Bill Would Eliminate San Francisco Zoning

California state senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, has introduced Senate Bill 827, which would effectively void all local zoning rules in “transit-rich” areas, meaning areas within a half mile of a rail station or a quarter mile of a stop on a frequent bus route. Wiener’s goal is to allow the construction of high-density housing in those transit-rich areas, thus simultaneously providing more affordable housing and encouraging more people to ride transit.

This bill would severely disrupt neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and many other cities that currently have frequent transit service, as maps reveal that it would virtually eliminate zoning in most of the land area of those cities. While some people consider zoning to be an unfair (and possibly unconstitutional) restriction of property rights, most people who live in zoned urban neighborhoods appreciate the benefits of such zoning. By limiting the maximum density of housing, zoning minimizes traffic congestion, noise, and other problems.

Moreover, neighborhoods are built with streets, water, sewer, and other infrastructure to serve the needs of the density at which the neighborhoods were built. Major increases in density would require expensive improvements to water and sewer infrastructure–far more expensive than building new infrastructure on greenfields–and streets probably could not be redesigned to accommodate the density increases in any case.

Besides, city zoning isn’t the cause of high housing prices, nor will densification make housing more affordable. With the exception of Houston, every major city in the country has maximum-density zoning, but housing prices are unaffordable only in cities that also restrict development of rural areas around the urban fringes.

Residents who oppose densification of their neighborhoods are often accused of being NIMBYs who are borderline racists getting in the way of market demand. But the urban-growth boundaries and other restrictions on rural development have so distorted California and other housing markets that any demand for density is totally artificial.

Without those rural restrictions, housing would be affordable to almost everyone regardless of race or incomes. The fact that homeownership rates in Brazil and Mexico are far higher than in the United States shows that homeownership is limited more by government regulation than by incomes.

The Portland building mentioned here a few days ago demonstrates why denser housing isn’t more affordable. Where low-rise housing in areas without growth management sells for around $100 a square foot, a supposedly affordable high-rise tower in Portland is expected to cost more than $320 a square foot. A Portland affordable housing study found that mid-rise housing costs 52 percent more and high-rise housing costs 68 percent more per square foot than low-rise housing.

On top of construction costs, land costs in urban areas that have been forced to grow dense by urban-growth boundaries are so high that it is nearly impossible to build enough density to make housing affordable. A buildable lot in Portland is at least 25 times more expensive than one in Dallas or San Antonio, and one in San Francisco is hundreds of times more expensive.

For these reasons, regions that have grown denser due to growth boundaries have become less affordable, not more. Since 1970, the population densities of the San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose urban areas have each grown by about 50 percent, yet their median home prices relative to median family income–a standard measure of affordability–have each tripled.

The Antiplanner is not a great fan of zoning, which tends to be too rigid to respond to changes in tastes and market demand. Most housing, and all new housing, in Houston and other places with no zoning is sold with protective covenants that serve the same purpose as zoning, since developers have learned that such covenants make properties more valuable without increasing their cost. Houston also has a process to allow homeowners in neighborhoods without such covenants to petition their neighbors and, if 75 percent agree, to write covenants. These covenants are flexible because homeowners can vote to change them and developers have been known to persuade homeowner associations to change them to meet new market demand.

California could solve the problem of housing affordability without disrupting existing neighborhoods by banning urban-growth boundaries. If desired, the state could also get rid of urban zoning but give property owners the opportunity to replace zoning with covenants. Since not every neighborhood would do so, developers could meet market demand for any density either on the urban fringe or in neighborhoods whose existing residents are willing to live with new development. Without those changes, S.B. 827 will do far more harm than good to California cities.


7 thoughts on “Bill Would Eliminate San Francisco Zoning

  1. prk166

    Disrupting the neighborhood is one way to phrase things, one that paints it as something bad. Nothing in life is static. The real problem with the sort of zoning we normally see is that it makes things static.

    Look at a neighborhood like Baker in Denver. When it was laid out, it had a lot more people per housing unit and it was the edge of town. Today it’s in the heart of the city, a few minutes from downtown on a bike.

    Will adding more density disrupt the neighborhood? Sure. But the world is different and the public as a whole has different needs.

    If someone doesn’t want to sell their house, fine. But we shouldn’t allow their neighbor to prevent them from doing so if it’s going to be to scrape the place and add a nice morden quad. We need these things.

    Not well phrased on my part but the point is that the zoning is just as disruptive as the changes it’s preventing. Enforcing low density in the middle of town contributes to sprawl just as much as anything else.

  2. The Antiplanner Post author


    I understand your argument, but people value living in low densities, as proven by their willingness to pay more to live in neighborhoods whose densities are limited by covenants. Zoning was created after covenants to provide the same benefits in existing neighborhoods, and it led to a rise in homeownership rates. To come in now and strip away zoning violates the trust that homebuyers had when they bought homes in zoned neighborhoods. As I said in my post, I agree with you that zoning can be too rigid, but I would also support getting rid of zoning if homeowners were allowed the option of substituting covenants.

  3. paul

    I would be amazed if this bill passed in current form as even communities such as Berkeley would have huge opposition. Several times in planning seminars at UC Berkeley some have expressed outrage that other communities such as Walnut Creek, Lafayette will not allow high density developed around their BART stations. I have then pointed out that Berkeley residents have prevented north Berkeley and Berkeley Ashby BART station neighborhoods from being developed, and kept a six story limit on downtown Berkeley development in a market that would like to build more. This has affected stunned silence from anyone advocating no zoning around BART stations. Apparently higher density is desirable as long as it is not in ones own neighborhood.

    In 1999 I took a day off to go on a silicon manufacturers hosted tour of so called “affordable housing” in Jan Jose. The tour showed how multi family developments were built along light rail lines. When I pointed out that people living in those developments would still drive most places the head of the Silicon Valley manufacturers association said in exasperation, “but you cannot build high density housing unless is it next to transit!” So apparently the fact that people living in these new high density areas will still drive most places and seldom take transit is not the point. The point is to fool communities into thinking people will take this transit.

    I do feel that communities such as Livermore who want a new station should only be permitted one if there is no height limit for a half mile from the station. I imagine that this will eliminate any desire for a new station in their community.

  4. LazyReader

    Everyone is a NIMBY and everyone who claims otherwise is a NIMBY in the closet.
    In staunchly liberal enclaves all over the country, citizens who profess to progressive environmentalism in the abstract are thwarting local efforts to increase the sustainability of their immediate environment if at all.
    But I’m a proud YIMBY. Yes in my backyard…we already have a landfill, no smell whatsoever.
    I’d be glad if they build a Nuclear power plant in my town.

    A kilowatt-hour worth of coal fired electricity produces about 2.07 lbs of CO2 or over a million tons per terawatt-hour. The nuclear plant in my home state produces 14.9 Terawatt-hours per year; preventing over 15 million tons of CO2 per year or over half a billion tons over the last 40 years. The US nuclear industry keeps 830 million tons of CO2 out of the air annually.
    The US should get back on the nuclear construction game. That’s 1.5 billion tons of CO2 NOT emitted over it’s lifetime, with a fabricated CO2 trading scheme cost of 50 dollars per ton, a single nuclear reactor is worth 75 billion dollars over the course of it’s life which more than pays for it’s construction and decommission since ECO NUTs like to factor externalities costs onto fossil fuels. That’s 75 billion you don’t have to piss down the pipe hole of federal boondoggles. nuclear reactors are giant heat engines, so you can do other things with them. With a single unit, you can produce millions of gallons of water a day through desalination using the waste heat. Or power pumps to pump cold nutrient rich water to the surface to support a algae and aquaculture industry.

  5. JOHN1000

    Most zoning regulations are used to delay and delay projects, thus driving up the cost of housing or other uses. Zoning regulations are constantly getting more and more complex, usually reading like very bad stereo instructions.

    I live in a town of around 30,000 people; the zoning regulations total over 500 pages. And that does not include the subdivision regulations, the wetlands regulations etc.

    Getting rid of zoning is a radical idea but it may force a clearer, simpler and more honest system for the future.

  6. Lewis

    “violates the trust that homebuyers had when they bought homes in zoned neighborhoods.”

    I understand the problem here, but then it seems that all sorts of deregulation violates the trust people placed in existing arrangements. Ending farm subsidies, cap-and-trade, taxi quotas, tariffs etc. all harm people who made long-term plans dependent on the extant regime.

    I also think there is a contradiction here between your, albeit qualified, acceptance of zoning in dense areas and your opposition to growth boundaries in rural areas. There are people in rural areas who like the fact you can’t build there; their property values even depend on it in many cases, as they enjoy views and light traffic. When I drive out to Dublin CA, there are signs along the side of the highway complaining about new development in rural areas of Alameda/Contra Costa counties. You had a post talking about people in Ventura county complaining about development in orange groves. If we developed that land, there would be new traffic and disrupted views and such, and people who took out mortgages might see their property values decline as new supply came on the market—or even well before it did so, as markets are forward-looking. Same with all the preserved land in the peninsula. So why worry about the homeowners in Berkeley but not those of Ventura County or the peninsula? To be honest, I find the homeowners of Berkeley to be insufferable babies (Do a google news search on “berkeley honda” for some of their pious hysterics), and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over seeing them disappointed by new homes for tech workers.

    It seems to me that almost any liberalization of land-use of any sort entails lots of disruption to somebody; and so I don’t think disruption is a good argument unless one simply advocates the status quo in all respects. The status quo is an untenable, worsening crisis for ordinary people, and so it seems obvious that disruption is coming and is desirable. The exceptions may be urban growth boundaries in small or medium cities, which I don’t think are common or especially binding on net. Generally, I don’t see it possible to bring more supply to a major metro without violating tens of thousands of people’s expectations. The question, then, is simply to weigh the costs to incumbents against the gains to outsiders.

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