This is the second article in a three part series exploring issues around height restrictions and zoning initiatives designed to limit density. Click here to view Part 1
Lately, the Bay Area has become a flashpoint in the debate on social equity and the role of cities. The success of Silicon Valley has accelerated demand for real estate and exacerbated issues associated with affordable housing in San Francisco. The city has recently been the site of protests by middle and working class families concerned they are being priced out of their neighborhoods by wealthy newcomers who commute to work aboard private buses each day and have the unfortunate tendency to suggest cities should be segregated based on economic status.
The New York Times reported last November that San Francisco has the least affordable housing in the country, with “just 14 percent of homes accessible to middle class buyers.” The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is currently $3,250; the highest in the nation (we ran this infographic last September illustrating how height restrictions in cities keep rents high). The situation has been especially contentious in the Mission District neighborhood, where gentrification has resulted in the highest eviction rates in the city and public protest by residents concerned the neighborhood is quickly losing the socioeconomic diversity that made it unique.
The tension over housing prices in San Francisco is more than just a critique of class relations in modern America; it also illustrates the potential ramifications of restrictive zoning practices. Matthew Yglesias, a proponent of density, recently highlighted the role of zoning in the city’s affordable housing crisis. He acknowledged not everyone wants to live in his native Manhattan, but argued San Francisco currently has “about half the population density of Brooklyn and could easily accommodate hundreds of thousands of new housing units without Manhattanization.” Yglesias also directs blame on the suburban communities outside of San Francisco. He credits restrictions on density despite high demand for stunting the region’s economy and even suggested it may be time for tech hubs to relocate to Cleveland.
San Francisco is a particularly egregious example of how restrictive zoning can jeopardize access to affordable housing. However, height restrictions in Washington, DC have resulted in a similar concern that the city is no longer affordable. These concerns prompted the National Capital Planning Commission to revisit the city’s height master plan and may lead to reforms in the 1910 Height of Buildings Act; shifting additional decisions on city zoning from Congress to local officials.
Dramatic changes to the DC skyline are unlikely, but it is possible reforms to the Height of Buildings Act can lead to new development in Washington. In an article for Next City, Bill Bradley argues easing height restrictions can help ensure an equitable city by allowing the development of new housing to meet growing demand. He also suggests new development can build long-term equity by creating new working and middle class jobs in construction and skilled trades that offer a living wage without a college degree. Bradley also attempts to assuage the fears of preservationists, assuring them the “Washington Monument, as obvious as this sounds, is really tall. At 555 feet, it’s almost 60 feet taller than the historic Guardian Building in Detroit, which, despite the towering Renaissance Center, still plays heavily in the city’s skyline.”
When viewed through an economic lens, it is hard to support height restrictions. If a city is successful, it’s nearly inevitable it will either need to increase density, promote sprawling development, or risk the market pricing out middle and lower class residents as demand pushes up the price of real estate. However, it is also important to remember there is no guarantee that allowing new development in a high demand market will always lead to affordable housing. In addition to considering how restrictive zoning can hamper the market, it is also important for cities like Washington, DC to ensure affordable housing through inclusionary zoning and smart growth strategies.