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Bay Area group’s housing solution: Punish cities that don’t build

Bay Area group’s housing solution: Punish cities that don’t build

By David R. Baker

November 6, 2015 Updated: November 6, 2015 12:04am

Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

About a hundred units of affordable housing might replace this parking lot on the southwest corner of San Jose and Geneva avenues in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, October 27, 2015.

To keep the Bay Area economy strong, all nine counties and 101 cities must work as a unified entity — adding housing and coordinating mass transit and road projects — according to a report from an influential business group.

But many of the group’s recommendations are sure to face resistance.

The Bay Area Council report argues that the clogged roads, packed commuter trains and astronomical housing prices plaguing the region can be solved only by cities planning and working together. The “Roadmap for Economic Resilience” calls for creating “super agencies” that would prioritize, approve and fund projects throughout the area, whether in bustling downtown San Francisco or suburban Livermore.


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“We believe religiously that the best approach to solving challenges on a regional scale is to act on a regional scale,” said Jim Wunderman, the council’s chief executive officer.

The need is perhaps most visible in the housing crisis that has become one of San Francisco’s most contentious issues.

For years, the region has not been building enough housing, Wunderman said. Some cities have actively encouraged new housing while others have tried to shut it out. Unaffordable prices are the result.

“The core issue is under-supply,” Wunderman said. “We’re in a crisis now, there’s no question about it. The cost of housing in the Bay Area could be a very serious downer for the future of our economy.”

But the report’s prescriptions for solving the crisis would be difficult to carry out, in part because they would require cities to give up some of their power.

For example, regional planners already set goals for the number of housing units each Bay Area city should build, goals that many cities routinely ignore. The report recommends punishing cities that don’t meet the targets, perhaps by stripping them of the ability to approve or reject development projects.

Photo: Jerry Telfer, The Chronicle

Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council

Or the state could expand “by right” approval for housing. If a proposed housing project complied with local zoning and building codes, no city would be able to block it.

The report also suggests capping impact fees on housing developments and exempting some home construction from state-mandated environmental reviews.

Some of those steps would need the approval of the Legislature, while most would require the agreement of the Bay Area’s cities. Such agreement would not come easily.

“We have, in the state of California and in the Bay Area, a real commitment to local control over land-use issues,” said Jeremy Madsen, CEO of the Greenbelt Alliance, which encourages environmentally responsible development. “That’s something cities hold onto with a very tight fist.”

Wunderman says the report’s recommendations aren’t set in stone.

“The mission of the report isn’t to say, ‘It must be done this way,’” he said. “It’s to start a region-wide conversation. ... We don’t, in any way, want to put local governments out of the business of deciding what goes in their neighborhoods.”

The report also calls for creating a regional authority with the ability to raise and spend money for infrastructure projects that benefit the entire Bay Area. That money could come from establishing a regional gasoline tax, sales tax or vehicle license fee.

In addition, the region’s 26 transit agencies should immediately start coordinating their operations and future plans. Eventually, a regional transit agency would set priorities and distribute money for expansion projects, such as building another transbay tube or increasing ferry services.

“It’s definitely time for them to start coordinating,” Wunderman said. “It should be routine that, from scheduling to payment systems, they should act as one.”

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @DavidBakerSF

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