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.

The Low Skyline of Washington

The Low Skyline of Washington, DC; Flicker, Courtesy of Nicholas Schooley

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.

  • Carrie

    Although easing height restrictions has it’s benefits I don’t think those benefits are affordable housing. It will simply provide additional expensive housing option for people who can afford it. Unless there is a non-capitalist strategy for providing moderately and low price housing for people, cities will either have to expand or people will need to move to the burbs (or Detroit which is really affordable).

    I think the true answer to making cities accessible to those with budgets is improving the public transit options in the country to make the distance feel shorter

    • John Kennedy

      Public transit and housing density go hand in hand. Increasing supply reduces cost if my microeconomics class was worth anything. However, I’m of the opinion that renters are not entitled to their apartment or their neighborhood. If they wanted to live there forever, they should have bought a place. If they couldn’t afford a place there, then they should look somewhere else. There is no lack of affordable housing in the US, and struggling cities like Detroit and the rest of the rust belt could use the population boost.

      For example, Syracuse and NYC have the same unemployment rate. You can buy a house in Syracuse for $50,000. Any renter in NYC can afford that. Just because you’ve decided that you want to live somewhere doesn’t mean that a landlord should have to lower his rent to allow you to live there.

      • baklazhan

        Maybe they can afford to buy a house, but you have to look at the whole picture. If they live in NYC, they probably don’t have a car. Would they need one in Syracuse? That’s another $9k/year. Utilities? Maintenance on this $50,000 house?

        Yes, it’ll probably be cheaper, but it might be a lot closer than it seems at first glance. And then there’s the matter of finding work and all the other aspects of life.

      • Carrie

        I don’t think people are entitled to live where they want but making urban centers exclusively available to the wealthy isn’t good for the country and people need to be mindful of that. Diversity is key for sustainability.

        • John Kennedy

          My issue with that statement is that it is based on the completely false premise that NYC and SF are somehow typical American cities.

          NYC and SF are not really cities so to speak. They are megalopoli. They are of the same scale as nation states and are part of a global network of ultra wealthy cities.

          Outside of those two cities + LA, cities are chock full of concentrated poverty, crime, and a fair share of fun safe and beautiful neighborhoods.

          The reason that NYC is so expensive is because it is so safe. The reason it is so safe is the fact that poverty has been gentrified to the very outskirts of the city. Now the middle class is being gentrified away by the rich.

          The housing in a given neighborhood derives it’s worth from the demand to live in that area. That demand is predicated on safety, cleanliness, and amenities.

          I live in Rochester. There are houses on the market for under $10,000. I live in a “hipster” neighborhood that gentrified over the lady 5 years after the removal of a housing project that resulted in a 20% reduction in poverty.

          Less than 2 miles away, there are shootings several times per week. I pay next to nothing for an entire floor of a house.

          I’m also a programmer. Moving to NYC would double my salary, SF would triple it. But my quality of life would probably go down because those cities are expensive.

          My point is that people who choose to live in mega cities have made a choice to live there. They could live elsewhere and likely have no more trouble finding work. Yes they’d need to own a car in most other cities, but frankly if you saw how inexpensive most rust belt cities are you would not consider that a hardship. Perhaps if enough if these people moved to Rochester we could put back in our subway. Who knows.

          All I know is that this great migration to the mega cities is bad for most other cities. I’m happy that people are finally catching on that they can’t afford to live there. Maybe once they stop whining about their own poor decisions, they’ll move some place that needs their tax revenue.

          Please remember that we aren’t even talking about people in poverty right now. That ship sailed years ago. These are people I the middle class who have jobs and could easily afford to move.

          These complaints are nothing more than entitled whining for the government to either pay their rent for them, or force the landlord to give up income.

          If we were talking about poverty, it would be a different conversation, but we aren’t. We’re talking about aging yuppies who are upset that rents are going up.

          • Magnitogorsk

            Point taken, but I have to disagree. One need only look at Brooklyn to understand that this conversation about yuppies necessarily includes the story of poverty. The cache of Brooklyn, combined with elevated property values in Manhattan, caused a boom in the value of property values, beginning in Williamsburg and radiating outward from there. My point is that what may start as a bunch of artists seeking something “real” can wind up driving the “reality” of the poor out of town. In this sense, especially where yuppies are concerned, the plight of the poor is inextricably entwined. The conversation must include both populations.

    • Chris Matus

      I think your point that increasing density doesn’t automatically mean new housing will be affordable is a good one. Stay tuned for the final article in this series, which will look at how a city can increase density to meet market demand while also promoting equity. Thanks for reading!