May 27--What gave you the idea to do this story?
State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, recently floated a bill that made headlines accross the country as one of the most ambitious attempts to combat California's crippling housing crisis. The bill would have dramatically loosened zoning rules up to a half mile from transit stops all around the state. While the bill spurred seemingly endless debate among policy wonks and housing advocates, it died abruptly in committee. While it faced opposition from obvious sources, such as the League of California Cities, as an attack on local control, its deathblow may have been dealt by fair housing advocates. Groups representing low-income renters feared the bill would displace their consitutents, who also happen to largely represent transit's core ridership.
What is the concept of transit-oriented development and why is it important?
The idea of building urban infill around public transit nodes is nothing new. Urban planners have been calling for designing denser communities around bus and rail lines for decades. With ever-increasing concerns about climate change, the idea has gained traction with lawmakers who see it as a way to encourge people to ditch their car commutes. The model for meeting housing needs as the state grows has been for decades to sprawl into undeveloped land, often in the backcountry. That also has fallen out of style as it promotes long car trips that pollute the environment.
Housing costs in California are sky high. How would transit-oriented development help lower housing costs?
Most academic agree that the state's housing crisis has resulted from a lack of new inventory. The state currently builds around 80,000 new units a year, when it would need to build roughly 350,000 annually to bring down prices by 2025. Policy advocates would like to see those new homes located near transit in an attempt to reign in individuals' carbon footprints as the state continues to grow.
In your story, you mention that we are woefully behind in having all the housing we need statewide and in San Diego County. Why?
It's hard to say exactly what brought us here. It's clearly a mix of many factors. But the ones you hear repeated over and over again are the reluctance of residential neighborhoods to accept new density and abuse of the California Enviornmental Quality Act, which allows new projects to be challenged in court by anyone with access to a lawyer.
Some in the story said that TOD will not necessarily lower housing costs. Why?
There's a real concern by many about the short-term impacts as California tries to build itself out of this housing shortage. With the right policies and incentives, the state may be able to get control of housing costs, but in that process, many low-income communities fear they will be displaced. And many experts agree this is a real concern, especially if wealthier neighborhoods are allowed to continue to block new development. In that case, moderate- to low-income communities may end up shouldering the majority of the new density, which might continue to be very expensive for a long time.
Is rent control the answer?
It's hard to say but we might find out soon. Californians will likely vote on a measure on November's ballot that would allow cities to roll out far-reaching rent control policies. The building industry says that would further slow down development. And many economists and academics agree, even some of the most progressive.
What is the hope for lower-income folks if they are being priced out of the areas that are closer to transit stops?
What they're hoping for is some kind of policy intervention. What's being implemented in places such as Los Angeles are inclusionary zoning ordinances that mandate new contruction that includes affordable housing. This can drive up the prices of the remaining units in a building, squeezing out those in the middle class. That's why some have also called for ordinances aimed at a range of income levels. Without some protections or a massive increase in the housing stock, many believe the cycle of gentrification that has become commonplace in many urban cities in California and around the country will continue unabated.
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