Plan Bay Area 2050, Open Spaces, and Choices

In a previous article, the Nine-County Coalition discussed the next iteration of Plan Bay Area, Plan Bay Area 2050.  One of the Five Guiding Principles of PBA 2050 is ensuring everyone has affordable housing.

Affordable: All Bay Area residents and workers have sufficient housing options they can afford—households are economically secure.

This “principle,” mandating outcome rather than opportunity and backed by numerous pieces of California state legislation already in place, provides additional understanding that PBA 2050 will limit consideration of projects to those that do not depart from the Plan’s already prescribed approach to planning.  Unfortunately, basic laws of nature and of economics render Plan Bay Area’s approach to making housing “affordable” difficult at best.

The Prescribed Approach

Plan Bay Area, as unveiled back in 2013, rejects the traditional organic growth of cities in favor of central planning that mandates dense housing along transit corridors as well as ample open space. 

Environmentalists, such as the Greenbelt Alliance, and other stakeholders interested in dense development within prescribed corridors have succeeded in encouraging legislators and bureaucrats to declare 27% of the Bay Area land space permanently protected from development, 55% protected from 10 to 30 years, and only 18% open to development. 

Bay Area Land

The 7% protected from 10 to 30 years is in environmentalists radar screen as land “at risk” of development and ripe for declaring out of bounds to new housing.  These figures and concern for land "at risk" come from a comprehensive report issued by the Greenbelt Alliance.

293,100 acres of farms, ranches, and natural lands are at risk of development in the next 30 years.  Of that land, 63500 acres are likely to be consumed in the next 10 years.  These lands are at risk, but there's still time to speak up and save them.  At Risk, by Greenbelt Alliance

If the majority of residents wish to relegate 82% of Bay Area land to open space, great! Let’s do it!  However, under the present Plan Bay Area scenario residents need to choose between high density along transit corridors that supports the housing demands of a growing workforce locating in cities; or fighting to keep demand and housing prices at current levels.  Choice number two would need to assume lower economic growth, since a significant increase in production of goods and establishment of services necessitates influx of new workers that need a roof over their heads.  Choice number one is tricky, because high-density housing is more expensive to build than single-family homes; therefore, a lot of those dense abodes would have to be subsidized (paid for) by somebody!  Here are two good quotes from New Geography,

Casual and investigative observers seem to agree that housing costs do rise with city compactness. A recent report on the effects of compactness determined that housing costs increased by 1.1% for every 10-point increase in the compactness index. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, using only population density as an indicator.  What Price Urban Density

The problem is that high-density housing–that is, mid-rise and high-rise housing–costs 50 to 68 percent more, per square foot, to build than low-density housing. If California really wants to build housing that is affordable to low-income people, it needs to build more low-density housing. To build that, it needs to open up land that has been off-limits to development because it is outside of urban-growth boundaries. Will Density Make Housing Affordable?

Who Really Wants 82% Open Space

The motives of bureaucrats seem often obscure.  Does the majority of Bay Area residents truly want that much open space, and bureaucrats are only responding to what residents desire?  Is pressure coming from a strong minority, and bureaucrats are responding to that?  Maybe both?  Here is an excerpt from the Greenbelt Alliance website.

An urban growth boundary (UGB) separates urban areas from the surrounding natural and agricultural lands … they serve the same purpose of stopping sprawl development and encouraging sustainable growth practices...We work with residents around the Bay Area to help them create, renew, and strengthen urban growth boundaries for their cities and towns. Thirty-eight cities across the Bay Area have voter-approved urban growth boundaries.  Urban Growth Boundaries, by Greenbelt Alliance

"Voter-approved" are key words here.  We must assume that residents of the 38 cities (the Bay Area has 101 cities) mentioned in the excerpt want a lot of open space, but whether they want high housing costs and/or density along prescribed corridors the Greenbelt Alliance does not say.

Besides the “sustainable growth” mentioned above, there is another argument made by advocates of density:   Sprawl is expensive to taxpayers because each new development needs new infrastructure, such as roads, sewer, and water lines.  It is also expensive to residents who need to pay for long commutes to job centers.

Multiple studies show that sprawl is more expensive than infill growth within cities. A 2015 study found that sprawl costs America over $1 trillion, and can increase per-capita land consumption by up to 80% and car use by up to 60%. Providing water, sewer, roads, and other services to far-flung neighborhoods is very costly for local governments. Smart growth allows more affordable housing types at increased densities, reduces land requirements per household, has lower public service costs, and reduces transportation costs. The higher housing prices that residents may pay will be offset by lower transportation costs, energy costs, and better access to jobs, services, and amenities in more centralized locations.  At Risk, What is Sprawl, by Greenbelt Alliance

True, sprawl requires new infrastructure, and a wide base of taxpayers pays the cost (assuming Mello-Roos property taxes or developer impact fees are not imposed).  However, under Plan Bay Area, individuals pay exorbitant rents or mortgages and/or taxes arising from taxpayer-subsidized affordable housing.  Regarding transportation costs, yes, sprawl does increase the cost of commuting to jobs in central locations; however, a family needing to buy or rent a home in San Francisco or Silicon Valley might worry more about paying for housing than it would about transportation costs.  And, by the way, why are jobs so centralized?

So Are We Stuck?

Given all the challenges mentioned above, are we stuck with what we have?  It appears that researchers and commentators have found some holes in Plan Bay Area’s approach to planning.  We described some legal holes in our article on Post-Sustainability Institute vs. ABAG et al.  We have noted some economic holes above. 

However, it seems that Plan Bay Area and its transit-oriented development have the support of some heavy lifters.  This excerpt is from the Bay Area Council website, and refers to Senate Bill 680 signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in July of 2017.

Legislation the Bay Area Council sponsored that could bring 20,000 units of new housing to the region got Gov. Brown’s signature last Friday (June 21). SB 680 authored by Senator Bob Wieckowski extends the radius within-which BART can pursue transit-oriented development (TOD) projects from ¼ mile from BART stations to ½ mile. The legislation garnered broad support by various groups across the Bay Area, including The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, SPUR, North Bay Leadership Council, SAMCEDA, Transform, among others.

The folks mentioned above apparently have the ears of our legislators.  If we are not entirely happy with Plan Bay Area, perhaps the only way to achieve significant modifications to the Plan might be to withhold tax money intended for the Plan’s expansion and/or acquire legislators with different ears.