The ‘Plan Bay Area’: Restricting Housing Development Isn’t Reform

This article appeared in the Forbes on June 3, 2015
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Owning a home with a yard and a picket fence has long epitomized the American dream. But, unfortunately, that dream is becoming increasingly off‐​limits to residents of the San Francisco Bay Area and, perhaps soon, many other areas of the country.

In San Francisco, single‐​family homes are being phased out under something called “Plan Bay Area,” a regional development plan written by unelected bureaucrats over loud objections from the people whose lives it will change.

The Plan calls for sharp limits on future housing and business development across the Bay Area. Nearly 80% of new housing and two‐​thirds of new jobs will only be allowed to develop in a scant 5% of the region.

San Francisco and the surrounding region is already the most expensive place to live in the country. The Plan will only exacerbate the housing shortage and drive rents and home prices further up.

So why would the bureaucrats behind Plan Bay Area foist it on these people? They contend that it is needed to address greenhouse gas emissions from housing and transit.

Yet, even under the bureaucrats’ rosy projections, these draconian restrictions will reduce emissions from the region by only three‐​quarters of 1%.

The Plan won’t get much return from severely restricting people’s liberty to live how and where they choose because it relies on major expansions of light and heavy rail that people don’t want to ride. In the Bay Area, transit is particularly unreliable because transit employees strike, as they did shortly after the Plan was approved, causing transit emergencies. But ridership had better skyrocket to justify the significant environmental impacts of building and operating these new rail projects.

It would be too easy to chalk this plan up to San Francisco’s idiosyncrasies. Not so fast.

The federal government has called for metropolitan areas across the country to adopt similar plans in their bids for federal transportation funds. It’s also giving “livability grants” to communities that restrict housing development in similar ways. Cities quite unlike San Francisco have been following its lead—including Des Moines, Iowa, and Lafayette, Louisiana.

The federal government promotes this type of planning as a means of encouraging economic growth. But this is largely bunk. As one critic of Minnesota’s restrictive transit‐​oriented plan noted: “What do ‘people magnets’ like [Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston] have in common? Less burdensome government regulation and fewer land use restrictions. Both are strongly correlated with greater economic growth.”

Admittedly, many communities have severe housing shortages and economic difficulties. But government restrictions on development are often the culprit, not the solution.

In the Bay Area, for instance, the housing shortage is a product of zoning restrictions—which, ironically, have long forbidden the types of dense development the Plan calls for—rent controls, affordable housing mandates and overly‐​burdensome environmental regulations like the California Environmental Quality Act (a favored tool for NIMBYs and construction worker unions).

There’s a desperate need for reform. But further restricting development isn’t reform. It’s more of the same.

Urban planners—like those responsible for Plan Bay Area—have disliked the ways Americans choose to live their lives for decades. In the middle of the 20th century, vibrant, though poor, communities were routinely bulldozed to be replaced by planner‐​preferred housing projects that permanently displaced and disrupted communities.

Nearly 20 years ago, Portland planners latched on to the environment as justification for rearranging people’s lives. They called for reducing the share of people who live in single‐​family homes from 65% to 41%.

Plan Bay Area and its copies are merely the latest round in this conflict between planners and the people whose lives they want to control.

Jonathan Wood and Randal O’Toole

Mr. Wood is a staff attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation. Mr. O’Toole is a Cato Institute Senior Fellow working on urban growth issues.