Bills to legalize housing near transit – what do you think?

The Bay Area, and California as a whole, have a deep housing shortage dating back 40 years. More than a third of young adults live with a parent, leading to a mass exodus. The housing challenge is a transportation challenge – commute times have increased 17% over the past decade, adding an average of 43 minutes weekly per commuter.  And the transportation challenge is an environmental challenge – transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and we’ve been falling behind on transportation emissions.

This legislative season, California State Senator Scott Wiener launched a bill that’s getting national attention, seeking to take these challenges head-on by removing barriers to adding homes near transit.  SB827 is up for hearing in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee on April 17.

A bill more modest in scope, sponsored by Assembly Members David Chiu and Tim Grayson proposes to set minimal zoning standards, for land owned by BART around BART stations. The BART TOD bill is up for hearing in the Assembly Local Government committee on April 18 (was April 11).

What are your thoughts about these proposals?

 BART transit-oriented development – AB2923 (Chiu, Grayson)

Recently, Millbrae City Council approved two transit-oriented developments adding homes, jobs and stores to the area next to Millbrae BART/Caltrain.  One of the two developments is on land owned by BART, that had been used for surface parking.


BART has a transit-oriented development policy with a goal of using land it owns around stations to produce more than 20,000 new units of housing, of which 7,000 will be below-market-rate, along with 4.5million square feet of office and commercial space.  The City of Millbrae created a plan for transit-oriented development at the Millbrae station nearly 20 years ago. But it has taken until now for the plans to be completed and developments to be approved.

These scenarios are not unusual. Bill supporters report that a development at Ashby BART was created to serve disability organizations, featuring two floors of housing. The housing was removed; the development was required to have enough parking for a regular office building; and the parking remains 70% unoccupied. The development took 13 years to navigate the approval process.  A development on BART land in San Leandro similarly took 11 years, and had its affordable housing scaled back.

The bill, AB2923, would make this sort of development near BART stations less difficult, by requiring local zoning for BART-owned land to be consistent with  standards established in BART’s transit-oriented development policies, and by streamlining the approval of those developments.

The bill requires the BART board to set zoning standards for mixed-use housing on BART-owned land within a half mile of an existing or planned BART station in areas represented on the BART Board (currently Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco Counties).  Then, cities would be required to update their local zoning to be compatible with BART’s TOD zoning. Residential mixed-use projects on BART land following these zoning standards would be be required to provide at least 20% of residential units be offered for low and moderate income residents, and the project would require administrative approval (in other words, they would not need additional local city council approval).

The BART TOD policy uses a typology of “place types”, setting heights and parking standards depending on whether the station is in a regional center, urban neighborhood, or town center.


Caltrain does not yet have a Transit-Oriented Development policy, but is considering creating such a policy in the context of its overall business plan – which could make similar legislation feasible for land Caltrain owns near stations, too.

The BART TOD bill is co-sponsored by Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH), and is supported by groups including TransForm, SPUR, Greenbelt Alliance.

The BART TOD bill is up for hearing in the Assembly Local Government Committee on Wednesday April 11.

SB-827: Transit-rich housing around the state

More ambitious, and better known, Scott Wiener’s SB-827 proposes to allow housing for more people by legalizing mid-rise housing within walking distance of rail and “missing middle” housing near frequent bus service around the state.   In the words of recent comments from groups including Natural Resources Defense Council, Environment California, and TransForm (before the bill was scaled back on April 9), SB 827 represents the scale of action necessary to meaningfully address the affordable housing and environmental crises.

SB827 would create a “transit-rich housing bonus” by overriding some aspects of local zoning within a short distance of transit.

Around rail and ferry stations, buildings up to 55’ tall are permitted in the first quarter-mile with and 45’ in the second quarter-mile.

There is no building height increase within a quarter-mile of qualifying bus lines, but density restrictions will be relaxed, and parking requirement limited to .5 spaces per unit; these rules would legalize “missing middle” housing types such as townhouses, triplexes, and quads, where smaller units could fit into a modestly-sized building, providing greater affordability than larger single-family homes because of the smaller footprint.

To qualify, bus service would need to be fairly frequent at peak period (15 minute service) and during the weekday (20 minute average service intervals offpeak between 6am-10pm), and on weekends, qualifying bus stops must also have average service intervals of 30 minutes from 8am-10pm.  The top bus corridors in San Mateo / Santa Clara counties, such as ECR and 22/522 qualify for these conditions, but many places provide denser zoning than “missing middle” already.

The bill shifts the obligation that jurisdictions have traditionally put on development to support access, from private automobiles to transit. The latest version of the bill removes parking mandates in the first quarter-mile from rail, and allows a .5 parking spot requirement in the second quarter mile from rail or the first quarter-mile from frequent bus service.  Instead of higher parking mandates, a developer using the transit-rich housing program must provide recurring monthly transit passes to all residents at no cost.

Unlike environmental groups NRDC and Environment California, which support the bill’s encouragement of homes near transit, the Sierra Club has opposed the bill, among other things expressing expressing concern that the zoning would discourage cities from welcoming new transit.

On the other hand, though, does it make sense for the state to invest hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in transit capital investments, for places that are not supportive of land use that will generate strong transit ridership?

Another concern raised is that small changes in bus routes could trigger changes in zoning.  Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf recently recommended that the bill only cover bus rapid transit routes with fixed infrastructure. The scope of the bill was substantially lessened by removing allowable height increases for bus service; would it make sense to add back height for bus rapid transit lines implemented with capital investments making those routes less likely to shift? 

Displacement and risk to transit ridership

Groups including a coalition of Los Angeles housing and transit groups have expressed concerns that upzoning near transit could result in displacement of current low-income residents.  Some studies have been showing that the displacement of low-income residents in areas near transit has been contributing to a decline in transit ridership.  

To address concerns about direct displacement, the bill has been amended to ban demolition of any rent-controlled housing units, or any units that had an “Ellis Act” eviction (where the owner has a legal justification) in the last five years.  

Another anti-displacement measure, new in the latest amendments, is a “no net loss” provision. If a developer seeks to use SB 827 to build on a site with rent-controlled or subsidized affordable housing, the developer must replace all such units with a permanently affordable housing unit.

The bill also provides a “right to remain.” If a tenant is displaced because their building is demolished to add more housing under SB827, the developer must house the tenant nearby at the same rent while the project is being built and must provide a comparable unit to the tenant at the same rent once the project is done.

The bill has also been strengthened with the intent to create more below-market rate housing.  It respects the “inclusionary zoning” provisions that are in place in many cities, requiring housing developments to include a percentage of below market rate housing. San Francisco Planning Department’s analysis concludes that by legalizing more housing, the result would be substantially more affordable housing in the city.

And the latest version mandates the inclusion of below market rate housing units, for developments with ten or more units. The affordability requirements are summarized in Senator Wiener’s Medium blog post describing the April 9 amendments to the bill.

Groups including TransForm encouraged the bill to require affordable housing, however, the affect of these provisions could vary statewide, since places differ in the amount of affordable housing that market rate developments can be required to include, without suppressing the production of desired housing.

The overall affect of easing land use restrictions near transit could be a major increase in economic opportunity, according to a group of national fair housing experts, who recently commented that overriding exclusionary local land use policies areas of economic opportunity could have a major effect in addressing segregated land use.

Reduced local lontrol

Both the BART TOD bill, and the more famous and larger-scale SB-827 from Scott Wiener, represent a shift from longstanding traditions of local control of zoning in California.

Local government leaders, including Mountain View’s Mayor Lenny Siegel who have been proactive in supporting car-light housing, make a case that persuasion and carrots such as funding for transit improvements, would be more effective at helping the region and state dig out from the housing crisis.

However, a recent report from the state’s department of Housing and Community Development shows that 97% of cities in the state are behind in producing housing to fulfill their Regional Housing Needs Allocation. When 97% of cities aren’t keeping up, there is a strong argument to be made that the local control status quo is failing.

What do you think?

These bills are sparking a lot of discussion about the connections between transit and housing. What do you think. Are these bills…

  • Common sense provisions to legalize denser housing near transit where it will have the best results for traffic and climate?
  • Good directions, but in need of improvement? (if so, how?)
  • Unnecessary – the housing situation is not dire, so major change is not needed?
  • Unnecessary – mass transit is becoming obsolete, and autonomous vehicles will soon revive low-density housing and reduce the value of higher-density housing near transit
  • Good, bad, or in need of improvement for other reasons?

Share your thoughts in comments…