Blogging Bayport Alameda

March 23, 2016

Zone defense

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:03 am

An older piece from City Lab but most of you probably saw (or heard about) the Gawker piece that commanded: San Francisco: Build More Housing, Assholes.  I mean you really can’t get any more clickbait-y than that.   City Lab, naturally goes beyond the commandment to build more housing and instead goes to the root of the problem, zoning.

It’s not that there’s not anyone to build the housing, it’s just that zoning laws, and the residents that hug them oh so tightly,  make it difficult to get through the process to create any supply to meet the demand.


The housing crisis is both a regional and local problem. Looking at it two ways leads to two different conclusions about gentrification and displacement. From a regional perspective, any and every city in a metro area could be building more. Any and every new housing unit adds to the supply and lets out some pressure.

But from a neighborhood perspective, the view is different. Neighborhoods that build less than others are sometimes given a pass, because they are beautiful or historic or wealthy or powerful (and often all of these things). The lack of new construction in wealthier neighborhoods puts pressure on less wealthy neighborhoods. (“You can build new things in other places.”) This pressure builds up until it explodes in distressed neighborhoods. (See: the Mission.)

Since the residents of high-cost, high-demand neighborhoods tend to have mobility, money, and access to information and power, they are hugely successful in leveraging land-use policies to exclude newcomers. They protect what is theirs and shut the gate behind them. (Nolan gets that.) So the high-margin development that really should go into the high-end neighborhood winds up replacing cheaper, older, and abandoned housing in low-end neighborhoods.

The new wealthy are ruining everything because the old wealthy decided not to let them live anywhere near them.

The answer is to build. Build more fucking housing, just like Nolan says. But the answer is also to zone: To take away land-use decisions from neighborhoods and hand them over to cities. And for cities to act in concert with other cities toward regional goals for new market-rate and affordable units everywhere. Not just where developers can get away with it, but where incumbent residents have already soldered shut the gate behind them.

Solving this housing crisis means breaking up the cartelized wealthy districts that are able to decide that new housing is everybody else’s problem.

It’s the whole belief that housing families and individuals is someone else’s problem that got us — and by “us” I mean the entire Bay Area — in the position we are in today.  We can either hope and pray for an economic downturn to somehow soften the housing market.  Of course this logic is probably one of the most crazy desires that I’ve actually heard expressed.  I’m not sure who benefits from a region being economically weak.  Or we can address the housing shortage by actually creating housing that is necessary and continue to let our regional economy grow as opposed to stifling it because people think the should be able to commute to work in the shortest amount of time possible.




  1. So how do you see this applying to alameda? I have been disappointed to see single story single purpose projects approved on commercial corridors recently. Walgreens on park and peets on Webster. We are building all our housing on land that is at risk in earthquakes and sea level rise. The new housing is away from existing transit corridors, though new transit lines can be created.

    Comment by MarkD — March 23, 2016 @ 6:34 am

  2. Wonder if someone in the Permit Center has numbers for units approved or permits issued under Alameda Municipal Code § 30-4.1(b)(9) (second units in in single family zones) and what the numbers are like in different areas like Harbour Bay and Bayport as compared to older areas.

    Comment by MP — March 23, 2016 @ 7:06 am

  3. #2 yes, in fact staff has presented them to the planning board and the council as a part of the second unit ordinance. They are paltry, I can’t remember the exact amount but I believe it is less than one unit a year. The planning board made recommendations to the council to make changes, but so far the council has held up action out of fear that people might actually take advantage of the ordinance and build low impact housing in areas with the infrastructure to support it.

    Comment by jkw — March 23, 2016 @ 8:46 am

  4. 4. Are recommendations attached to an agenda item for the council (or available somewhere)? With less than one unit per year permitted, you obviously can’t compare different areas of town. A question is whether it is even possible to take advantage of the second unit ordinance (current or with recommended changes), or any proposed changes to the zoning laws, within more recent developments covered by layers of restrictive covenants.

    Comment by MP — March 23, 2016 @ 9:20 am

  5. Rent control & relo payments will certainly chill whatever desire there is/was among property owners to do this.

    Comment by dave — March 23, 2016 @ 10:12 am

  6. One aspect that gets missed in this discussion is that CA homeowners get to escape some of the natural penalties of NIMBYism thanks to Prop 13. NIMBYism drives up property values for homeowners. This would drive up property taxes most anywhere else in the country, which would discourage NIMBYism or at least provide funds to help alleviate the consequences. Here, they don’t face that consequence. Add in the mortgage interest deduction and you have an additional protection for homeowners w/ high property values that validates the behavior.

    MP’s point about newer developments’ CC&Rs exempting them further from any ongoing responsibility to provide space for additional housing is a good one. I had not given it any thought before. In places like Bayport where the lot sizes are so small and the houses so big, it might mean allowing some of those 3000 sq. ft. monsters to be chopped up into 2-3 unit properties like our Victorians of old. There are already lots of households doubling up and becoming multigenerational or sharing w/ siblings, extended family, etc. Allowing a more official splitting of units would make it available to more families that don’t want to share a kitchen and living room w/ their extended families.

    Those luxury apartments in SoMa are being partitioned by residents from 2 bedrooms into makeshift 4 bedroom apartments to make them affordable.

    Comment by BMac — March 23, 2016 @ 10:21 am

  7. Bmac, you’re quite right about P13 though you overstate your case a bit re: mortgage interest, at least as it applies to CA. Most people who have bought in a home in CA in the last generation are hit by AMT, both federal & state. Even while 1st mortgage interest is not itself an explicit AMT preference item, the fact that that one is thrown into AMT ends up diluting that benefit substantially.

    Comment by dave — March 23, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    • I’ll defer for now on the AMT. I’ve never dug into that issue. Though, I’m skeptical when you say “most people…are hit by AMT.” I know it is significant because it always seemed to generate actual last minute action by congresscritters.

      Comment by BMac — March 23, 2016 @ 10:56 am

      • I have paid it every year since coming to CA in 2001. Ask your friends. If they have the income to buy a house they are almost certainly there.

        Comment by dave — March 23, 2016 @ 11:04 am

        • I had that income from probably 2007-2012, but since I was renting had few deductions so never faced the AMT dilemma.

          Comment by BMac — March 23, 2016 @ 11:33 am

  8. we could actually use less housing if u think about it

    Comment by Floyd — March 23, 2016 @ 10:59 am

    • you volunteering to sleep on the street?

      Comment by MI — March 24, 2016 @ 6:41 am

  9. We could easily meet demand if we simply reduced the amount of people allowed to move to Alameda. As long as we allow the increases we’ve seen over the past twenty years, we will face traffic issues, housing issues, school capacity issues, lack of sport fields, etc.

    Comment by Bill2 — March 24, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

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