Green Life Activation Stations: the YIMBY Housing Initiative

In San Diego, housing costs too much.  Although the "why" can be complicated, one answer is that we don't have enough of it.  This is especially true when looking at urban, transit-oriented development, which has the added bonus of allowing residents to, at least in theory, also avoid the cost of owning a car.

Why don't we have enough?  Again, it's a complicated question, but a large part of the answer is that it's too difficult to build new housing.  Part of the fault lies with NIMBYs, although I think it's short-sighted to find fault with their position.  Although denser housing has many benefits, those benefits are harder to see at the hyperlocal level.  Although transit-oriented development might be a net positive for the city as a whole, the people living next door can envision only more traffic, less parking, and maybe the loss of a view.  Given our community planning process, locals are given prime opportunities to oppose projects.  This kills projects because politicians, at least locally, don't have the willpower to stand up to pissed-off residents, especially older residents that are more likely to vote.  This is especially true when there is no opposing voice: the "potential future residents of a city that don't live here yet" aren't given a vote at the planning group meeting.  When the developer stands alone, it is easy for them to be vilified.  No politician wants to side with the developer over the little old lady.  The problem isn't really the NIMBY, it's the structure of our political process that generally precludes an opposing force.

The need, therefore, is to have a broader voice to advocate for transit-oriented development.  In the usual course, you would hope our elected officials would act in the best interests of the city, but they often won't take that political risk.  They may voice support for things like the Climate Action Plan, but it remains to be seen whether that can take the concrete steps needed to reach the CAP goals.

I've often wondered why we don't see, at least on the local level, a coalition emerge between interest groups that often are at odds.  When we look at housing in San Diego, the developers/business interests should generally be aligned with environmentalists.  These two broad groups also share a lot in common with other interests:  unions, bike advocates, education reformers, and libertarians.

The common ground?  Regulations standing in the way of urban development.  Developers often complain about regulations and their effect on costs.  These same regulations harm the environment.  When height limits and other zoning requirements preclude housing in existing urban areas, developers are forced to break new ground in rural or entirely undeveloped areas for new housing.  Like Lilac Hills.  Plus, these exurban developments tend to be single-family homes requiring long commutes whereas urban development tends to be condos and apartments with smaller carbon footprints.  In effect, a vote for harsh development regulations in urban areas hurts the environment.

The effect of anti-development regulations extends into many realms.  If urban housing was easier, it could have hugely transformative effects on the city.  More diversity in housing leads to less segregation, which has a beneficial effect on schools.  More walkability leads to better health outcomes.  With density comes a desire for better pedestrian and cyclist facilities.  Libertarians would argue that excess regulations distort the free market.  With a low minimum wage, life is easier when you can live in a cheaper apartment and don't have to rely on a car to get to work. More active neighborhoods with "eyes on the street" lead to lower crime.  Urban living leads to less car use, which leads to less GHG emissions.  The list goes on and on.

Why doesn't this happen?  I think two reasons.  First, it seems sometimes that politicians and activists are focused on transportation: if we build public transit, people will live in our "City of Villages" and ditch the cars.  Part of the appeal is the political popularity of building shiny new things.  We need the transportation infrastructure, but it's not the solution.  The problem is that relying on increased transportation infrastructure to solve our woes is futile if zoning regulations prohibit the dense housing that is necessary to increased transit use.  As a recent study has shown: we have excess public transit in San Diego; what we need is better utilization of that transit network.  The second, discussed above, is the power given to NIMBYs to stand in the way of projects.

To make the necessary change, our current political paradigm is inadequate. We need to bring together the scattered interests into a coalition and push the decision up to the city-wide level.  Homeowners in Morena might not want apartment buildings, but residents in other areas of the city want cheaper rent.  It seems the best way to do this might be an initiative, which has the added benefit of avoiding CEQA.

So here is my stab at creating an initiative that is far from perfect but an effort to craft a compromise that will attract a broad enough coalition without pissing off too many people.  The broad goal:  an initiative that overrides existing zoning and other regulations in transit areas, or within 1/2 mile (or 1/8 of a mile in the current 30-foot limit Coastal Zone) to create dense, cheap housing need to lower our greenhouse gas emissions.  Here is my rough draft:

The YIMBY Initiative to Create Green Life Activation Stations

The initiative creates Green Life Activation Stations, defined as any area within 1/2 mile (or 1/8 of a mile in the coastal area west of the 5 freeway subject to the 30-foot height limit) of an existing Trolley or BRT Station, or in the same area from a trolley, streetcar, or BRT station that is planned to be built within 10 years under the effective SANDAG transportation plan.  Within that area:

1.  The height limit will be six-stories, or about 85 feet.  This allows for density, but not huge skyscrapers.

2.  No parking minimums: developers are free to add parking, but only as they think the market demands.  There is a parking maximum of one parking space per unit.

3. Zoning Relaxation:  Any type of residential or mixed-use building may be built, all other zoning (i.e., single-family) is superseded.  Also, all setback and building footprint requirements are not applicable.

4.  If the building includes at least 20 percent affordable housing reserved for low-income families, the property will be entitled to a property tax exemption for ten years on any improvements (the value of the land will still be taxed).  (This probably isn't possible in an initiative and the numbers may need to be tweaked, but something along these lines).

5.  In addition to any complete redevelopment, current owners may also build accessory dwelling units (ADUs, or granny flats) or split their lot into smaller parcels to allow for increased development.  The city will be tasked with creating a free, standardized ADU plan that can be instantly permitted.

6.  Projects within these areas are entitled to permitting priority over other projects and may employ architect/professional self-certification that the building is code-compliant to further cut down on the regulatory burden.

7.  In addition, any city-owned land within this area currently used as surface parking must be sold for development.  

8.  Any new development must be "green," e.g. solar panels on the roof and only drought tolerant landscaping (no lawn).

What else would you add to the initiative that seems like it could have a realistic chance of passing?  Maybe this is all ridiculous, but I think with financial backing from developers and advocacy from environmental groups and others, this could pass in San Diego.  Let's give it a shot!