We’re excited to see a growing movement in Bay Area communities to remove restrictive zoning and re-enable multi-unit development — like multiplexes! — in our neighborhoods. Towns across the Bay Area, from Berkeley to the Peninsula, are re-examining their zoning codes to consider allowing duplexes, triplexes, and quads to be built on existing lots that are currently limited to just one home. In many cases, this allows neighborhoods to again build the kinds of multi-unit homes that are already there — blending right in!
Read on for more about how our suburbs started, how they’re going, and how returning to our roots (when plexes were plentiful!) will help us address our current crises.
Plexes: The History
Visit older sections of any major city, and notice how the homes were built in the early 20th century. On first glance, it may be hard to tell that many of the buildings are actually multi-plexes! These neighborhoods often have “stealthy density” already built in. Many were built around old rail lines that have since been replaced by buses, and some of the homes have no parking at all. Many of the older multi-unit buildings would also be illegal to build today under current zoning codes, which in many places only allow a maximum of one unit per lot.
1911 map of the Pacific Electric Railway in Southern California. Source: https://digitallibrary.californiahistoricalsociety.org/islandora/object/islandora:1513
This old-school density is basically the way we as humans have lived since our earliest days; in proximity to each other, as a community, walking distance to what we needed.
Although single family-zoned neighborhoods are familiar to many adults alive today, their history is actually fairly brief. They were recently enabled by America’s post-war automotive boom. The 1950s brought us shiny, big new chrome cars, and big new subdivisions to go along with them, like Levittown. The Peninsula saw an explosion of building in areas like Belmont, San Carlos, and others.
As the decades wore on post-1950, the suburbs continued to expand, and unsurprisingly, the average American family began to own an increasing number of cars:
1947 Master Plan of Metropolitan Los Angeles Freeway adopted by the Regional Planning Commission. Source: https://www.cahighways.org/maps-sc-fwy.html
Today, suburban Californians often refer to distance in miles and freeway exits instead of blocks walked. The proliferation of cars changed our entire frame of reference.
However, the golden age for our suburban developments was anything but for our climate. Californians began to recognize the existence of smog caused by vehicle pollution in the 1940s. In 1967, California finally established the Air Resources Board and came to grips with the state’s severe, health-impacting smog problem due to vehicle pollution.
We are now left to grapple with the ramifications of decades of sprawl.
Our climate is warming steadily, and here in California, we’re often the first to experience the negative effects of climate change. Subjectively, it feels like each year’s fire season is worse than the previous one. In fact, “fire season” itself is becoming an outdated term, as fires now pop up all year long.
One of many solutions to getting this carbon and pollution-driven climate crisis under control is to stop building further and further out, and to instead build more “infill housing“, which means making better use of space in our existing neighborhoods. One example would be putting a duplex or fourplex building where a one-unit home previously stood. By creating additional homes in existing areas, infill housing reduces Vehicle Miles Traveled, since more workers can live closer to their jobs, thereby reducing pollution and traffic. Having a critical mass of customers in a neighborhood makes it easier for local shops and restaurants to thrive, which can make it easier for some residents to meet their daily needs without having to get into a car. And last but not least — bringing more housing options to existing towns also makes the towns more equitable.
Not everyone has been able to enjoy suburban prosperity
Progressive jurisdictions around the country are recognizing the harmful, racially-charged history of single family zoning and its impacts on communities of color.
New or enhanced single family zoning appeared in many communities after racial exclusion and redlining were struck down in courts during the 20th century. Requiring large minimum lot sizes and setbacks served to segregate communities by class. And because explicit segregation and discrimination existed for much of the 20th century, making housing expensive meant that only those with existing assets could secure it — in other words, white families.
A wonderfully-detailed analysis of equity impacts of single family zoning by the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley is worth a read in full. In a nutshell, they’ve found that cities with a high percentage of single family zoning tend to be more white than others:
City Composition by Single-Family Zoning Percentage
Race Composition of Bay Area Cities
Additionally, the data make quite clear that single family zoning goes hand-in-hand with exclusion and wealth disparities, with the researchers finding that
“Cities with high levels of single-family zoning have median incomes $34,000 higher and home values $100,000 higher than those of cities with low levels of single-family zoning”
“Schools in communities with lower levels of single-family zoning have twice as much of their population using free or reduced-price lunch (52 percent, compared to 26 percent in high single-family zoned cities).”
Opportunity is not distributed equally among communities here in the Bay Area. When single family zoning is the law in a community with high demand for housing due to a decades-long lack of supply, extreme demand escalates the price of housing out of reach of all but the most affluent residents and well-paid workers — both for rentals and purchases. Stable, reasonable housing costs are good for our communities since they allow households room to save and invest for the future, retirement, and education, and to better weather the shocks of daily life. When those who work in a community can live there as well, enjoying the community’s benefits and a stable lifestyle, our cities become more complete and sustainable.
It’s time to return to the way we used to live; vibrant, fantastic, walkable, community-focused neighborhoods. Infill development in the form of duplexes, triplexes, and more help us achieve just that. These kinds of units are often known as “missing middle housing,” since the housing they would create would in many cases be homes for the middle class.
Example of “missing middle” housing. Source: www.missingmiddlehousing.com
Those who prefer just one unit on their lot can live this way if they choose, albeit at great expense — the median detached single family home in San Mateo County now sells for over $1.9M. Expanding zoning means that standalone single-family homes can still be built and sold, but also opens up new possibilities to allow 2, 3, or 4 units on a lot — which can sell for less per unit than a single family home would cost.
792 Capp St. Almost certainly wouldn't have gotten entitled w/o state Housing Accountability Act– neighborhood opposition was fierce. The former SFH sold for $1.5M in July 2016. Now it's a 4plex, w/units starting at $850k. 2/9 pic.twitter.com/jNBJJzkTrd
While some residents may prefer the luxury of single family homes and are welcome to continue doing so under expanded zoning, others may prefer to live in community with others to share maintenance and costs, or to enable intergenerational living — another “old” concept that’s more appealing than ever as Millennials, now well into their 30s, sort out how to work and care for children and their own parents at the same time.
What does our future look like with plexes? They provide us with:
One great thing about opening up restrictive zoning is that it provides property owners with more choices what to do with their land, not fewer:
A young family may choose to build another unit on their lot for easy access to aging parents, or housing for another friend or family member to share costs
Families with young adult children could add another unit for the child to live in as they get started in the workforce
Retirees could add a unit or redevelop their home to provide rental income in retirement
Friends could pool their resources to build and co-own a multi-unit building or share a plot of land
A family who inherits a family home could redevelop the property so that more members of the family can live there, instead of having to sell it off
Builders can repurpose dilapidated old homes into thriving multi-unit buildings so more members of the community can live close to work. Under current single-family zoning, developers are forced to develop only single-unit multi-million dollar mansions, as no alternative options exist.
Saner and greener commutes:
Below is a map showing the growth in “supercommuters” — those who commute more than 90 minutes each way — between 2009 and 2017:
Map of “supercommuters” in the Bay Area. Source: https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/09/11/supercommuting-is-not-just-for-central-valley-dwellers-map-shows-growth-in-bay-area-commutes/
With so much Peninsula housing stock currently occupied by retirees (some of whom feel trapped in place by their Prop 13 property tax subsidies) and a severe lack of new building, those who actively participate in the workforce are forced further and further away. This endangers quality of life for us all, even those who live on the Peninsula; our shops, services, and communities are understaffed and must pay more to incent staff to travel in from far away. These longer travel times also cause traffic and pollution in our region due to the lack of public transit available to “supercommuters.”
Although a unit of housing — even affordable housing — can cost $1m to build here in California due to our byzantine, lengthy approvals process (see Firehouse Square in Belmont which took almost a decade to approve on a site that sat vacant for 20 years), moving to a “by right” approval model (where projects that comply with zoning are automatically approved) and allowing height/density increases will ease per-unit costs of construction, allowing these units to again become more attainable for typical Bay Area workers and families.
The current average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the town of San Mateo is $2,942, according to Zumper. With minimum wages around $15 in most cities in the county, it would take about 50 hours of work per week, before taxes, to simply cover monthly rent.
When a city’s housing base is stale, so is its tax revenue, due to 1978’s passage of Proposition 13 which generally pegs homeowners’ assessed values to the price at which the home was purchased.
Because of Prop 13 subsidies (which apply to residential and commercial properties alike) and the lack of new development in our region, our state and local governments have simultaneously been forced to raise other forms of taxation and cut services (such as tuition-free college for in-state students and school buses for local schoolchildren). Prop 13 was passed in 1978. Cities in 2021 cannot run on 1970s-era revenue.
New housing brings not only the direct tax revenue created by the development itself, but also provides new residents who can support local businesses, improving the community for all. Imagine what additional retail, services, and restaurants we could support here as ground floor retail in new developments if we had more residents to support these businesses. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has championed The 15 Minute City movement, focused on walkable communities similar to those that exist in many Parisian neighborhoods. Imagine how well the European model could work in our existing downtowns and neighborhood enclaves, which today require residents to get in a car to meet their daily needs.
With economic, social, and equity benefits on the horizon, our future with plexes looks bright. Infill development allows middle class residents — just like those who purchased homes here decades ago — to live in the communities where they work. And as economically and racially diverse communities grow and thrive, existing homeowners’ land becomes more valuable as the possibilities for what can be built there expand. Expanding zoning is a wonderful policy change that benefits all stakeholders in the community!
Ready to take action?
Evolving the zoning in our local communities is an ongoing process, and the more voices in support, the better. Join us in raising awareness about the benefits of multiplexes in our communities:
There’s a great statewide bill up for a vote soon here in California called SB-9 that would enable infill housing to be built in existing neighborhoods. Use this tool to drop a quick line to your State Senator in support.
Many Bay Area city councils are also separately (independently from SB-9) beginning to explore changing city zoning to allow multiplexes in light of our housing crisis. Get in touch with your local electeds however you prefer — email, phone, social media — and let them know that you support more inclusive housing.
This coming Tuesday evening (May 5th), Mountain View City Council will be holding a public hearing on a great project proposed for adjoining lots at 355-365, 401 and 415 East Middlefield Road in Mountain View. Please read on for easy ways you can (remotely) voice your support of this development!
The project as currently proposed would bring 463 much-needed homes to Mountain View, in an area very close to:
Multiple VTA bus and light rail stops
Many corporate campuses (Google, LinkedIn, NASA, Symantec, and more)
Major highways (101, 280, and 85 — reducing commute times for those who need to drive)
A variety of shops and services in Mountain View
The development contains a mix of homes for sale and rent:
427 condo and apartment homes will be consolidated into two 7-story buildings on the site
10% of the on-site apartments will be set aside as below-market-rate rentals
Rather than building affordable condos and townhomes for sale on-site, the developer will make a contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund
36 four-story townhomes will also be available for sale
This project complies with Mountain View’s East Whisman Precise Plan, which as we covered last year, aims to create more homes and mixed-use developments to help balance the explosion of job growth in this area (the center of Silicon Valley).
Although this development will largely contain market-rate units, we believe these homes play an important role in housing a portion of the local workforce, lessening some of the competition for existing housing stock in the area. We’re also glad the on-site below market rate units will provide some homes at a lower price point for the area’s workforce.
How can you help?
Mountain View City Council will be meeting virtually at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, May 5th. This project will be discussed towards the end of the agenda — see section 6.1 here for full details. Note that the meeting will open with a proclamation recognizing Affordable Housing Month!
Please use one of the methods below to contact Council or speak during the meeting in support of:
More homes to house our area’s workforce and reduce our imbalance of jobs to homes
This development helping the city meet their goal of 5,000 homes in the East Whisman Precise Plan area
The on-site affordable housing component
The project’s location near jobs, services, and transit, thereby lessening the need for this development’s residents to drive and park
Public comment methods available from the City of Mountain View:
Members of the public wishing to comment on an item on the agenda may do so in the following ways:
Email comments to email@example.com by 5:00 p.m. on May 5. Emails will be forwarded to the City Council. Emails received after 5:00 p.m. and prior to the Mayor announcing that public comment is closed for each item will be read into the record at the meeting (up to 3 minutes, at the discretion of the Mayor). IMPORTANT: identify the Agenda Item number in the subject line of your email. All emails received will be entered into the record for the meeting.
You will be asked to enter an email address and a name. Your email address will not be disclosed to the public. After registering, you will receive an email with instructions on how to connect to the Meeting.
When the Mayor announces the item on which you wish to speak, click the “raise hand” feature in Zoom or press *9 if participating by phone. For instructions on using the “raise hand” feature in Zoom, visit: https://mountainview.gov/raise_hand.
Speakers will be notified shortly before they are called to speak.
When called to speak, please limit your comments to the time allotted (up to 3 minutes, at the discretion of the Mayor).
Members of the public who would like to provide comments to the City Council and are unable to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or access the live session to provide oral comments: please call 650-903-6436 and leave your comments in a voice mail message before 5:00p.m. on May 5. Voice mail comments will be played during public comment for the item at the meeting (up to 3 minutes, at the discretion of the Mayor). IMPORTANT: identify the Agenda Item number at the beginning of your voice mail message. Staff capacity to receive and process messages may be limited and we encourage reserving telephone access for those who are unable to send email comments or access the live meeting to provide oral comments
Ready to tune in on the night of the meeting? Watch it live at:
The recent shelter-in-place orders here in the Bay Area have brought many changes to our daily lives. One of the many things that are a little different now than before are local government meetings, which have moved online.
This resulted in an unexpected positive: more residents can participate in the democratic process via online public comment!
Traditionally, many government meetings are held during the 9-5 workday or right after, which can make it hard for those with jobs and/or family duties to be physically present. With the rise of online public comment, more residents are able to participate either by speaking remotely at the meeting, or by having their comment read aloud during the meeting by a city clerk who is responsible for sharing community comments.
We welcome this new process as a way to remove barriers to democratic participation!
One upcoming project eligible for online public comment is San Mateo’s 100% affordable housing project proposed for the heart of downtown at 480 E. 4th Avenue and 400 E. 5th Avenue (two adjoining parcels). As covered previously, we’re really glad that this site can provide much-needed workforce housing right near downtown jobs and transit.
On Tuesday, April 28th at 7pm, the San Mateo Planning Commission will hold their usual meeting (online), and topic #3 on the agenda will be this downtown opportunity site. We want to let City Council know we’re in support because:
This project contains 100% affordable housing
Half of the development’s 225 units are designated as low and extremely-low income units. This is essential housing to slow the tide of displacement within our community, and help house part of our workforce.
These two perfectly-located parcels becoming available at the same time present a rare opportunity to make the most of a meaningful amount of space that can benefit our community. We have to use this site to its full capacity.
This project is situated near many downtown jobs, transit stops, shops, and services, allowing residents to walk and lessen our community’s dependence on cars for commuting and errands.
There is some local opposition to the height of the project and its number of units, from area residents who wish to make the project smaller. As mentioned above, we feel that this project should be dense in order to accommodate as many workers and families as possible, especially given the project’s prime downtown location.
Please use one of the City of San Mateo’s new methods to submit your support. From the City’s website:
PUBLIC COMMENTS – Comments submitted in the following ways will be made part of the official record.
During the meeting: Comments can be submitted online beginning 1 hour before each meeting through Speak Up San Mateo: https://www.cityofsanmateo.org/4245. Find the agenda item(s) you’d like to comment on and complete the form. The platform will remain open for comments until the Chair closes the Public Comment Period for that specific item.
Staff will read into the record all comments received.
ACCESSIBILITY: In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, those with disabilities requiring special accommodations to participate in this meeting may contact the Planning Division at email@example.com or (650) 522-7212 . Notification 48 hours prior to the meeting will enable the City to make reasonable arrangements to ensure accessibility to this meeting.
Want to tune in the night of? There are three ways to watch the livestream via computer or device:
The COVID-19 crisis has upended countless households’ budgets and caused additional stress for many across our region. We’ve created this list of local resources to help neighbors identify ways they can get help, volunteer, and/or donate to the cause.
To learn more about each provider and their resources, please click on the link attached to each organization’s name. Looking to volunteer or contribute? Read on in each paragraph for direct links to do so!
1. Meals on Wheels: Demand for meals to be delivered to seniors is increasing. This is a critical service in our community during normal times, and it will be vital to keep it going during the weeks ahead. Meals on Wheels usually requires new volunteers to go to the DMV for background checks, but they are modifying this requirement during this time. If you are able and interested in this important work, please fill out this form and say in the section on “Specific Jobs” at the end of the page that you’re interested in COVID-19 emergency volunteering. You can also donate online here.
2. Second Harvest depends on an extensive network of volunteers to distribute groceries to those in need across Silicon Valley. Due to COVID-19 concerns and precautions, they are currently experiencing a volunteer shortage. If you are healthy and not immuno-compromised, please consider signing up for a shift or two here. Volunteers need to be 14 or older (minors must be supervised by a parent), healthy, and ideally able to lift 25 pounds. You can also donate online.
3. Samaritan House provides essential services to low-income Menlo Park residents. You can help with food preparation and/or transport! Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be patient with the time it takes to respond as volume is high and staffing is low. Due to the postponement of a fundraiser, donations are also especially needed — you can contribute here.
4.Baby Basics of the Peninsula is a 100% volunteer organization based in East Palo Alto that distributes diapers to families in need. To find out more about volunteering, please call (650) 321-2193 or email email@example.com. You can also donate here.
Redwood City is currently evaluating development opportunities at Sequoia Station in Downtown Redwood City. The Council recently designated this area the “Transit District”, as depicted below.
Planning for Sequoia Station will be done in parallel with updated plans for the broader downtown area, and plans for major station upgrades and rail grade separations that would enable much more frequent Caltrain service and better crosstown connections.
We’re excited about the overall opportunity for redevelopment at this site. The Station today consists mainly of surface-level parking and a strip mall.
The redeveloped area would mix residential and office space, with a proposed 100% affordable housing component, plus ground-floor retail that preserves the existing Safeway, CVS, and more. The upgraded station would allow the community expanded access to clean transit which reduces traffic and emissions.
However, the development as proposed would have office space for several thousand workers and only a few hundred homes. That mix would create pressure to increase prices on other housing in the downtown area, and increase the risk of displacement for lower-income people living near downtown.
The city should look to this development, and other places in the broader downtown, to provide homes to balance the jobs, and reduce the pressure on housing prices and the risk of displacing lower-income neighbors.
About the transit center, now and in the future:
Redwood City’s transit center is an essential hub for local and regional transit:
Currently, the station accommodates 5 Caltrain trains per direction per hour during rush periods, and is expected to accommodate 6 per hour when Caltrain starts electric service by 2023. Caltrain’s plans through the end of the decade have the station increasing capacity to up to 8 trains per direction per hour.
The high cost of living on the Peninsula currently results in many of the region’s workers commuting in from elsewhere via Caltrain or other future transit solutions like a Dumbarton rail bridge.
Redwood City’s rail station needs to alter its footprint in order to accommodate additional Caltrain service and a link to the proposed Dumbarton light rail train. As such, this development opportunity at Sequoia Station is perfectly timed. The area can be redeveloped just once and is then primed for future needs of the community, including existing and future residents, commuters and workers, and transit agencies.
Please join us at this and future council meetings, to support more homes in this development and the broader downtown area.
Especially if you can’t make it in person, please also engage with your local elected officials and Councilmembers to reinforce the importance of including additional housing as this area is redeveloped. You can email the council at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The City’s staff report also includes the following proposed next steps:
Spring 2020: Technical studies begin for railway operations and land needs on the Transit District
Summer 2020: Community outreach for the Transit District on goals, land uses, and connections. Sequoia Station project is revised to conform to the Transit District proposal.
Fall 2020: Technical studies are completed and environmental review begins, including the Sequoia Station project.
Winter 2020 and 2021 – Community engagement continues along with environmental studies and further refinements of the Sequoia Station project to address transit needs and community input.