Housing USA: Transit Density Zoning

6 min read

Is it a model?

What level of government should dictate housing policy? In America, decisions have long come from the local level, thanks to our small-government tradition. But hyper-local politics for housing has done harm. Many large U.S. cities have housing shortages, yet can’t solve them because of who calls the shots on land use – it’s those who already live in an area, and who, unlike the people wishing to move in, can participate in local elections and meetings. These residents often own homes, and don’t benefit financially from allowing new supply (since it might slow the inflation of their own home values). Nor do they want all the new traffic. So they keep restrictive zoning laws in place, and little inventory gets built.

Various state-level housing bills have been proposed to override this local veto. Some of the more interesting among them are the so-called “transit density bills” that outlaw cities from enforcing restrictive zoning near transit. The first one came from California, and is being copied in Oregon. If other states want to tackle their shortages and encourage transit use, they should view it as model legislation.

California’s experiment started with SB 827, which was introduced in 2018 by Senator Scott Wiener. Known as the Transit Zoning Bill, it would have required cities to permit buildings of 45 to 55 feet within a half-mile of rail stops and a quarter-mile of frequent bus service. Rather than mandating that such buildings must get built near these lines, it simply prevented municipalities from enforcing laws to ban them – aka it tackled restrictive zoning. SB 827 would’ve affected large portions of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and various other parts of California served by bus and rail. The bill, which seemed radical, given the obstructionism in California land-use politics, died in committee.

But late last year, Wiener proposed a new version—SB 50—that addressed concerns with his earlier bill. There had been two political factions that derailed SB 827, writes Matt Yglesias in Vox. The first was rich people who live in the coastal California cities where so many others want to move, and who aim to keep these communities exclusive. The second was low-income minorities who have transit running through their neighborhoods, and thought the incoming development wave would spike land values and displace them.

In the reworked SB 50, the housing-transit component is similar; but Wiener’s legislative team did more to address displacement concerns. Developers can’t demolish buildings that now house renters, and vulnerable communities can wait five years before enforcing the zoning changes. Another aspect of SB 50 mandates these zoning changes in “job rich” areas, regardless of whether they have transit. Wiener added this provision to prevent the “transit Nimbyism” that might be an unintended consequence of SB 50, and to encourage the bill’s primary goal, which is making wealthy job centers, like Silicon Valley, build more housing, so they’re accessible to more people.

Wiener’s bills were introduced as California’s estimated housing shortage has grown to 3.5 million, and causes an estimated $140 billion per year in lost economic output. Passing it could be a key part of Governor Gavin Newsom’s agenda, since he too ran on solving the housing crisis.

Some of Oregon’s cities also have a housing crisis, and Nimby politics. There’s an estimated statewide shortage of 155,000 homes. So this February, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney introduced SB 10 that would permit mid-rise apartments within a quarter-mile of major transit lines, and small apartment buildings and townhomes within a half-mile. The bill would affect several Oregon cities, including almost all of Portland.

“If the only apartment you can afford is two towns over and a 70-minute car ride to work, I don’t think we’ve solved the problem,” says Courtney, echoing Wiener. “Senate Bill 10 is about building housing where people want to live.”

SB 10 makes particular sense for Portland, since it’s invested more in transit than many U.S. cities, but never allowed true surrounding density. The key will be building support, which has its challenges in these politicized West Coast cities. In California, SB 827 was resisted not only by rich and poor Democratic constituencies, but by various interest groups who would’ve seemed like allies. Bay Area Rapid Transit gave only conditional support; the American Planning Association California Chapter opposed it; and so did the Sierra Club. These organizations disliked the bill’s top-down nature, and its potential impacts on low-income communities.

In Oregon, the homebuilders association and the environmental group 1000 Friends of Oregon has formed what one commentator called an “unlikely alliance” favoring the bill. But, like in California, SB 10 has drawn surprising opposition. Multiple Portland-area planning bureaucracies —including the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and the regional agency Metro—say it would disrupt neighborhoods. A lobbyist for Trimet, the regional transit agency, worried it would diminish support for transit projects.

Then there’s the Democratic Party. SB 10 was proposed by a powerful state Democrat, but it’s unclear what support he will get, since the party is so diverse, says Michael Andersen, senior researcher for Sightline Institute. A growing contingent of young renters might support the bill; but like in California, they face large factions within their own party of wealthy homeowners, and low-income minorities fearing displacement. So it might need the same modifications SB 827 did.

Regardless of outcome, the idea within these bills is worth exporting. Right now the nation’s most expensive cities—whether on the West or East Coast—have similar DNA. They have housing shortages, Nimby political cultures, and abundant but floundering transit. State bills that allow housing around transit, thus generating the impact fees to support the transit, could help solve multiple problems.

Even in cities that don’t have much transit, nor much of a market for density, “missing middle” bills, such as the recent one in Minneapolis, can improve housing situations, says Anderson.

“If passed, the transit-oriented bills would make a big difference in housing-shortage metros almost immediately, but in a lot of cities they probably wouldn’t matter much,” he writes by email. “The missing-middle bills, on the other hand, would change things more in the long-term than the short term, but I don’t think there are any communities in the country where they aren’t a good idea.”

As California, and perhaps later Oregon, might show, it will come down to tweaking these bills so they pass the political test. However they surface, though, the bills would move American cities closer to liberalized housing policy and away from excessive local control.