Bramson: Building our way out of local control
The San Jose City Council approved a new Measure E spending plan and budget for next fiscal year on June 13, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    The question of who puts what where in a given community is an interesting one. For decades, the authority of land use — the power to decide whether or not commercial, residential, industrial and a host of other possibilities are allowed on a given parcel — has fallen to the municipal government where the plot of earth lies. Regardless of who owns the land, cities and counties have historically had the final word in the matter of what can or can’t be built there.

    Touted as a means of preserving community character and tailoring development to needs of the community, local control has unfortunately had unintended consequences at times that hinder progress, exacerbate inequality, and impede efficient resource allocation. And in the affordable housing crisis we are facing today, all too often local control has emerged as a significant and costly roadblock to building the homes we desperately need for our poorest residents.

    Since elected officials, especially those from smaller cities or districts, are beholden to their constituents, making unpopular decisions when it comes to developing more affordable housing almost anywhere can be political suicide. Unfounded fears of property devaluation, increased traffic or rising crime become the rallying cry of the neighborhood leaders and business owners who sometimes form the opposition. And when faced with the mob in the public square, it can be easier for decision-makers to seek shelter for themselves rather than allow housing to be built for others.

    On top of this, many local governments utilize zoning regulations that effectively exclude multifamily affordable housing options altogether. Outdated zoning laws often mandate large lot sizes, minimum square footage requirements and other restrictions that drive up the cost of construction. These restrictions make it financially unviable for developers to create affordable housing units, perpetuating the affordability crisis. Evidence of this troubling reality is right here at home where 94% of all residential land in San Jose is zoned only for single family homes.

    Making matters worse is the fact that the decentralized nature of local land use control means that every city or county has its own set of regulations and approval processes. So developers of affordable housing not only need to scour the earth to find a piece of land that is deemed “acceptable” by the local government, they must also navigate a web of bureaucratic complexity that results in inefficiency, delays and added costs, further discouraging the development of affordable housing. And with the absence of political will to incentivize these projects to go forward, there is a natural tendency to walk away from so many sites that would have otherwise been ideal locations to build.

    Perhaps the most detrimental facet of this issue is that this type of authority can perpetuate segregation and contribute to displacement. When zoning powers are used to keep affordable housing out, it has the potential to reinforce certain economic and racial disparities that may exist in a community. Without alternatives actively being developed, lower-income residents are pushed out of neighborhoods that have been their homes for generations with nowhere else to go.

    In California, the good news is that over the past several years the state has stepped in and created a slew of new laws that help make sure more affordable housing goes forward now. Streamlining legislation like SB 35 (2016) and AB 2162 (2018) has sped up approval times and limited delays. Other new laws like SB 330 (2019) have opened the door in communities that would have otherwise said no to even a single new affordable development. And, even more recently, legislators have turned their attention to vacant and underutilized locations like office buildings and parking lots, with AB 2011 (2022) and SB 6 (2022)  making it possible to explore an even greater number of development residential opportunities for the future.

    Locally, several cities have already embraced some of these new tools. San Jose, Morgan Hill and Mountain View have cut down approval times, opened up new parcels and worked with developers to figure out how to most effectively partner to utilize the legislation to its fullest extent. Working with Santa Clara County and utilizing voter-approved resources, such as Measure A (2016) and 2020 Measure E (2020), thousands of new homes are in the pipeline and moving forward faster than ever before. Each jurisdiction is still intimately involved in ensuring the new housing is built to the highest standards and that the community is effectively engaged. The difference now is that the option to say “no” is off the table.

    But make no mistake: the fight is still on. Many places that are less committed to housing than our region want to reclaim the power that has been taken from them. And some of the most effective laws in place today will sunset soon if not reauthorized. That’s why it’s critical that we push to see legislation like SB 4 (affordable housing on higher education and religious lands) and SB 423 (streaming to speed up development) move forward this year. Now is not the time to make things harder for people who need the housing the most.

    The sad truth is that local land use control, while aimed at preserving community character, often stands in the way of the progress we need for our residents to thrive. By recognizing the limitations of this system and embracing reforms that prioritize affordable housing, we can work toward creating more inclusive, equitable and vibrant communities for all.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter. 

    Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

    Leave a Reply