Tag Archives: San Francisco Bay Area

Affordable Is Not the Same as Affordability

Too much housing news is based on the failure to distinguish between affordable housing and housing affordability. Affordable housing is government-subsidized housing for low-income people. Housing affordability is the general level of housing prices relative to the general level of household or family incomes, often measured by dividing median home prices by median family incomes.

Areas where housing is affordable, such as Dallas or Raleigh, may still need some affordable housing for very poor people. But areas where housing is not affordable, such as Portland or San Francisco, will not solve their housing affordability problems by building more affordable housing. Despite this, politicians, reporters, and editors all promote more affordable housing to address housing affordability issues.

The San Jose Mercury News, for example, accuses Republicans of “sabotaging” the Bay Area’s affordable housing plans by cutting federal housing budgets. But the federal government didn’t impose urban-growth boundaries that have restricted development to 17 percent of the Bay Area, so why should federal taxpayers subsidize affordable housing that isn’t going to solve the region’s self-inflicted housing crisis? Continue reading

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“Stability” Is Another Word for “Lack of Accountability”

A bill in the California legislature would give Caltrain, the commuter trains that connect San Jose with San Francisco, “permanent financial stability.” That’s good news if you think you will be riding Caltrains one thousand years from now, but it’s bad news for the taxpayers who will have to “permanently”–however long that is–pay for running empty trains.

Many transit agencies already have dedicated funds, by which they mean taxes that go straight into their coffers, but those that don’t whine and moan endlessly about how they would be much better off if only they had a dedicated fund. They even love to make fine distinctions: Atlanta’s MARTA complains that it has no dedicated funds from the state, but it does get a 1 percent sales tax, half of which has to be spent on capital improvements.

Transit advocates also like to point out that highways were built with a dedicated fund. Yet the gas taxes that go into that fund are highway user fees. In that sense, every transit agency has a dedicated fund because it gets to keep its user fees. Continue reading

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Herding the Poor

TransForm, a smart-growth group in Oakland, has analyzed California’s household travel survey data and made what it thinks is a fascinating discovery: poor people drive less than rich people. Moreover, poor people especially drive less than rich people if they live in a high-density development served by frequent transit.


Click image to download the executive summary of TransForm’s report.

According to TransForm’s report, poor households who live in transit-oriented developments (TODs) drive only half as much as poor households who live away from TODs, while rich households who live in TODs drive about two-thirds as much as rich households who don’t live near TODs (see figure 1 on page 7).

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Making Housing Affordable

A Bay Area writer, Kim-Mai Cutler, writes what she supposes is the definitive analysis of why housing in San Francisco is so expensive. Unfortunately, she left a few things out.

She blames expensive San Francisco housing on Google’s refusal to build housing on its own campus in Mountain View–which Google says it can’t do because of the need to protect a rare owl. But Cutler defends the right of “anyone–rich or poor–the chance to transform or be transformed by” living in San Francisco. How can the City of 800,000 people achieve that when there are another 2.5 million people at its doorstep most of whom wish they could live in the Paris of the West?

Cutler’s solution is to build “affordable housing.” That means subsidized housing. If everyone in the nation has a right to live in San Francisco regardless of income, who is going to pay the subsidies? It also means high-density housing. Just how attractive and hospitable will San Francisco be after all of its single-family neighborhoods have been replaced by mid- or high-rises?

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BART Strike Today?

San Francisco BART employees were going to go on strike a couple of months ago, but Governor Brown invoked a “60-day cool-off period.” It seems unlikely that 60 more days of negotiations could resolve the issues–and they didn’t, as workers are expected to on strike today.

BART says that it needs $15 billion to rejuvenate its system over the next few years. To cover this cost, it wants workers to pay more into their pension and health care plans. Despite a proposed 12 percent pay raise over four years, the workers refused. Unions offered to go into binding arbitration, but BART management–probably fearing that arbitrators wouldn’t see BART’s maintenance problem as having anything to do with worker pay–refused.

Even Bay Area commuters who used to love BART are beginning to understand the problems. First, BART employees, like most transit employees, have a cushy deal to begin with, and arbitrators would be reluctant to cut it back. More important, rail transit is just too damn expensive, and the costs never go away. Outside of places with Tokyo- or Hong Kong-like densities, nobody can really afford to run a passenger rail system, and those who try are going to find themselves in the same bind as BART is in today.

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Carmaggedon? Not!

Many including CNN predicted that the BART strike would “paralyze San Francisco.” “Public transit in San Francisco came to a screeching halt Monday morning as Bay Area Rapid Transit unions went on strike,” says CNN.

Not exactly. First, BART accounts for less than a third of the region’s transit commuters. Buses account for more than half, and the buses didn’t go on strike.

Second, BART just doesn’t carry enough people to lead to paralysis even if all of them drove instead (and in fact many rode buses). As a state highway patrol officer noted, “If I didn’t know there was a BART strike, I wouldn’t have thought anything was different after looking at the traffic.”

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Debate Over Plan Bay Area

The Antiplanner’s presentation at last night’s debate over Plan Bay Area is now available in PowerPoint or PDF format. You can also download Tom Rubin’s presentation in PDF format.

The debate was one-sided in the sense that close to 90 percent of the audience opposed the plan. One little incident sticks in my mind. During the debate, one of the plan’s supporters admitted that it was hard to predict the future, but added, “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.'”

I am a stickler for sourcing such attributed quotes, and that didn’t sound like something Lincoln would say. So I pulled out my iPhone and looked it up. Sure enough, it has been attributed to Lincoln–and to Peter Drucker, and to some other people. But it seems the person who actually first said it was computer programmer Alan Kay in 1971. I hope readers will understand what I mean when I say that knowing that Kay said it gives it a completely different meaning than if Lincoln had said it.

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Comments on Tyranny Bay Area

“Implementation of Plan Bay Area will require the demolition of more than 169,000 single-family detached homes, or one out of every nine such homes in the region, according to table 2.3-2 of the draft environmental impact report. Any earthquake or other natural event that resulted in this much destruction would be counted as the greatest natural catastrophe in American history.”

The Antiplanner would like to think this is one of the better opening paragraphs that I have written in some time. My complete comments on Plan Bay Area are now available for download.

In reviewing my previous post on this subject, my friend MSetty made the good point that Plan Bay Area planners put that 169,000 home figure in terms of a change in demand. Although 56 percent of Bay Area households live in single-family detached homes today, by 2040 only 39 percent will want to, so say the planners.

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Tyranny Bay Area

Comments are due this Thursday on the draft environmental impact report for Plan Bay Area, a regional plan written for nine counties that surround San Francisco Bay. This plan is so poorly written that it makes me proud to be an antiplanner; if I were a real planner, I’d be ashamed to be associated with a profession that could produce such a shoddy plan.

The main problem with the plan is that its main prescriptions were set in advance of any analysis of whether they would be effective. In fact, planners never did analyze whether those or any alternative policies would cost-effectively meet the plan’s goals.

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