CNU blogs

Village Green: Happy Cycling & Transit Holidays! (fun photos)

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: As We Lose Shopping Malls, Are Losing Something Sacred?

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: For Cities to Be An Environmental Solution, We Need to Address Public Safety

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: Major Industry Report Says Sprawl "Lacks Staying Power"

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: Where Is the Green Community on Revitalization?

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: To Keep Smart City Housing Affordable, Build More of It

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: Jamaica's Rose Town Pursue's Healing Through Rebuilding

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: What the City Can Teach the Country About Sustainability

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: Revitalizing Cincinnati's Historic Over-the-Rhine (Part 3 - exciting progress portends a national model)

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: Revitalizing Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine (Part 2 - the neighborhood's assets)

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Village Green: Sidewalks Are Good for Us

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Strong central cities may help in weathering the recession

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

It's time to adjust to the metropolitan reality

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Sprawl's share of new US housing starts has declined dramatically, says EPA

Benfield - 19 min 30 sec ago
F. Kaid Benfield
Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

The Week Observed, December 2, 2016

City Observatory - 4 hours 13 min ago
What City Observatory did this week

1. Does Rent Control Work: Evidence from Berlin.  Economists are nearly unanimous about rent control:  they think it doesn’t work. Berlin’s recent adoption of a new rent control scheme in 2015 provides a new test case to see if they’re right.  An early analysis of the Berlin program shows that it’s done little to reduce rents, and even though the program was intended to address affordability problems for low and moderate income households, most of the benefits have gone to those renting the most expensive apartments.

Nikolaiviertel, Berlin (Flickr: oh_berlin).

2. Does Cyber-Monday mean package delivery Gridlock tuesday?  The growing volume of e-commerce has led some pundits to worry that city streets will be clogged by delivery vehicles.  But while we are getting many more packages at our homes, the growth of actual truck traffic has been much slower, in large part because growing volumes produce economies of scale for shippers.  More packages mean higher delivery density, more stops per mile traveled, and less energy, pollution and labor per package delivered.  In addition, e-commerce purchases mean fewer shopping trips. On balance, e-commerce is likely to reduce, rather than increase overall traffic.

3. Destined to disappoint: Housing lotteries.  The demand for affordable housing is so great and the supply of subsidized housing so small, that cities frequently have to resort to lotteries to allocate units to deserving households. An analysis of New York City’s lotteries for the past three years showed that nearly half of all winners fell into the 25 to 34 year old age category, leading to speculation that the lottery is somehow tilted in favor of young adults.  We look at the population that’s likely to be seeking an rental apartment in New York, and find little discrepancy between the population and lottery winners.  The bigger problem with lotteries is that so few units are available:  Fewer than two-tenths of all the households moving to an apartment in New York in the past year were lottery winners.

4. Why biotech strategies are often 21st Century snake oil.  Cities and states around the nation have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds in efforts trying to make themselves the next hub of biotechnology.  But like many biotech ventures themselves, this is a high-cost, high-risk undertaking. In one particularly epic example, a small town in Minnesota spent more than $30 million in state and federal funds on highway improvements for its biotech park, based in large part on the assurances that a prominent national biotech analyst could provide a $1 billion venture fund.  You’ll never guess what happened next.

Must Read

It’s been an incredibly prolific week for “must read” articles, so we’re highlighting a few more than usual.  We have two very insightful commentaries on road safety and inclusionary zoning, and four articles dissecting the results of the November 8 national election (hopefully we’ve reached peak political post-mortem).

1. The real reason the US has so many traffic deaths.  The surge in crashes and traffic deaths in the past few years has re-kindled concern about road safety, and prompted a wave of media reports pointing a finger of blame at texting while driving.  At City Observatory, we’ve been skeptical of this explanation. Now, Vox has published a comprehensive essay from by Norman Garrick, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Hamed Ahangari , reminding us of the big structural reasons why American traffic deaths are so much higher than in other countries–and it has almost nothing to do with texting.  Not only do Americans drive many more miles (or kilometers, if you prefer), but added driving has been spurred on by cheaper gas prices.  Garrick and his co-authors conclude that the recent increase in crash rates and deaths is almost fully explained by the decline in gas prices and lower unemployment rates. That’s not to say texting in a car is a good idea, but our road safety problems are more fundamental and deep-seated.

2. In many cities, inclusionary zoning–mandating that those building new housing in cities include a fixed proportion of affordable units–is seen as an easy way to force developers to solve the affordability problem, at no cost to the public.  Writing at the Sightline Institute, Dan Bertolet and Alan Durning consider whether inclusionary zoning is the most promising or most counter-productive strategy for tackling this problem.  They argue that uncompensated inclusionary zoning–where the costs of added units are borne entirely by the developer–simply pushes up the market price of housing, reduces the number of new units built, and actually makes housing affordability problems worse.  In theory, they say that if developers costs are compensated or offset (by some combination of density bonuses, faster permit approvals, lessened parking requirements or tax breaks) that these negative effects could be reduced or eliminated.  While that’s likely to be true, the very practical question that gets begged in this analysis–and in most IZ debates–is whether these “offsets” are large enough to truly cover the higher costs.  This article is a thoughtful exploration of many of the points that come up in debates over inclusionary zoning.  Its an absolute must read for anyone who cares about housing affordability.

3. The election, by metro area.  Mapping how America’s metro areas voted.  Richard Florida breaks out the election returns by metropolitan area, finding that most large metropolitan areas voted for Hillary Clinton, while most smaller ones voted for Donald Trump.  Clinton won more than three-quarters of the votes in the San Francisco metro area and more than two-thirds of the votes cast in the San Jose, Washington and New York metro areas.  Of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas (those with a million or more population), ten  of them (including Oklahoma City, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) awarded at least a majority of votes to Donald Trump; in five other metropolitan areas Trump won a plurality of the Presidential vote.

4. The election, by productivity.  In “Another Trump-Clinton Divide,” the Brookings Institution’s Mark Muro slices county-level election returns by gross domestic product.  He finds that the most economically productive counties in the US (again, overwhelmingly in large metro areas) tended to vote strongly for Hillary Clinton.  In all, the counties that voted blue in 2016 accounted for 64 percent of US GDP, compared to only 36 percent of GDP in red counties.  The economic disparity between red and blue counties has apparently widened.  In the  similarly close 2000 presidential election, counties that voted for Al Gore produced 54 percent of US GDP, compared to 46 percent for the counties who voted for George W. Bush. (Imagine electoral votes were apportioned by economic output).

5. The election, by tech-based economic development.  The Economist’s “Graphic Detail” feature further sharpens this economic view of politics by looking at how tech-dominated counties voted in the election.  (There’s a fair amount of overlap here between high tech counties and high productivity ones).  Their summary:  “In counties that favoured Democratic presidential candidates between 2000 and 2016, employment in high-tech industries grew by over 35%. In Republican-leaning counties, such employment actually fell by 37%. Today, there are more than three times as many high-tech industry workers in places that voted for Hillary Clinton as there are in those that favoured Mr Trump.”  Something on the order of 90 percent of the nation’s employment in computer manufacturing, software publishing and information services is located in counties that voted Democratic in the 2016 election.

New Knowledge

1. The 500-pound gorilla in US retailing is the fast-growing e-commerce behemoth, Amazon.  There’s little question that its growth has had a significant effect on the retail landscape, contributing first to the decline of independent bookstores, and more recently, it is argued, to the overall shrinkage of the number of retail establishments in the US.  A new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance–Amazon’s Stranglehold: How the Company’s Tightening Grip is Stifling Competition, Eroding Jobs, and Threatening Communities, —  takes a comprehensive and critical look at Amazon’s growth and impacts.  There’s a huge amount of information here, addressing everything from the growth of e-commerce and Amazon’s market share, to working conditions in Amazon warehouses, and the competitive effect.  While the report’s tone can be a bit hyperbolic, and its title and chapter heads leave little doubt as to the authors’ feelings  — “monopolizing the economy, undermining jobs and wages, weakening communities” — there’s plenty of hard data as well.

2.  More evidence on lead and crime. A growing body of research points to the substantial role that exposure to lead played in determining crime rates in US cities. While much of the research examines the correlation between atmospheric lead (from burning leaded gasoline) and the rise and subsequent decline in urban crime rates, a new study takes a look at a different source of exposure: lead water pipes. Many cities routinely used lead water pipes at the end of the 19th century, and by comparing crime rates in cities with lead and iron water pipes, James Feigenbaum and Christopher Muller are able to tease out the connection between lead exposure and city crime. In their paper “Lead Exposure and Violent Crime in the Early Twentieth Century, they show that cities with lead water pipes had crime rates that were 24 percent higher than cities that didn’t use lead.



Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

How to Spend the Bay Area’s New Transportation Dollars

How to Spend the Bay Area’s New Transportation DollarsBy Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy DirectorDecember 1, 2016

Photo courtesy of Sergio Ruiz for SPUR

This November, Bay Area voters approved more than $10 billion in new transportation funding through sales taxes and bonds backed by property taxes. The majority of the new revenue is for projects and policy goals SPUR supports, but if we have learned anything over decades of being involved in urban transportation, it’s that well-intentioned and well-funded projects can still fail if we don’t get the details right. The subtlest aspects of a transportation project can have a ripple effect across a city: a small bottleneck for a train, a hard-to-access station, a street where cars driving too fast make it impossible for pedestrians to cross.

To make sure our new investments deliver the greatest benefits possible, SPUR will be paying close attention to the following pots of money and projects:


City of Oakland Measure KK - $600 million bond (passed by 82 percent)

Measure KK was the first general obligation bond the City of Oakland has put before voters since Measure DD, which passed in 2002. Some of the funds will go to helping address Oakland’s $2.5 billion backlog of unfunded capital needs, including a $443 million paving backlog. Balancing priorities and establishing strong oversight will be key to meeting the measure’s goals:

  • $350 million for streets and road projects (repaving, bike and pedestrian improvements, and traffic calming). This is real opportunity to jumpstart Oakland’s new Department of Transportation to realize the vision of equitable transportation laid out in its strategic plan. The agency will need to balance the important priorities of cost-effectiveness, which could defer repair on low-volume residential streets; social equity, which would raise the priority of badly degraded streets in low-income areas; or traffic safety, especially for those who walk and bike, which preferences streets that are on bus routes or have a history of collisions.
  • Citizen’s Oversight Commission. Measure KK called for the creation of a citizen oversight body, which the Oakland City Council now needs to establish. Ideally the commission would include people who 1) understand capital project oversight, 2) have a firm grounding in finance and 3) can bring an equity lens to the project selection process. The committee will need to develop a clear criteria to guide its decision-making processes.


BART Measure RR: $3.5 billion bond (passed by 71 percent)

90 percent of this $ 3.5 billion bond is designated for bringing the BART system into a “state of good repair” (although there remains a few billion in unfunded needs). This new funding should be spent according to the agency’s asset management system. Two other pots of bond money are not as prescribed and need to be developed carefully:

  • $135 million to improve station access. BART recently adopted a new station access policy that aims to do two things: get more people to stations using sustainable modes of travel and better integrate stations with neighborhoods around stations. This funding needs to be programmed for projects that promote sustainable access to BART stations and support safe connectivity between stations and neighborhoods.
  • $200 million to design and engineer projects to relieve crowding, increase system flexibility and responsiveness, and reduce traffic congestion. This pot of money will be used to start planning a second transbay crossing and other next-generation transit projects needed to support growth. In addition to BART, other transportation agencies, cities and civic leaders need to participate in planning the second crossing (a project of statewide significance). A study of a new crossing should consider both BART technology and standard rail (Caltrain/Amtrak/high-speed rail). New station locations should be carefully chosen in cooperation with cities.


VTA Measure B: $6 billion – $6.5 billion bond (passed by 71 percent)

Given that the Measure B sales tax revenue will come in gradually over time, a critical question for VTA is: How should the projects and programs in the measure be prioritized? Which should be built first? SPUR suggests starting with the most sustainable and space-efficient projects: those that promote infill development and encourage travelers to shift away from driving. As with the BART bond, there’s a need to think critically about how the different pots of money will be spent:

  • $1.5 billion to complete BART Silicon Valley Phase II (the extension of BART to San Jose and Santa Clara). There remains a question regarding how to get all the federal funding expected for this project. And if funding falls short or costs increase, we need to be incredibly strategic about how to adjust the project to maximize benefits for cities and for travelers, while still getting the project done.
  • $500 million for bus operations. The way these funds are spent should be aligned with the Next Network policy direction recently moved forward by the VTA board (85 percent of resources toward ridership, 15 percent of resources toward coverage). Additionally, the money should be used to expand coverage using new transit service partnerships (ridesharing, micro transit, on-demand transit) and to provide service that is coordinated with BART Silicon Valley and Caltrain.
  • $700 million for Caltrain grade separations and $314 million for Caltrain capacity improvements. When considering the order in which funding is spend, the CalMod 2.0 capacity increase projects may be needed urgently if ridership growth continues apace.
  • $2.7 million for local streets and roads, county expressways, and highway interchanges. This new highway funding should be used to increase safety and efficiency on roads and to manage demand (likely through pricing strategies), rather than to expand roads, a strategy shown repeatedly to result in even more traffic. Complete streets concepts, which help those on all transportation modes to travel safely and have access to neighborhood connections, will be critical in many places.

In addition, AC Transit’s Measure C1, a $600 million parcel tax renewal, passed by 82 percent. This means AC Transit will be able to fully implement ACgo, a program to increase frequency, reliability and weekend service; continue to provide discounted fares to seniors, youth, people with disabilities and students; and engage in long-term planning.

Unfortunately, several billion in transportation funding was not approved by voters: $2.9 billion in Contra Costa County and $2.5 billion in San Francisco. Since, in both cases, the money was already identified for needs (BART cars, capital improvements, pedestrian safety projects, highways, etc.), there is now a hole the Regional Transportation Plan. Filling it will require coming up with much more local and regional funding in the coming years, a reality that calls for creative funding sources such as road pricing, higher gas taxes and/or vehicle miles traveled fees.

A next step for San Francisco, after the failure of the Measure K half-cent sales tax, is to figure out how to keep addressing the needs identified in the city’s Transportation 2030 investment program while also developing much-needed transit expansion projects — such as bus rapid transit, Muni Metro expansion and the Caltrain/high-speed rail downtown extension — and continuing to make its fair and appropriate contributions to the regional transportation agencies. Though they did not pass Prop. K, voters did support Prop. J, which would have allocated Prop. K’s revenues to transportation and homeless services. The city should not lose sight of this support and should move forward with the right revenue source to make needed investments. 

We still don’t know how we are going to continue funding transportation in the Bay Area. Due to financing costs, bonds are an expensive way to finance projects, and they’re only one-time infusions. Sales taxes are regressive, and many counties are hitting the 10 percent sales tax ceiling imposed by the state (although this can be addressed through legislation). Paying for projects locally means we’re less subject to the vagaries of policy and funding changes at the state and federal levels. But the growing reliance on local taxes in the Bay Area leads to decision-making on a local scale, which is not leading to the best transportations choices. If federal funding continues to decline, it will be imperative to accelerate transportation funding in California. One example is transportation user fees such as tolls on road, which are becoming more and more feasible due to technology and could be the most powerful tool we have to grow transit markets and decrease driving and pollution.

Looking ahead to 2018, a regional bridge toll increase (Regional Measure 3) is under discussion. We can also look to the Los Angeles and Seattle regions as models for a grander regional vision. This election, almost 70 percent of Los Angeles voters passed Measure M, a one-cent sales tax that would raise $860 million per year to fund a $120 billion mix of capital and operating funding for transit, highway and local transportation projects over the next 40 years. The Measure M package includes doubling the size of LA Metro’s rail system (100 new miles). Seattle voters approved Sound Transit 3,$54 billion capital and operating program which funds doubling the length of the light rail system (nearly 62 new miles and 80 new stations) over 25 years.


Where Is the Federal Government?

Plenty has been written about how the federal government’s transportation funding role is devolving to cities and regions. As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution has written, “metropolitan areas cannot do everything on their own. They need a reliable partner in Washington that upholds the core responsibilities of the federal government, empowers local communities to live up to their full potential, and helps leverage badly needed investments in innovation, infrastructure, and children and youth.” 

Getting the details right applies to the federal transportation role as well: It’s unclear whether a $1 trillion infrastructure bill (as suggested by President-elect Trump and congressional leaders) would be a net win for big regions that are aiming to grow sustainably, like the Bay Area. One important transportation question for California is whether and where the federal government will advance high-speed rail in the U.S.


Focusing on Values for Transportation Planning

Since Election Day, a steady flow of political reflection, exhortation and speculation has filled our inboxes. Many pieces have resonated, not so much because they match our personal views but because they articulate the ways we should develop transportation projects, plans and policy. Here are a two pieces for thought:


People, Not Data. Again.People, Not Data. Again.
by Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America

Truly Responsive and Inclusive Planning
by Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute

Categories: CNU blogs

Creating Healthier Communities with Smoke-Free Public Housing

HUD blog - Thu, 2016-12-01 12:00

Photo caption: “Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home free from harmful second-hand cigarette smoke,” —HUD Secretary Julián Castro

Over a year ago, Secretary Castro announced a proposed rule to make our nation’s public housing units smoke-free, with the support of public health leaders such as Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and the Centers for Disease Control, which concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Yesterday in Boston, Secretary Castro announced our final smoke-free rule that will require more than 3,100 public housing agencies to implement smoke-free policies in their developments. This effort will protect public housing residents from the harmful health and safety effects of lit tobacco inside apartments and in common areas.

“HUD’s smoke-free rule is a reflection of our commitment to using housing as a platform to create healthy communities,” Secretary Castro said. “By working collaboratively with public housing agencies, HUD’s rule will create healthier homes for all of our families and prevent devastating and costly smoking-related fires.”

Since 2009, HUD has strongly encouraged PHAs to adopt smoke-free policies in their buildings and common areas. In this time, more than 600 PHAs and tribally designed housing have adopted smoke-free policies. They have committed to making public housing communities safer and improving the health of children and families by reducing the spread of secondhand smoke.

Reducing Housing Costs

The health benefits of going Smoke Free are well known, but public housing communities that have gone smoke-free have also experienced cleaner units and significantly reduced unit turnover costs.

A survey of public and subsidized housing managers found that the additional cost of rehabilitating smoking units averaged $1,250 to $2,955 per unit, depending on the intensity of smoking. [1] HUD’s Regulatory Impact Analysis estimates annual nationwide savings between $16 and $38 million and these aren’t the only savings. A fire caused by a single dropped cigarette can result in significant damage. PHAs have discovered that going smoke free reduces the cost of fire damages and insurance coverage, which HUD estimates at $32 million annually. This frees up critical funding to house and support additional families with clean and safe accommodations.

Reducing Housing Costs

The health benefits of going Smoke Free are well known, but public housing communities that have gone smoke-free have also experienced cleaner units and significantly reduced unit turnover costs.

A survey of public and subsidized housing managers found that the additional cost of rehabilitating smoking units averaged $1,250 to $2,955 per unit, depending on the intensity of smoking. [1] HUD’s Regulatory Impact Analysis estimates annual nationwide savings between $16 and $38 million and these aren’t the only savings. A fire caused by a single dropped cigarette can result in significant damage. PHAs have discovered that going smoke free reduces the cost of fire damages and insurance coverage, which HUD estimates at $32 million annually. This frees up critical funding to house and support additional families with clean and safe accommodations.

Making Change Together

HUD is committed to garnering resources from national health and housing partners, such as the American Lung Association, Academy of American Pediatrics, and American Cancer Society, among others. This effort has also kindled new relationships with state and local level partners committed to working with local housing leaders to support the smoke free and cessation efforts.

Working together, we can make our communities healthier and safer for residents.

Lourdes Castro Ramírez is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Public and Indian Housing.

1. Ntl. Ctr. For Healthy Hsg., “Reasons to Explore Smoke-Free Housing,” (Early Fall 2009), available at
2. Brian King et al., “National and State Cost Savings Associated with Prohibiting Smoking in Subsidized and Public Housing in the United States,” Preventing Chronic Disease (October 2014), available at

Categories: CNU blogs

White Voters and Polarization: Can We Span the Racial Divide by Emphasizing Shared Interests?

Planetizen blogs - Thu, 2016-12-01 10:00
Dowell Myers reflects on an article from the Journal of Planning Education and Research in light of the recent presidential election.
Categories: CNU blogs

5 Things To Know About Whole Grains

Blue zones - Thu, 2016-12-01 08:00

Two studies released this month came to the same conclusion: Eating whole grains can improve your longevity. That finding supports what we have learned in the Blue Zones, where whole grains are a key part of the diet of the world’s longest-lived people.

Here are five things to know:

  1. What did the new studies say?

The two new meta analysis reviews (studies of studies) found that consuming whole grains reduces your risk of diseases that shorten your life. One published in BMJ analyzed 45 studies and concluded that whole grains can help you live longer by cutting your risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, respiratory disease and infectious diseases. The other report, published in the journal Circulation, reviewed the data in 14 studies that combined had more than 786,000 participants. It noted that for every 16-gram (about a slice of bread) increase in whole grain consumption, mortality risk is cut by 7 percent.

  1. What do they eat in the Blue Zones?

About 65 percent of the Blue Zones diet is whole grains, beans and starchy tubers. Grains including oats, barley, brown rice and ground corn (not so much wheat) play a key role in diet there.

  1. How many whole grains should I eat?

The BMJ report references the benefits that come from eating 90 grams a day; U.S. dietary guidelines say you should eat at least three servings (one serving is about a slice of whole grain bread, which is roughly 16 grams). A cup of whole grain cereal or a half cup of cooked rice also equal about a serving.

  1. Where should I start?

Breakfast! We recommend whole-grain steel cut oatmeal, with healthy additions like chopped nuts, fresh or dried fruit, flax seed and spices like cinnamon and cardamom. Or experiment with brown rice for breakfast.

  1. Is bread OK?

Bread can be a great source of whole grain, but limit yourself to two slices a day. Also look for authentic sourdough bread like they eat in Ikaria – take note that many sourdough breads sold in grocery stores are not traditional, real sourdough. Find a bakery you trust.

For more, get to know the 10 Blue Zones Food Guidelines. For recipes, click here, and pick up a copy of The Blue Zones Solution that includes over 70 recipes inspired by the Blue Zones cultures and traditions.

Credit: Ben Grove

The post 5 Things To Know About Whole Grains appeared first on Blue Zones.

Categories: CNU blogs, New Urbanism

Yes in My Backyard: More In-Law Units in San Jose

Yes in My Backyard: More In-Law Units in San JoseBy Kristy Wang, Community Planning Policy DirectorNovember 30, 2016

Photo courtesy Inhabitat

In-law housing units hit it big in 2016. The White House recently named them as a potential solution to the urban housing shortage. Three bills that would make them easier to create passed the California legislature and are awaiting the governor’s signature. The San Francisco Planning Department even made a video. Once illegal in many cities, this simple way to add more housing — create an additional unit in the backyard, basement, attic or garage — has become a welcome tool in the fight to make urban housing affordable.

Last week San Jose became the latest Bay Area city — following Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Redwood City and Mountain View — to update its in-law unit ordinances to better serve the need for housing solutions. San Jose approved several changes to its in-law unit regulations, with the intention of bringing them into compliance with new state law and facilitating development in traditional residential neighborhoods.

After several years of banning in-law units, San Jose initiated a pilot secondary unit ordinance in 2005. Eighty-three applications, 61 permits and 19 completed units later, the city made the program permanent in 2008. Still, fewer than 200 legal in-law units had been completed in the 10-plus years since the creation of the pilot program, so the city set out to make the program more effective at creating new units and adding incremental density.

With the help of city staff and supportive councilmembers, San Jose approved a series of tweaks that slightly loosen up the ordinance across the board:

  • Secondary units will now be allowed in R-2 districts (two units per lot) as well as R-1 districts (single family), and staff will further study the number of eligible secondary units
  • Minimum lot size will shrink from 6,000-8,000 square feet to 5,445 square feet
  • Unit maximum floor area would grow from 700 to 800 square feet on parcels over 10,000 square feet
  • A studio in-law unit would now be permissible (only one-bedroom units were allowed previously)
  • The required parking would now be permitted on a driveway apron
  • Under certain conditions, no new parking will be required for an in-law unit
  • The rear setback will be reduced from 15 feet to 5 feet under certain conditions
  • Only the secondary unit attached to a detached garage would have to meet setback requirements (the existing garage would not), and staff will study impediments to detached garage conversions

And so forth. The changes consistently increase the likelihood that individual project proposals can meet city requirements, but we think it could go further.

SPUR and our friends at SV@Home advocated for eliminating or further loosening many of these requirements if we really want to see more of these units built. What are the major barriers that homeowners face, and how can we break them down?

Development and design standards are too restrictive. We suggest eliminating restrictions on minimum lot size, allowable floor area, number of bedrooms, bathrooms and storage space, and rear yard coverage. Focus instead on the things that guide building design and size, such as setbacks, open space requirements and overall lot coverage maximums.

Parking requirements are still excessive. We suggest further reducing parking requirements for in-law units, including eliminating the proposed minimum transit frequency required (every 15 minutes) in order for units to provide no new parking. The transit frequency requirement is too specific and does not conform to the new state law. Smaller households have been shown to own fewer cars than typical suburban households, and housing for people should be prioritized over housing for cars.

Fees are too high. The city should review its impact fees for in-law units. Fees are often cited as the primary barrier to the creation of legal in-law units in San Jose, and the actual impact of a single in-law unit on any given neighborhood is marginal. The city should also work with its utility and school district partners to review those agencies’ fees that may be excessive for in-law units relative to their actual impact.

Education, outreach and the approvals process matter. Homeowners need to know that this possibility exists. It would be worthwhile for San Jose to create an education and outreach campaign to property owners that makes a case for investing in in-law units. San Jose already has a ministerial process for approving in-law units, but it’s important to review it to ensure that it’s affordable, accessible and easy to follow. At the council meeting, the city council voted to encourage a public information effort.

It’s the Right Time to Be Bold

Given the region’s housing shortage and San Jose’s vision to become a denser, more urban place, the city should be clearing the way for more in-law units. San Jose has many single-family residential neighborhoods that may resist a proposal that seems to invite change. But the magic of in-law units is that neighborhoods can accommodate new residents with very little impact.

The need is great, and it’s clear that the existing ordinance has not had much of an impact — on the housing shortage or existing single-family neighborhoods. Thanks to city staff, the planning commission and the city council, the new ordinance takes steps in the right direction, but we think it doesn’t go far enough. Cities around the region need to make in-law unit construction radically easier for property owners to implement. We applaud the current effort and suggest that San Jose carefully track property owner interest, applications and building permits to assess impediments that could be addressed in future code updates.

Like all housing ideas, in-law units are no silver bullet, but this is one way that San Jose can do more to encourage new housing opportunities without substantial public investment.

Read SPUR’s November 2016 letter to the San Jose City Council >> Read SPUR’s 2006 report on in-law units >>
Categories: CNU blogs
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