Go on, California — blow up your lousy zoning laws
Go on, California. Do it. Blow up the zoning laws that choke off new housing and force chefs, nursing assistants, and college professors to live in their cars.
A state senator from San Francisco recently filed legislation to sweep away minimum-parking requirements, limits on density, and certain other restrictions on residential housing construction within a half-mile of a train station and a quarter-mile of stops on high-frequency bus routes. Senator Scott Wiener’s bill would promote bigger, taller new buildings in transit-rich urban areas across California.
The bill may be the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.
Ease up on zoning limits, and private developers — with their own money — will create millions of new units in urban areas, absorbing the influx of tech and finance bros, freeing up homes for everyone else, and creating lots of construction jobs along the way. Make room for more people in some of the world’s most economically productive metro areas, and the whole country benefits.
Thriving cities need room to grow. According to a new report by the real-estate website Trulia, two-thirds of homes in San Francisco are now valued at $1 million or more, up from 22 percent since 2012. In the Boston area, the situation isn’t that dire — yet — but the percentage of homes with million-dollar values has nearly doubled in five years.
In the rare event Wiener’s bill passes, it might just persuade pricey enclaves around the country, including Eastern Massachusetts, that the cure for a housing crisis doesn’t have to be complex.
Recently, Governor Charlie Baker proposed a modest housing package, including a grant program for cities and towns that ease their zoning, plus modest legislation that would allow local government bodies to approve denser home construction by a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds vote. There have been other efforts on Beacon Hill to loosen up zoning rules statewide — for instance, by designating areas where developers can build housing without seeking special permission and by giving people freer rein to carve granny apartments out of existing houses — but progress has been slow. The House in particular has protected the ability of cities and towns to say no.
Meanwhile, even some people who consider themselves housing advocates are in thrall to the left-wing version of climate-change denial: the belief that building more units pushes prices up, not down. At last year’s state Democratic convention, a band of progressives tried — and, blessedly, failed — to change the party platform to remove language supporting market-rate housing. (Rule of thumb: If your plan to lower housing costs depends on overthrowing the laws of capitalism, it’s not a plan at all.)
In California, opponents of Wiener’s bill argue, predictably, that he’s shilling for developers and, more imaginatively, that the bill serves a white-supremacist agenda. But any suggestion that today’s zoning promotes equity is nothing short of astonishing.
Zoning has an ugly history. In a startling book entitled “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” author Richard Rothstein details the thousands of steps that federal, state, and local officials took over decades to keep African-Americans from moving into white areas. When courts invalidated explicit racial zoning, cities and towns from coast to coast imposed codes that restricted the construction of multifamily housing — a more legally defensible way to keep supposed undesirables out.
Today, we justify zoning as a way of protecting schools and homes from slaughterhouses and chemical plants. Fair enough. But having long ago vanquished genuine nuisances, upscale homeowners have moved on to fighting threats like height and shadows. When people are offered the chance to tell other people what they can and can’t do with their property, it’s too tempting to turn down.
Many of the most beloved neighborhoods in the Boston area were built before the advent of zoning, and they didn’t need it to develop as nicely as they did. And once neighborhood groups decide that stricter is better, it’s hard to stop — which is why vast areas of Greater Boston cannot legally be rebuilt under current zoning.
California’s housing problems are like ours, but only more so. Population growth there has been far faster, and many of the land-use laws there are stricter. As a result, housing prices out there have spiraled much farther out of control.
On the upside, if and when the government legalizes more housing construction, the housing market will respond quickly. In the year since California eased restrictions on granny flats, the number of applications to build the units in Los Angeles has risen 20-fold. Now the Golden State has a chance to do something far bolder.
Come on, California. Don’t be shy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this column misdescribed how a provision of the California legislation would affect building heights.