugs rode and roamed the subways in search of victims.

              Have you ever been mugged, robbed, accosted, beaten? Have you ever had a gun stuck in your face? More than once?

              In many cities, public transit off rush hour is not a safe option.

              I changed schools to one not requiring a subway ride. I got a car.

              I have never been mugged, robbed, accosted, beaten, or had a gun stuck in my face inside my car.

            2. Well, I’d estimate $46=4680 a year on taxis ($20 each way 3 times a week, and that’s after a long L ride with a transfer)) and another thousand on medium/long bus trips (Chicago to Madison once a month for two people).

              Compared with $700 a year in insurance, $0 in parking (ok, a few tens of dollars a year at meters in Evanston, but in general my driving was to places with free parking), and 6500 miles a year at $2.50 gas and 25 MPG gets you $650

              So four times as expensive to not have a car, plus maybe a couple of hundred hours wasted.

              1. oops, I changed it to $15 a taxi ride to get the $4680 but not in the text.

    2. Otis, it works in NYC (limited to no parking for tenants).

      I agree though that the quality of life aspects need to be better thought out.

      Will there be enough schools? Parks? Bike paths? Shopping, restaurants, and entertainment (movies, etc.), within a short walking distance?

      Unshackled development is only good for the developers.

      1. What does “enough” means here? And why wouldn’t developers want those things? Don’t nearby amenities increase the value of the development? (If they don’t, why do we care?)

      2. Unshackled development is only good for the developers.

        You mean property owners don’t you? Look to Tokyo as a example why limited regulation on what an owner can do with your own property yields lots of housing that a middle aged family can afford.

      3. Given that this is oriented towards denser cities in California with established train/subway stops or major bus stations (collection points for lots of commercial activity), I don’t think this is much of an issue.

        In San Francisco, there isn’t a shortage of any of those things you list. There is a dramatic shortage of housing though.

    3. Yeah, you can’t trust the market to figure this kind of thing out.

      1. Y’know, you making that comment on the same day Rick Perry’s plan to require utility customers to subsidize aging and unsustainable coal mines and nuclear plants got slapped down makes me giggle because I find the flexibility of Free Market Orthodoxy to be sadlarious. And I giggle when I’m sad laughing.

        1. Don’t mistake crony capitalism of the sort practiced by a great many GOP politicians, like Rick Perry, for “Free Market Orthodoxy”. They are NOT the same.

    4. That’s a feature, not a bug. They want people to stop driving cars and hope that increased congestion will induce people to fund more mass transit to nowhere.

      1. Not many are more cynical about California politics than me, but do you have any proof of this underlying motive?

        1. You’ve never heard of a road diet?

          1. Was “road diet” supposed to be a link? If it was, it doesn’t work.

          2. Road diets are designed to slow traffic speeds and, in doing so, reduce traffic injuries and fatalities. They make streets safer, ideally without significant reductions in throughput. (“Slower” traffic can often actually move more people, if the traffic is more regular and rationalized.)

            Drivers have a hard time wrapping their heads around it, but traffic infrastructure is just like every other piece of civic engineering: there’s a science and technology to it.

            1. The reality is that they are just as likely to be used as smoke screens for increasing urban density, NIMBYism, tiny special interests like bicyclists, etc.

              1. The reality is that they are just as likely to be used as smoke screens for increasing urban density, NIMBYism, tiny special interests like bicyclists, etc.

                Dense urban planning is smart urban planning. Didn’t you realize this? Do you have any idea how expensive sprawl is, for municipalities? If you look at most cities’ finances, you’ll see almost direct redistribution of wealth from urban cores to suburban neighborhoods.

                And the idea of big infrastructure projects being undertaken to serve politically powerless demographics is… ridiculous, maybe? But here’s a question: Can you explain why cyclists should be required to ride with car traffic, when they typically travel at much slower speeds and are not protected by heavy, steel cages? Do you understand why most streets will have sidewalks on either side of them, despite often not having any pedestrian traffic?

                1. “Do you understand why most streets will have sidewalks on either side of them, despite often not having any pedestrian traffic?”

                  You have never been to NYC, I take it. And, I have been in SF, and there are lots of people using the sidewalks. Some even sleep on them.

            2. And what happens, I wonder, to road throughput when you decrease traffic speeds? This is a really hard one, we might need to call in some experts to figure out what the result is

              1. And what happens, I wonder, to road throughput when you decrease traffic speeds? This is a really hard one, we might need to call in some experts to figure out what the result is

                It’s probably the opposite of what happens, I think, when you build streets around the intuitions of drivers.

            3. Yes, that was supposed to be a link.

              Simon, you’ve correctly related the pretext for road diets. They might even work under a limited set of circumstances.

              But much of the time they don’t work, because they’re no being used to improve traffic flow, they’re being used to discourage people from driving.

              It’s kind of like the way speed limits are supposedly objectively set according to the safe speed for traffic on the road, but in reality are mostly set to generate revenue.

              1. But much of the time they don’t work, because they’re no being used to improve traffic flow, they’re being used to discourage people from driving.

                This assertion can only be made without any evidence whatsoever, since in most cases road diets do actually slow speeds and improve safety. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a road diet project where injury-causing crashes increased.

                It’s kind of like the way speed limits are supposedly objectively set according to the safe speed for traffic on the road, but in reality are mostly set to generate revenue.

                Actually, most speed limits are set at the speed adopted at a certain percentile of the speeds naturally used by drivers on that street. I think the typical percentile is something like 85% – so, if 85% of traffic is going under, say, 45 mph, then the speed limit is set there. What that means is that there’s necessarily going to be some part of traffic that “speeds,” because their drivers feel safe going at higher speeds than most others.

                The vast majority of speed limits do not exist to generate revenue. If they did, then you’d see a whole lot more support for speed-enforcement cameras than we just about ever see.

                1. Example of a road diet that has arguably made matters worse. “From 2011 to 2016, the city [of LA] averaged 11.6 accidents a year on Culver and Jefferson, according to the lawsuit, and since the road diets were implemented, the streets have seen 20 accidents. Additionally, Vista del Mar has had four accidents in two months and Pershing has had three, the suit states.” (link)

                  We don’t live in Progressive Utopia where the allegedly “smart” bureaucrats of the administrative state rule benevolently. And even to the extent that reducing speed decreases traffic fatalities, that does not make it cost effective. But tiny, influential special interests like bicyclists (who overlap with pro-urban density, environmentalist zealots like Wiener) are made happy.

        2. Scott Wiener in his own words: “California State Senator. Urbanist. Environmentalist. Advocate for transit, housing, parks, and education. Democrat.”

          “Today, I’m announcing three new proposals to continue down the path of putting housing first. These three bills (1) mandate denser and taller zoning near transit…
          California has a number of communities with strong access to transit, and we continue to invest in public transportation. Too often, however, the areas around transit lines and stops are zoned at very low densities, even limiting housing to single family homes around major transit hubs like BART, Caltrain, Muni, and LA Metro stations.
          Mandating low-density housing around transit makes no sense. It pushes more people to drive by leading to sprawl, thus undermining our economy and environment. It also leads to significant inequities, as limited density around transit spikes the prices of transit-accessible housing, meaning lower income and working class people struggle to live there and are pushed out into non-transit areas.
          Transit-rich areas are *exactly* where we should be putting dense housing. We must build more housing near transit so that we can reduce reliance on cars and so that more people can access the benefits of transit.”

          So mandate increased density around existing transit hubs, which will increase congestion, which, in turn, will increase demand for more mass transit, and so on in a vicious cycle of China-style government planning.

          1. except it’s not like they can build new mass transit in California anyway

          2. So mandate increased density around existing transit hubs, which will increase congestion, which, in turn, will increase demand for more mass transit, and so on in a vicious cycle of China-style government planning.

            This is bizarre doublespeak. “Mandating density” means “lifting government restrictions so that people can live where they want to live and developers can build what the market will support.” No one is directing anyone to live near transit. They’re just acknowledging that arbitrarily low caps on development are depriving people of housing supply where they want it.

            Why is it that you seem to expect municipalities to make living in sprawling suburban developments desirable, but not near transit corridors?

            1. The bill does not lift restrictions so that builders may build what they believe the market will support. The bill only exempts certain government specified types of higher density buildings from restrictions. The government is still picking winners and losers; it’s merely changing the winners in accordance with the socialistic plans of fools like Wiener.

          3. Translation: NIMBY forces are winning and causing a housing crisis that impacts a majority of state residents. So, we’ll pass a bill to defang the NIMBY crowd on this issue.

    5. Well sure.

      And hopefully the next developer will learn from the mistakes of the first developer that doesn’t include enough parking. Sometimes you gotta let people fuck up and become a horrible warning.

      Or, y’know, we could be wrong and there’s enough folks that would chose to forego a car and take the transit and cheap(er) rent. Only one way to find out.

    6. “Unshackled developers” still want to make a profit. That means offering product that people want, and that enough of them will pay a sufficiently high price for to make the project profitable. Things are far, far, far more likely to “go wrong”, as you say, when the people making the decisions about just how many units are allowed in a given project and how many parking places must be provided have no skin in the game, none of their own money at risk. Like petty bureaucrats laboring under the delusion that they, and they alone, can see what is in the “public interest.”

    7. Developers will build parking spots to the extent that purchasers or renters wish to pay more for the parking spots than could made of any other use of the space.

      To the extent that purchasers don’t value the spots very highly, perhaps they aren’t very valuable?

      1. I spent five years in Boston often forgetting to move my vehicle to another street before street-sweeping day, and five winters battling others for the right to park in public on-street parking spaces that those people claimed were theirs. Parking is valuable. It’s valuable a.f..

    8. Parking restrictions can also work the other way. Here in Minneapolis, the city caps the number of spots at .9 per unit (you have to apply for a variance if you’d like more). There was one local developer who constantly fought the city on it. He wanted to put in more spots or offer guest parking.

      The rules basically discourage certain types of people from living in an area: families with two working parents, families with teenagers, people who work places other than downtown. Instead, the housing becomes attractive for people who can work from home, retirees, cyclists, etc. Since the poor often work jobs out of the downtown core, it discourages them from moving in too.

      When I read this, I assumed it was a way of allowing developers to put in more underground spots than the cities otherwise allow.

  3. Reading the bill, I see that it’s not a “minimum” height requirement, it’s a “maximum” height requirement. You don’t have to build skyscrapers, you’re just permitted to.

    1. I think you’re right but it isn’t easy to tell. Can somebody explain what this means:

      If the transit-rich housing project is within either a one-quarter mile radius of a high-quality transit corridor or within one block of a major transit stop, any maximum height limitation that is less than 85 feet, except in cases where a parcel facing a street that is less than 45 feet wide from curb to curb, in which case the maximum height shall not be less than 55 feet. If the project is exempted from the local maximum height limitation, the governing height limitation for a transit-rich housing project shall be 85 feet or 55 feet, as provided in this subparagraph.”

      1. There’s something missing in there. The bit about “any maximum height limitation” doesn’t seem to resolve. I’ve read a lot of poorly constructed zoning regulations, and this one is making me dizzy.

      2. Wait! I think I have it. Our condition is “transit-rich project” that meets a maximum distance requirement from a transit corridor or stop. Next we seem to be taking into account the fact different communities may impose, locally, a maximum height that is less than 85 feet. But if the parcel faces a street that is less than 45 feet wide (by curbs, not layout), then a minimum maximum height of 55 feet is required?

        Did I did it, y’all? Did I did it?

        1. Yes, you did it. That was how I interpreted it, too. Near transit your maximum building height can’t be set at less than 85 feet tall. Unless it fronts on a narrow road, in which case it can be as low as 55 feet.

          This doesn’t require owners to build tall buildings, it just limits the extent to which the local community can stop them from doing so.

          1. So they are /actually/ talking about “minimum” heights, without forcing themselves to /say/ it. They are talking, basically, about four or five stories, about like much residential streets in Manhattan, but /allowing/ for the truly skyscraping housing in much of Seoul, Hong Kong, and other big Asian places. Still, they couldn’t help themselves; they had to add zoning requirements about height.

            They could have just left that stuff out, because any developer worth her salt would know there’s a ton of money to be made in such buildings. Even in smallish suburbs like where I live, there are a lot of condo developments with parking in the basement, retail/dining on the ground floor, and four or so stories of housing above them.

            1. No, they’re not talking about minimum heights, you can build as low as you like under this bill.

              They’re talking about setting the minimum maximum heights, the lowest local governments are allowed to cap heights at.

  4. The bills seem pretty spare at the moment; will be interesting to see how they are fleshed out during the legislative session. I am in general not particularly fond of Sacramento asserting authority over things that have generally been governed on a local level.

  5. Finally, an ‘Affordable Housing’ initiative that isn’t a bubble machine. Wealthy urbanites might be P/Od that their real estate holding won’t show as much appreciation, though…

    1. On the other hand, the lower taxes would be nice.

      1. Lower taxes? Not sure how you get that from this bill. With California Prop 13, my property taxes aren’t going to increase much for as long as I own the property. It doesn’t matter what they build next door; my costs will remain roughly the same. The next person who owns my home will pay more, though.

        1. City housing prices are artificially inflated by restrictive zoning. This would undo that, so prices will drop. But cities may not notice a decrease in collections because there will be more housing to tax.

          1. This would undo /some/ of that.

            I could go on and on, but this has to suffice: there are any number of specifications for houses (almost everywhere) that raise prices and make it nearly impossible to build true “starter homes” or decent sized houses that the lower middle classes can actually afford outside of DIY projects. These aren’t all bad things, but they cumulatively squeeze the less affluent.

            1. @POBYH:

              In SF, the dearth of available housing, rental or purchase, makes all homes expensive without regard for their potential as starter homes. If a monied software developer can’t find a chic condo in a hip neighborhood, she’ll just buy the next best thing in the next best neighborhood she can find. Even building large numbers of pricey condos would help since it would give wealthy professionals better choices than moving out into the poorer areas and gentrifying them.

          2. This makes sense in some places, but you have to have enough construction to satisfy enough demand that housing is no longer scarce. If you decrease scarcity only slightly, all you do is slow down price inflation. The figures I’ve seen is that there are 50,000 people in SF looking for housing in the city (more Bay Area wide) and the city constructs about 5,000 new units per year (at best–I think we average about 2500/yr this decade.)

            I don’t see taxes dropping unless housing values drop. Housing demand is being driven by demand for employees in high-paid professions. So unless they build like crazy, the only other way to reduce the costs is to kill the job market.

            SF Housing Trends

  6. As an aside, I’m always nervous about no height limits. If I buy my house because of the sun it gets and then someone builds a 12 story complex next door that blocks my sun, I’ve lost something I value. Further, if I’ve gone so far as to install solar panels, I’m out that investment and lose real cash value too.

    1. This can be dealt with either on a regulatory taking claim against the state or nuisance against your neighbor, depending on what the law is in your jurisdiction. If the law where you are does not protect your perpetual right to access sun, your installation of the solar panels was at-risk.

    2. This is pretty much a standard Coasean problem.

      Do you have a property right in the sunlight, or does the builder? If you do, then the builder has to (should have to) compensate you. If you have no such right, who does?

      It seems to me that if the law allows such construction the implication is that you do not have a property right in the sunlight.

      Still, definition would solve the problem, and avoid the fight.

      1. Indeed it will, once the existing owner and the developer, each of them with perfect information, equal negotiating power, acting in their own enlightened self-interests and under no compulsion to concede, reach a harmonious middle ground.

        1. They don’t have to have “equal negotiating power” whatever that means.

  7. “literally lock out millions of people from housing and job markets,”

    Ugh. Can’t we just call a locksmith to come and open these literal locks?

  8. Just to make clear, the bill is real, yes? Or is it just another satire on your part?

  9. The country is becoming over populated, the ultimate consequence will a loss of freedom . . . never to be recovered, if history is any guide.

    1. The country is not becoming over-populated, and is nowhere near. There are a few (maybe a dozen or two) metropolitan areas that are getting too big for their britches. Like a fat man that refuses to buy bigger pants.

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  11. While I agree that overzealous zoning regulations are a harm that should be eliminated, this particular way of going about it will do more harm than good. Triggering the override of local law based solely on proximity to public transit gives the state far too much latitude to exert their authority arbitrarily. Consider the situation (which I think is widely applicable) where the public transit authority is a state-chartered entity. They add a bus stop in a new neighborhood and, without warning or recourse, the neighborhood’s right of home rule has been usurped. This creates all kinds of incentives for developers to pervert the public transit allocation system in order to “influence” local law.

    Again, I agree that the city zoning laws are bad laws. This means of fighting them is worse.

    1. ” Consider the situation (which I think is widely applicable) where the public transit authority is a state-chartered entity.”

      Is that the way it is in CA? Here in the DC Area, buses are usually under the local government. The exception is the WMATA Busses and WMATA is a weird exception.

    2. I don’t believe it works like that in California as a whole, but I know it doesn’t work like that in San Francisco.

      The SFMTA is governed by a Board of Directors who are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

      https://www.sfmta.com/about-sfmta

      The issue with zoning in SF is that the city’s politics gridlock new construction. The NIMBY contingent is powerful but, counter-intuitively, the far-left rental and poverty advocates create the majority of the roadblock. They mobilize to stop gentrification and saddle all multi-family construction with significant subsidy requirements for below market housing. (Now at 25% of all units.) So a private developer building out 100 units needs to either make 25 of them below market (read: at a loss) or pay into a city fund to construct those 25 units elsewhere. But the far left (called “progressives” here) usually blocks construction even at 25% and insists on 100%. The effect is to stall development of any housing at all. The Mission District is ground zero for this but other neighborhoods are targeted as well.

      So, having the state override local rule is a good thing.

  12. Congratulations Reason. This is the worst article ever posted on your website. I get the supply and demand thing, but this Bill is really just State zoning which look like something that you would see in a socialist pit. This Bill isn’t an anti-zoning, property rights based approach; it is a “we know better than you” State mandated zoning approach. Zoning is going to happen and local decision making us usually the best way to do it. Weiner’s Bill is certainly NOT a good Libertarian approach. Shame on you Reason.

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