City planners are increasingly alarmed by two trends: a growing shortage of affordable housing, especially in places with job growth, and a nationwide decline in public transit ridership. Local governments could respond by allowing more housing near transit lines, but there is an obstacle to this commonsense approach. Those who live in safe and walkable neighborhoods are often resistant to giving other people the same opportunity.
This tension led to the recent defeat of a California law that would have allowed the development of housing of up to five stories near train stations, even when this violated local zoning laws. It was a tough sell in the single-family neighborhoods that make up so much even of large cities like San Francisco and Seattle, where residents seek both city convenience and suburb-like serenity.
For example, last year the city of San Mateo, Calif., blocked a 10-unit condominium project along a busy rail line, with one neighborhood resident complaining it was too large “in relation to the established neighborhood of small single-family cottages and bungalows.” (A renters’ group is now suing the city over the permit denial.)
This raises the question of whether public transit funds are best used to serve single-family cottages when so many more densely populated areas have no reliable transit at all. If local governments thwart development near transit lines, perhaps those transit lines should die natural deaths, freeing funds for projects that benefit a wider population.
Opponents of the California bill included the Sierra Club (rather incredibly, considering the environmental benefits of reducing automobile travel) but also affordable-housing advocates who warned that new development would gentrify the neighborhoods with good transit and displace lower-income residents.
For now, an even less obtrusive way to increase housing without sprawl is accessory dwelling units, zoning jargon for “granny flats,” backyard cottages and other small homes added to existing properties.
This is a valid concern, but maintaining impediments to new housing—which, almost by definition, is more attractive and thus commands higher prices than older buildings—only worsens a housing shortage that is harming families at all income levels. Lower-income families are already being pushed out to suburbs with poor public transit, and constricting the supply of housing (as well as forgoing property tax revenue) in transit-rich areas does nothing to help them.
Preservationists and housing activists have good reason to be wary of high-rises whose luxury units are snapped up by jet-setters looking for pads with a view, but they are not the only option for siting more housing near transit. Paris is almost twice as densely populated as New York City, but it has relatively few skyscrapers, instead housing people in human-scale blocks of six or seven stories, the same kind of housing that has engendered so much hostility in California and across the United States.
For now, an even less obtrusive way to increase housing without sprawl is accessory dwelling units, zoning jargon for “granny flats,” backyard cottages and other small homes added to existing properties. Many cities essentially prohibit such housing through parking-space requirements, limits on how many unrelated people can live on a property and other rules. At least in this area, California has made more progress. It now has a law streamlining the approval of A.D.U.s, though some municipal governments are still trying to stop them through new regulations. California, and all other states, should find ways to encourage a variety of new housing where it makes the most sense.