San Rafael has a history of blended neighborhoods. From Gerstle Park to West End, single-family homes intersperse with offices, shops, and apartments, making them neighborhoods truly for everyone. A proposal for 1628 Fifth Avenue would continue that tradition – despite a bad zoning code.Read More
Last week, two kids were almost hit and killed by a driver on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo, saved only by an alert driver and their own reactions. What might be done to make Drake safer now and in the future?Read More
Thanks to a century’s worth of bad regulations, the Bettini Transit Center in downtown San Rafael needs to be rebuilt so SMART can get to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. The transit center is the busiest transit hub in the North Bay and forms the lynchpin of service in Marin. Getting it right, therefore, is critical, and GGT has four options its considering to do so.Read More
Transit agencies tout themselves as fundamentally “green,” a real solution to global warming and environmental pollution. Every so often, however, an anti-transit activist will complain that buses pollute more than cars or point to SMART’s decision to run diesel trains and say they are just making the pollution worse.As it turns out, the transit agencies are often right, and the anti-transit activists are often wrong, though not always.Read More
When Scott Wiener released his proposal to spur up to 3 million new homes near transit (Senate Bill 827), it received swift condemnation and praise from all corners. Whatever its merits for housing policy – and I happen to think they are quite good – it is not great transit-oriented development (TOD) policy. Good TOD is about far more than housing.Read More
With San Rafael seemingly on the edge of enacting council districts, now is a good time to reassess how elections work in Marin. Districts are a good step, but other reforms – especially ranked-choice voting – would make the process more equitable in every election.Read More
Last night was a big win for Democrats throughout the country, with wins in Maine, Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere around the country. In Marin, 20 nonpartisan seats to community service district (CSD) boards and municipal councils were up for grabs. How the seats went says a lot about where the county is going - and what kind of people Marinites are becoming.Read More
Earlier this year, San Rafael released its report  on parking demand in east San Rafael and found it sorely lacking. There were far too many cars for the space available, leading to overflow into other neighborhoods and constant frustration for its residents. Yet while the report detailed significant outreach and study of the problem, the recommendation for more parking was sadly lacking. Without a discussion of demand management with car sharing schemes or new bike infrastructure, the report could only go so far.Read More
As the historic home of mountain biking the California Wheelmen, and Safe Routes to School, Marin has a unique place in America’s cycling history. Despite that, the number of Marinites biking to work remains quite low and its roads are hardly bike-friendly. What does the research say makes biking more attractive? And how could Marin translate this research into its projects, policies, and priorities?Read More
It’s often assumed that new development pushes out poor people. But it seems as though development is actually slowing or halting the shrinkage of poor neighborhoods and drawing new low-income families into the city. At least, that’s what a first analysis of Census data shows between 2009 and 2014.Read More
Friday is the last day to comment on the Transportation Authority of Marin’s (TAM’s) draft Strategic Vision Plan. Billed as the planning framework of the agency, the document falls far short of its aims, serving more as an extended mission statement than a reliable strategy or roadmap.Read More
Either today or tomorrow, a housing package will go up for a vote in the California State Assembly. The final sticking point seems to be Senate Bill 2 (SB2), which would create a new dedicated funding source for affordable housing and homelessness rapid-rehousing. If it fails, it may scuttle the whole package. It should pass, but even if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t force the governor to veto the whole package.
What does SB2 do?
In brief, SB2 will raise fees on real estate paperwork filings by $75. The one exception is for home buying and selling: if you sell your house to someone who will live in it, then there is no fee increase for either your paperwork or theirs. All other transactions, including refinancing, liens, and commercial transactions, will be subject to the additional fee.
The fees will raise between $200 million and $300 million. 20 percent will be earmarked for state-supported affordable housing construction, and the rest will be earmarked for localities for a grab-bag of housing programs, including rapid-rehousing for the homeless, supporting construction of new homes, and down payment assistance .
Who does it impact?
Real estate owners who are doing more than buying or selling their own home. Investment buyers, developers, commercial owners, and people doing other things with their property are going to see their fees rise.
These are predominantly wealthier people. According to the US Census, the median household income of a homeowner is $91,056, vs. $47,237 for a renter . Though some of that difference might be made up by household size differences, that is unlikely.
The coalition opposed to SB2 published a table of some of the alterations in their opposition letter . Given that many transactions require more than one document, the result is sometimes a significant increase in filing fees. Foreclosure increases from $43 to $268 and construction loans increase from $128 to $353, for instance. Sob-story filings, such as in the death of a spouse, go up from $36 to $261.
It’s still worth it
Fees are not great ways to raise revenue. They ought to be used to cover whatever costs the fee-payer incurs, especially if that cost would otherwise be borne by society at large. They are not well-suited to be general-purpose revenue-generating devices. However, they can be a way around making politically poisonous decisions about what taxes to raise and what programs to streamline. In an optimal world, SB2 would probably raise taxes or find savings elsewhere and not raise filing fees.
Unfortunately, we do not live in an optimal world. We can damn political realities to hell as much as we like, but they will remain political realities nonetheless. So, living in this second-best world, fees can be a way to target a certain set of users for revenue. By raising fees only on real-estate transactions, the target will always only be those who are wealthy enough to buy or own property, even if the homeowner is in more dire straits than normal.
Another way to look at this bill is whether or not a similar bill should be repealed if it were already in place. Would it be fair to lower fees on some real estate transactions to cut off support for affordable housing, homelessness, and down payments? Not really. Those who will be helped by SB2 are likely in more need than those who would be hurt. Further, the argument against raising fees in that letter , that it hurts people who are otherwise in dire straits and results in bad recordkeeping, is an argument against the fees in general.
California is desperately short on housing . $200 million is a drop in the bucket, but it’s $200 million more than California had before. The funding mechanism isn’t great, and it will hurt some that shouldn’t be, but the funding is targeted at the neediest of Californians. SB2 deserves to pass.
 Lisa Engel, “Assembly Floor Analysis: SB 2 (Atkins), As Amended August 29, 2017” (Sacramento, CA: Housing and Community Development, August 29, 2017).
 “Table B25119 Median Household Income the Past 12 Months (In 2016 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) by Tenure,” 2016 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, 2010).
 “SB2 (ATKINS) - OPPOSE (as Amended August 29 2017),” August 29, 2017.
 Adam Nagourney and Conor Dougherty, “The Cost of a Hot Economy in California: A Severe Housing Crisis,” The New York Times, July 17, 2017, sec. U.S.
Update: If you think Marin could do more to support affordable housing, contact Marc Levine and tell him you support Senate Bill 35, which this post is about, and Senate Bill 2, a package that would provide a permanent stream of funding to fight homelessness in California.
There’s no doubt that the San Francisco Bay Area is in a crisis: there are too many jobs, too many employees, and not enough housing to fit them all. Among other things, it is a massive drain on the economy, cutting national wages by somewhere around $9,000 per year on average . Yet rather than taking up the responsibility laid before us, Marin and other communities around the Bay Area have chosen to shirk their responsibility to build homes for the region’s most in-need. The state looks like it has had enough obstruction, however, and will start to force cities to live up to their zoning codes. Under Senate Bill 35, cities that fail to live up to their Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) obligation will need to approve new housing that meets their zoning codes.
What does SB35 do?
In a nutshell, cities have a choice: either meet their RHNA obligations through whatever means they deem fit or allow developments that meet city rules to go through. The bill will allow for public and design feedback, but the design review board, planning commission, and town council cannot reject a project unless it violates a specific section of that city’s zoning or planning guidelines.
This kind of process is called by-right development. When someone purchases land, they have a right to do with it what they want within the boundaries of city law without needing to meet the unwritten rules that often come out in public processes. It is common for projects to be halted because of they are “too dense” or “too tall,” even if that density or height is allowed under the existing zoning. Under SB35, cities that don’t meet RHNA will not be able to stop those projects, at least not for those reasons.
To ensure density or height is whatever the community actually wants, the city will need to change their zoning code to reflect those densities or heights, ensuring a developer knows going into the project what is okay and what is not.
The only code not left in place by the SB35 are parking requirements. If a development is proposed under this law and is within a half-mile of public transit (no quality of that transit is mentioned), the city can’t impose a parking minimum. If it’s beyond that half-mile radius, a city can’t require more than one parking space per new unit.
Regarding CEQA, SB35 calls development proposals in places under the SB35 process “ministerial,” then goes on to define that ministerial process. For CEQA, actions classified as “ministerial” are important, as they are not subject to CEQA review. However, it is unclear in the Legislative Analyst’s report whether these developments are only ministerial as far as SB35 are concerned or if there are ministerial as far as the corpus of California law is concerned. If it is the former, then CEQA would still apply. If the latter, then CEQA would not .
For a developer, having a clearly-written development code written down would be a game-changer. It would allow investors to know at the outset how many homes can be built here or there, and what the likelihood of success really is. The fact is that the region has a critical shortage of housing is a crisis, and it is hurting the region, state, country, and even the planet by suppressing innovation and preventing the creation of billions of dollars in new wages .
Spotswood got everything wrong
Dick Spotswood, in his latest piece, rails against the legislation . He calls it a threat to liberty, a back-door way to densify Marin. His article got just about everything wrong about the legislation – indeed, it was borderline journalistic malpractice to publish a piece, even an opinion piece, with such a tenuous grip on the facts – so it’s a good place to start on the myths.
“SB 35 uses an entirely different geographical term to define communities subject to fast-track, by-right rules fostering high-density housing. Instead of applying the rules to ‘urban’ communities, Wiener’s criteria is that if even a village is an ‘urban cluster,’ then rules encouraging big-time development without pesky environmental review are applied.”
First, SB35 defines communities subject to by-right development as those which did not meet their RHNA requirements and says developments that qualify for the by-right designation need to be somewhere (an urban cluster), not in the middle of nowhere.
Second, this definition won’t reclassify rural or suburban places as “urban” for the sake of RHNA’s density requirement of 20 or 30 units per acre, as Spotswood seems to think.
Third, the only “big-time,” “high-density” development allowed would be those allowed under a town’s existing development rules. You won’t end up with dozens of Wincup-style developments unless the city already allows them.
“It wouldn’t be as bad if Wiener’s San Francisco wasn’t hypocritical when it comes to addressing the so-called ‘housing crisis.’ High-rise condos and apartments belong in job centers like San Francisco with comprehensive public transit networks.”
Here, Spotswood tells San Francisco, “You started it!” and expects that to be a valid reason for Marin to do nothing. That’s hogwash. Marin has been a horrible offender when it comes to adding housing for its own workforce, adding 17 times more jobs than homes in the past 7 years . It’s a myth that Marin primarily sends workers to San Francisco, as more people commute into Marin than commute from it .
Further, it shirks the responsibility Marin has for its own workforce. Sure, the county couldn’t possibly absorb all the need, but Marin is one of the region’s minnows, nor is it the only one to be affected by SB35. Every town, city, and county in California would be subject to the law, so San Francisco would be even more on the hook – with its more permissive zoning codes – than would Marin’s towns.
Second, nowhere in Marin allows high-rises. Even downtown San Rafael has a 3- to 5-story height limit, hardly towers.
Third, Marin does have a comprehensive transit network in Marin Transit and Golden Gate Transit; it just doesn’t run as frequently as we would want because there isn’t the population density to support such a network. Deepening the system should be one of Marin’s goals for the future, as should other measures that would encourage travel by means other than driving. More homes, when coupled with a better transit system to serve them, keeps traffic stable .
“What’s good for Marin ought to be good for the city’s cherished people-scaled neighborhoods [like the Castro and Telegraph Hill].”
The irony of Spotswood’s argument is that these City neighborhoods are the neighborhoods we should want to keep, but they are illegal under Marin’s existing planning and building codes. They are at least 30 units per acre but often go up to 40 or 50. Shared walls generally aren’t allowed in the county, and neither is the kind of commercial/residential blend that makes much of San Francisco livable. High parking minimums of 1.5 spaces per home, coupled with a ban on tandem parking, means that what could be a great front yard needs to be a wide garage door instead. Not only that, but these neighborhoods were built long before the public process choked out much new housing in The City and region.
Given that SB35 keeps much of the planning and zoning codes intact, however, we won’t see much new growth of this kind of home.
Follow your code
If Marin and other places around the state want to keep going as they have, they are welcome to do so, but they will be forced to adhere to the letters of their own law. If they want to avoid the difficulty of writing down the laws they really want, then they need to figure out how to meet their RHNA goals. Those are the choices that SB35 will give communities. Doing nothing – or as good as nothing – will no longer be an option.
 Ronald Bailey, “Zoning Laws in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose Cut Americans’ Wages by $8,775,” Reason.com, Hit & Run, (May 25, 2017).
 Scott Wiener, “Planning and Zoning: Affordable Housing: Streamlined Approval Process,” California Senate Bill 35 (2017).
 Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti, “Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation,” NBER Working Paper (National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2015).
 Dick Spotswood, “Lawmaker’s Proposal to Extend ‘urban’ Zoning in Marin,” Marin Independent Journal, August 22, 2017, sec. Opinion.
 David Edmondson, “Ten Homes Is Not Enough,” The Greater Marin, August 7, 2017.
 Edmondson, “Marin’s Towns Are Destinations,” The Greater Marin, June 3, 2013.
 Canaan Merchant, “As Arlington Booms, Traffic Drops,” Greater Greater Washington, September 30, 2014.
A common misconception I face is that I don’t like cars. On the contrary, cars are a wonderful thing: they give us freedom of movement, allowing us to go where we want, when we want. They are mobile rooms, so we can keep our stuff relatively safe wherever we go. They are personal mobility tools for people who have trouble walking. They’re a fabulous invention. But they use up too much damn space for everyone to use them.
Or, if you prefer, a diagram of the same, with each box sized according to the space used by a traveller in the mode:
[The data above assumes a Level of Service of D for pedestrians , bicycles , and cars ; 1.2 passengers average for cars; 1 passenger for other private modes; 66-passenger bus; and 2,000 riders on a 10-car subway train.* Bike parking assumes 2 spaces, the size of which were estimated from a 12,500-space bike parking garage in Utrecht ; car and motorcycle parking assumes 3 spaces, the size of which were estimated from planning documents [5a; 5b]; and bus parking assumes a typical maintenance and storage facility . Road space assumes 11-foot-wide urban lanes and 12-foot-wide freeway lanes.]
Jarrett Walker calls is this a problem of geometry: a dense city cannot run on cars . There just isn’t enough space for most people to use it as their primary mode of transportation. Buses, trains, bicycles, and walking all use less space, so they become primary. I’d argue this is not just a problem of dense cities but also of chokepoints within less-dense places.
The first thing I notice is how much parking is needed, especially for driverless and urban cars. It looks like over half the space needs for urban cars come from parking, and almost three-quarters of the driverless urban car needs are from parking.
The goal of transportation planners ought to be to maximize the usefulness of their space. Driverless cars will help cut down on road usage, but their parking needs will still eat up much of the landscape. Driverless taxis would help more, but to be as space-efficient as a half-full bus they would need an average load of 20 people, and at that point it’s more bus than taxi.
In comparison, a bicyclist uses just 7 percent the space of a driver in a city. Someone on foot uses less than 2 percent.
In practical terms, the various space-intensive modes travel should be the most rare ways of getting around, used for practical reasons by people with mobility issues, people who have unusually long or circuitous commutes, and people who have loads to move. Travel by other modes should be much more common, especially at times when a lot of people want to go to a relatively compact area of the region (like at rush hour). These other modes should be just as fast or faster than driving (accomplished by improving those other modes), and relying on them should not feel like a burden.
Far from making driving harder, inverting mode shares so driving becomes more rare would actually make driving easier and better by making other modes much easier and much better. There’s no reason to give away 2,300 square feet of space to every car traveler when 27 square feet by bus or 7 and a half feet by train would do just fine for most trips.
* Trains are the only vehicle here that must operate in their own right-of-way. They can move around 50,000 people per direction per hour using realistic headways compared with 4,800 on buses in their own right-of-way. Without stops, which would approximate the other modes' metrics, a train could operate about twice as often and yield the 7.5 square feet needed per passenger indicated here. A parallel article would examine lane capacity, but that would necessarily exclude parking - a key factor in cars' inefficiency - and so this is not the place for that examination.
 “Current HCM Methodology,” in Pedestrian Level of Service Study, Phase I (New York, NY: New York City DCP, 2006).
 Dan Zhou et al., “Estimating Capacity of Bicycle Path on Urban Roads in Hangzhou, China” (Conference Paper, The 94th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Washington, DC, 2015).
 Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, “Appendix C: Transportation,” in Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement (Olympia, Washington: Sate of Washington, 2004).
 Juliana Neira, “World’s Largest Bike Parking Garage Opens in The Netherlands,” Designboom, August 10, 2017.
[5a] “Design and Improvement of Parking.,” Section 19.26.040, Roseville Municipal Code, accessed August 18, 2017; [5b] Peter Croft, “Light Vehicle Sizes and Dimensions: Street Survey Results and Parking Space Requirements – Information” (Auckland, New Zealand: Land Transport NZ, December 2004).
 Division of School Support, “School Bus Maintenance Facility Planner” (Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, February 2011).
 Jarrett Walker, “Does Elon Musk Understand Urban Geometry?,” Human Transit, July 21, 2016.
This past week, the IJ trumpeted 10 new affordable homes built in Novato, calling it “proof that Marin has room for affordable housing.”  These homes, which took 5 years to build, are undoubtedly welcome for their new owners, but the editorial makes a mockery of Marin’s housing crisis and the depth of the county’s need.
Over the past 7 years, Marin added about 785 homes – an increase of about 0.7 percent.  This might be impressive if it weren’t far outstripped by population growth of 4.4 percent,  six times faster than housing stock, or even more outstripped by jobs growth of 12.2 percent,  17 times faster than housing stock.
In that context, a 10-home project is impressive mostly because it increases Marin’s pitifully meager annual housing production by 10 percent, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the crisis-level shortfall Marin is facing today.
If housing construction kept pace with job growth – never mind the regional housing need – the county would have added over 13,000 new homes, almost 2,000 per year. With inclusionary zoning, that would mean 400 affordable homes every year, not a mere 10 every 5 years.
This is a pace of construction that Marin is unlikely to ever meet, but it shows the sheer size of the hole we’re in. Marin doesn’t just need a few more homes; it either needs to increase its construction pace by an order of magnitude (or take active steps to hurt its economy and stop the creation of new jobs).
Celebrating the opening of 10 homes is great, and the work done by Habitat for Humanity is bold. But until we get to where this sort of opening is small potatoes, it’s like celebrating your D-average: nice, but also kind of sad.
 Marin Independent Journal, “Proof That Marin Has Room for Affordable Housing,” Marin Independent Journal, July 31, 2017, sec. Opinion.
 US Census Bureau, “Building Permits Survey” (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau), accessed August 6, 2017.
 Center for Economic Studies, “Quarterly Workforce Indicators” (Washington, DC: US Census Bureau), accessed August 6, 2017.