Looks like Alon called this one.

A couple months ago I asked, Does SF need micro apartments? Alon Levy responded that “A lot of these policies – micro apartments, shared housing, whatever – strikes me as a hack to get around the kvetchers before they notice.”

It would appear that the kvetchers have noticed.

From an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, we learn that the Housing Rights Committee is opposed to micro apartments because they don’t “build a sense of community or neighborhood,” but rather serve as “crash pads for people who work 24/7 in Silicon Valley and need a place in the city to sleep and party.”

Well, we certainly can’t have those people moving into our tony Atlanta suburb diverse, liberal city now can we.

26 thoughts on “Looks like Alon called this one.”

  1. Just because San Francisco is “diverse and liberal” doesn’t mean “anything goes”. You said yourself that they have all sorts of draconian zoning rules. While I agree it is worth a try, I’m getting a sort of vibe that you don’t want ANY restrictions on housing whatsoever.

    This is troubling because of your whole “no zoning” thing, I sort of agreed at first. Bryan (~100 miles northwest of Houston) is one such city where zoning is much more lax than College Station, and I have to admit, it creates an interesting cityscape. Unfortunately, that line of thinking seems to extend to other ideas: thinking that if anything is demolished for much denser housing, people who don’t want the denser housing are ALWAYS in the wrong.

  2. Not that I’m defending San Francisco’s existing policies, of course—they have a huge homeless population, but the stipend they give the homeless isn’t exactly an incentive for them to go away.

    Here’s a practical reason for not allowing micro apartments, at least in existing areas—parking is already at a premium, so unless these micro apartments ban residents with cars or build parking garages on top of the micro apartments, then it will make a bad problem even worse.

  3. You don’t need a car to get around SF. There’s BART, there’s a ton of light rail lines, there’s frequent bus service, decent bike infrastructure, and if you are one of those dastardly young people who work in Silicon Valley than there is a whole network of employer shuttles that will take you directly to work, express.

    This is not to say you shouldn’t be able to get around SF by car. It is an engaging city to drive in, whether you’re rolling a forest green ’68 fastback Mustang or something more prosaic. But if individual neighborhoods have issues with parking supply, the correct course of action is to charge market rates for said parking. The authoritative text on this is Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking,” which I’m too lazy to create an Amazon affiliates link for at the moment.

  4. I think I read somewhere that San Francisco has recently tried charging “market rates” for parking, nor am I saying that there should or shouldn’t be cars. All I’m saying is that people with micro apartments will make the parking problem even worse, and to solve that, micro apartment renters should be barred from having cars or pay an additional premium.

  5. SF and LA have both started programs to price street parking more accurately.

    Why should the micro-apartment dwellers be discriminated against when it comes to parking? Charge everyone the same. The idea that newcomers should be arbitrarily punished is the fundamental problem with zoning

  6. Zoning isn’t necessarily bad. Lack of zoning creates a more interesting cityscape, though you seem to be under the false assumption that lack of zoning creates accessible commercial and the like, while zoning creates thick clumps of residential and commercial, inaccessible from each other.

    That is the result of bad zoning, not zoning in and of itself.

  7. So with no zoning, my suburban neighbors could all sell out for a giant condominium that houses 12 floors of yuppies, or I could screw them over by renovating the lower level of my house into a nightclub that dubstep until 4 am.

  8. Well, depends. If you live out in a newer development in the ‘burbs, the deed restrictions are probably still active, so you can be assured that your brick-on-one-side colonial will only ever share a lot line with other brick-on-one-side colonials. On the other hand, if you choose to buy in a place where the restrictions are expired, such as the Montrose or the Third Ward, then yes, you accept the potential risk of 12-deck yuppie filing cabinets or sold-out Excision shows next door. Or Mexican used-tire shops, for that matter.

    Based on your (numerous) other posts on this blog, I can surmise that you’re not really the type to buy in the Inner Loop or any other unrestricted area. Were you to live in Houston, then, the primary impact of no zoning on your life would come in the form of cheaper housing costs and better dining/entertainment relative to other similarly-sized cities. (Twelve floors of yuppies represents a whole lot of disposable income, ready to be spent on delicious food and drink.)

  9. Maybe not. Right, well, I do live in the Bryan-College Station area, which is (relatively) new, and is subject to zoning of all types. If you have a city that is OPEN to rezoning, then, the sky is the limit. For example: Northgate, the area of town with cheap student living and booze. A stretch of University Drive had the following: a gas station converted to a store that sells class supplements, two banks, a Taco Bell, and a McDonald’s. Recently, one of those banks came down for a building (on a fairly small lot) that is rising to be an 18-level building. So you’ve got a sidewalk with a Taco Bell and a McDonald’s, and then a huge 18-level building (well, it’s more like seven or eight these days, but you get the idea) that abuts the road, then a bank again, kind of like that “Goldilocks urbanism” thing you talked about.

    I’ve been to the Houston area many times, and it is definitely denser than College Station-Bryan is (which in many ways, resembles your typical suburb—though arguably it is less dense than Cypress). There’s houses, gas stations, grocery stores with ample parking, and strip malls, but it seems so cramped. The Heights, Montrose, Upper Kirby, Medical District, Museum District (not so much Third Ward)…all of them were rather dense.

    This has a few effects: it can create a lively urban atmosphere without being surrounded by skyscrapers, or it creates a “trapped in crap” feeling. I actually know someone who lives in Houston that had to relocate her apartment (within the complex) because the strip mall directly behind it had a nightclub move in. And speaking of nightclubs moving in, remember that nonsense with 2520 Robinhood? I’m not defending the actions of the residents, but this is the type of stuff you get with no zoning.

  10. Stripmall is an appropriate location for a nightclub. And apartment complexes always get the shaft. In particular pretty much every city with Euclidean zoning puts the apartments up against the freeway as a buffer so the single-family homeowners don’t have to put up with fumes or traffic noise. Portland does this. Tacoma does this. [redacted] Township does this. Every single place I’ve ever lived besides Houston uses apartment complexes as a buffer between single-family zones and other land uses with various and sundry negative externalities.

    What happens with Houston is a sort of attribution bias where people say “ermagerd, no zerning” and then attribute all the land-use related headaches to that fact. If you lived in a city with a rigorous conditional-use permitting procedure and you wrote a letter saying “don’t put the salsa club in next to my complex” and they did anyway, you’d just chalk it up to the nightclub owners having money/political clout/whatever. But the outcome is the same, and there’s a pretty obvious economic case for locating clubs (which benefit from large, vaulted spaces in which to dance) in former stripmall anchor spaces (which are basically large, vaulted spaces).

    And yeah, you’re right, 18-story building mashed up against a Taco Bell with a drive-thru is an aesthetic I will always appreciate.

  11. I had posted a reply (but it looks like it got lost) that basically explained this:

    You’re right about the apartments, and here’s why: apartments are not permanent places to live, and in the case of that someone I knew, she simply relocated to a smaller apartment and paid less rent. And she does intend on moving out of that apartment someday, getting married, settling in a house, which all comes later. As for residents that are putting up with it, with the nature of strip malls (by the way, this was not in an anchor space, I think it was a restaurant originally), the nightclub might close and become something entirely else: a Persian hole-in-the-wall, a used video game store, an insurance office. They come and go.

    If I was living in a house, then there’s more security. I’m still wondering if the residents living behind the old Wilshire Village Apartments think if that shiny new H-E-B they built is an improvement or not over the apartments.

  12. As someone who grew up in Massachusetts and lives in California, it goes against every fiber of my being to give Texas credit for anything, but Houston is right to have no zoning. Planners can say all the nice things they want about zoning, but in practice, zoning always seems to get used to protect incumbents and discriminate against poor people, students, and other unpopular but needed land uses.

    The night club is a great example. Without zoning, at least all people and land uses are on equal footing. Zoning just creates a needless qualification for developers to have the ability to navigate zoning board politics. I would much rather end up with a night club near me because somebody realized that it would make money than because someone has a few friends on the zoning board. Zoning relegates different uses to arbitrary patches of the city, resulting in even highly desirable cities like Boston, SF, and LA giving tax breaks etc. to force development to follow the scheme.

    Lately, I’ve started thinking that not only is dense redevelopment politically impossible with zoning (since the board can arbitrarily decide what goes forward), it’s also physically impossible. The wheels of the zoning and permitting machine cannot possibly turn fast enough to allow enough properties to be redeveloped on any meaningful scale. Not only is no zoning a better way to promote density; it’s the only way.

  13. If you allow every single homeowner an upvote/downvote on on what goes on next to them, the city stops growing. I would like to see a survey of HEB shoppers asking, “do you think a few homeowners on Branard and Sul Ross should’ve been able to block this store from opening?” Then again, the “Montrose Land Defense” people weren’t the immediate neighbors, they were people upset that an HEB might force Fiesta out of business. It wasn’t even about compatible uses, it was about protecting incumbent businesses from competition.

    But it’s interesting. The way that ultimately shook out is that after HEB got final approval, the people who own the Fiesta parcel announced they were going to tear it out and put up a midrise residential block. So you sort of have this square dance where the “before” condition is multifamily residential across the street from groceries and the “after” condition is multifamily residential across the street from groceries an in between you had a lot of demolition and construction and earnest letters to the Chronicle.

    In theory you could’ve put the HEB on the Fiesta parcel and the Midrise on the Wilshire, and kept the uses the same. But you’d have a smaller HEB, a lower midrise density (equivalent # of units on a larger parcel), and there’d be a period where the neighborhood was without a local grocery store. Same basic development, just less efficient overall.

  14. In the case of Fiesta vs. H-E-B, you can see that the H-E-B plot is much larger than the Fiesta shopping center block by nearly double, and as of this writing, the place where H-E-B is supposed to be is just a woody plot where the apartments were. I’m not sure if H-E-B has an adjacent strip center or not, or if the parking and seating is that much better.

    In the end, it does work out better (save for some disgruntled Fiesta fans), and you could say that the no-zoning process sped this along, but it could also easily be done with a city council that paid attention to these things. What I don’t take into account, though, is that Houston does have bigger things to do and “grocery store rezoning” is at the bottom of this list. So yes, the no zoning does speed it along.

  15. In theory, the “grocery store rezoning” would be no issue, but in practice, that item showing up on the city council or zoning board agenda gives NIMBYs veto power over a development, or at least the ability to wring “mitigation” out of the developer. In a small city, the NIMBYs may be numerous enough to sway the whole board/council; in a large city, the out-of-district councilors will generally defer to their NIMBY-vulnerable colleague with the understanding the favor will be returned.

  16. Yeah, rezones are kinda like Canadian border crossings. Most of the time you just roll up and it’s like “any fruits or vegetables?” “nope” “did anyone else pack your luggage for you?” “no sir” “welcome back to the United States.” But it’s possible things will be a lot worse, you might get held up for six hours while customs goes through your car with a toothbrush and a German shepherd, and in a super extreme case you could even be denied re-entry.

    NIMBYs are like a cheerleading squad saying “pull him over! search his car! I bet he’s got weed and Alanis Morrisette boxed sets!” But you take away the rezoning checkpoint and you take away the potential holdup.

  17. I’d go even further… NIMBYs are like corrupt border crossing agents. “Yeah, great country. Be a real shame if we didn’t let you back in. Did I mention how much I could use a bottle of duty free whiskey?”

  18. See, this is what I don’t like about the idea of the “no-zoning” idea: it’s proponents like you and Matt foster a dangerous “The Complainer Is Always Wrong” attitude. It really depends on what’s the thing in question.

  19. One last comment: while I still disagree with your dislike of NIMBYs, there is a sort of hypocrisy with them: there was a neighborhood in Bryan where they wanted to put a Hooters in, but people didn’t like the idea so Hooters pulled out its plans. A few years later, a sex novelty shop opened in the SAME SHOPPING CENTER and no one batted an eye. What gives?

  20. I live in SF(but admire Houston’s approach, and am an Indianapolis native). Zoning in this city really reaches the incredible, and the myriad other regulatory hurdles a developer must clear means that project always take longer than projected to complete, and are completed over budget. Every residential project I’ve seen under construction(and nary a one has been over 6 stories) has taken much longer than the 18 months I’ve been here. And all of them had already been well underway.

    There is currently a project set to take place on Mission between 3rd and 4th, right between SoMa and Union Square, that is to be a residential tower built on a sliver of a lot. The developer offered to donate street level space to the Mexican Museum has been looking for a permanent home for years. But just blocks from the Financial District – where most of the true skyscrapers in the city are – they want all sorts of setbacks, taperings, or straight downsizing of this 47-floor project because it might cast a little shadow on Union Square for a few minutes of the day.

    In this city there is literally no need for zoning. No developer in their right mind would build anything that wasn’t to the sidewalk, the Richmond, Sunset, and Mission districts could all support at least twice the density with little to no problem. This could foster good, solid growth and reasonable prices for the next 20 or more years. Once the infrastructure is improved, it could increase from there.

    For god’s sake, I live on a east-west arterial that faces the largest urban park in the nation and it has not one building taller than 4 stories. Rents are increasing at a 10% or more clip per year(when owners are allowed to raise them). And I get to see three 5 buses with 6 people in each pass by within 1 minute of each other.

    I’m sorry, this turned into a rant. A rant about a city I love, but also sometimes love to hate. Houston got any good areas for startups?

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