One Woman’s Epic Fight for Affordable Housing and Better Commutes in California

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Sonja Trauss hated her commute.

Driving her car a long way from home to her job as a math teacher was unproductive, wasted time. It was expensive. It was stressful, harming her physical and mental health. And it was dangerous.

San Francisco pro-housing advocate Sonja Trauss urges those who need housing to pack public hearing on higher-density and make their voices heard. Source: Jonathan Evans/Western Investor

Yet this was Trauss’ reality with no affordable housing near her job.

But Trauss grew tired of paying so much time, money, and stress to drive a car because of a shortage of affordable housing in Marin County (16.1% Latino) in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.

She decided to make a stand.

Trauss formed a group to push for more affordable housing and challenged developers, decision-makers, and opposition to affordable housing in this region.

Did it work?

Transportation Costs Matter for Affordable Housing

Behind housework, the daily car commute is the No. 2 thing Americans hate the most.

Cutting out a one-hour commute has been shown to produce the happiness equivalent of a $40,000 raise, if you are at the $50-$60,000 level.

So what is the ideal commute?

A 16 minute walk.

Even those who go by bus or train say the most enjoyable part of their commute is walking to and from the bus or train station.

But not all cities have safe sidewalks or strong public transit. This hinders access to education, employment, and health opportunities (read more about the transportation-health connection).

In 2016, 40,000 Americans were killed on roadways and 4.6 million were seriously injured. The National Safety council estimates the costs of motor-vehicle deaths, injuries, and property damage in 2016 was $432 billion, a 12% increase from the previous year. Moreover, Latinos are at higher risk of pedestrian fatalities than non-Latinos. Latinos in California, in particular, are breathing dirtier air than non-Latinos, which increases their risk for asthma and diabetes.

So just move closer to your job, right?

Well, it’s not that easy, given many cities also lack affordable housing. And it can be costly to move.

When cities fail to keep up with job and population growth, housing costs rise in city centers, pushing working families out. In these “drive until you qualify” situations, families find affordable housing further and further away. Affordable housing isn’t really affordable if the commute is so costly.

Housing is considered affordable if it is less than 30% of income.

Sonia Trauss in September 2017. Source: Lea Suzuki, The SF Chronicle

However, the Housing  + Transportation (H+T®) Affordability Index considers housing affordable if housing plus transportation costs make up less than 45% of income.

Neither were affordable for Trauss.

NIMBYism vs. YIMBYism

Trauss became furious when she came across a poster in the window of a bar in San Francisco asking people to help stop the development of a big apartment building, she said in an interview with NPR’s Planet Money.

The way to fix a housing shortage is to build more housing, Sonja said.

But the people—homeowners—who put up signs like those are making it worse for people struggling to find a place to live.

This mentality is known as NIMBYism, which stands for Not in My Back Yard.

Trauss  wanted to see more YIMBYism, Yes in My Back Yard.

So she started a group of citizens to push for housing, SF Bay Area Renter’s Federation (SFBARF).

SFBARF

Trauss emailed Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who had urged local residents to advocate for more housing permits.

Trauss also started a website and made posters to counteract opposition to the apartments. She also organized events where members could discuss local politics—and get angry together.

Of course, there were meetings, like city planning meetings and zoning commission meetings, where citizens get two minutes to speak.

“Property values go up when you don’t build enough stuff,” she repeated at many meetings.

When accused of representing greedy developers she would reply: “You can say I’m here from a greedy developer, but I can say you’re here as greedy homeowners.”

After a disagreement about a condo building in a Latino neighborhood, Trauss began to look at the bigger picture.

Instead of arguing with NIMBYs over one building at a time, she wanted to focus on the root of the problem, restrictive housing policies.

To make a real difference in affordable housing, zoning rules had to change.

Restrictive Zoning

NIMBYs opposition to development is legally supported in most cities through antiquated zoning policies, like single-family zoning, height limits, and minimum lot sizes, which restrict density.

Restricting density increases economic segregation by isolating the wealthy and pushing/keeping out the working class, contributing to higher home prices.

Learn more with the CATO Institute Policy Analysis on Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability.

Restrictive zoning can be bad for the economy, too.

Moretti and his colleague calculated that over the last 50 years, local housing restrictions in San Francisco, San Jose, and New York drove up the cost of housing and cut their growth rates in half, which cost the entire American economy $1.5 trillion dollars.

SFBARF’s new slogan is to legalize housing everywhere, not just because it’s fair but because it’s cheaper.

Allowing denser housing construction is known as upzoning, but wasn’t legal in San Francisco, yet.

After two and a half years of meetings and arguments, SFBARF and other YIMBYs were making a big impact on conversations about densification in San Francisco.

More and more people were showing up to community meetings saying yes to development.

In 2017, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (essentially the city council), voted and approved a new law allowing denser housing construction in San Francisco.

“When it finally passed, it was the first time ever in the history of the universe that there had been an upzoning in the Westside of San Francisco,” Trauss said.

If cities are serious accommodating job and population growth, there is no alternative to allowing dense housing. And this housing should be near public transit.

Get involved in transportation and land use discussions in your community.

Listen to more from Sonja Trauss on Planet Money.

By The Numbers By The Numbers

46

Percent

of all Latinos are homeowners. That's far fewer than Whites (72%).

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