A Group Dedicated to Housing Sanity in San Francisco?

Published at 08:57 on 16 February 2015

While this group does actually get it that restrictions on adding supply (in the face of a robust local economy that is adding jobs lie crazy) is at the root of the problem, and that’s  refreshing change, they are also quite ideologically biased in ways I disagree with.

Just look a the first link on their site, and how their “forum” was basically a discussion between different sides of the development industry. At least one of their speakers was pretty open about wanting to get rid of zoning entirely.

I’ll agree that present-day zoning codes have a lot of problems and do make housing needlessly more expensive as well as mandating ecological irresponsibility.

But zoning exists for a reason; there really are such a thing as incompatible land uses. One of my memories of living in Oakland was running into a mostly residential neighborhood where there was an elementary school and a factory on the same block. The factory was served by a rail spur that ran down the middle of the (otherwise residential) street right in front of the school. If I had children, I would not want them walking to school or playing in a neighborhood where multi-ton trains regularly come trundling down the street. I wouldn’t want to live right in the shadow of a noisy, polluting industrial facility, either.

I believe there is a valid public purpose in stopping more such things from happening. I also believe it’s possible to do so without going to the extremes that most zoning codes go to. One doesn’t need to put that factory many miles away from housing; on the other side of a wide arterial with a buffer a couple blocks of commercial and light industrial uses would suffice very nicely. The residential area could have a mix of single-family homes, townhomes, and small apartment buildings (with corner markets here and there) instead of being mandated by law to be nothing but single-family detached homes.

Said arterial could have bus or light rail service which would serve all of the residential, commercial, and industrial uses nearby. The factory workers who wouldn’t be walking to work could take transit there.

There is a place for zoning, and it is promoting general health and safety. Where zoning goes wrong is when it is used to promote elitism (“I am superior and do not want to live anywhere near those blue-collar renters”) and micromanagement of others’ lives (“How dare Emma build a cottage in her back yard, move into it, and have her adult daughter, his husband, and child move into the main house; I like my large home and backyard and Emma should be forced to live as I prefer.”)

And there’s also a great deal of property rights and capitalism fetishism going on in that group. It’s founder is largely pissed that she is missing out on the ability to speculate in real estate and profit from unearned income. The whole problem how it is precisely home ownership coupled with this desire which creates perverse incentives for existing residents to support overly-restrictive zoning codes (because it increases the value of their home) is ignored.

So, no, it’s not sanity, not overall. But it may still play a part in more sane policies being adopted by helping to undermine some of the supply restrictions.

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