Lack of Bay Area housing prompts rise in ‘super commuters’

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As the housing crisis has grown across California, the state has seen a rise in the number of “super commuters,” residents who commute longer hours to cities starved of affordable housing, including those in the Bay Area.

While the number of jobs brought into the Bay Area has grown in recent years, the availability of housing has not matched this increase, according to State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley. People working in service-type jobs are not being paid wages that would allow them to afford housing in the cities where they are employed, forcing many to make long commutes to and from work each day, Skinner said.

“Those are essential services, but then they’re driven out to living further and further away just to be able to afford somewhere to live,” Skinner said.

Census data from 2015 reported San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties’ average commute times to be 31.7 minutes, 30.7 minutes and 35.3 minutes respectively — an increase from 2010, when the commute times for the three counties were 29.4, 27.9 and 32, respectively.

According to a study by finance website WalletHub of commute times across the country, San Francisco ranked as the worst city to drive in out of the 100 largest U.S. cities.

The growth of such super commuters is generating more problems beyond just the housing crisis, according to Skinner and other California lawmakers.

Longer commutes to and from cities have negatively impacted the health of those forced to make the journey each day, said State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, in an email. Skinner said the change has also meant harmful consequences for the environment, multiplying greenhouse gas emissions as commutes become lengthier.

“Grinding out a backbreaking commute for several hours a day is harming people’s health, and it certainly isn’t helping us to meet our greenhouse-gas reduction goals,” Wiener said in his email. “It discourages employers from locating in our cities, which hurts our economy. There is nothing good that comes from a society where people are driving two and three hours a day to get to work.”

Igor Tregub, a commissioner on Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board, said he has seen the shift occur in Berkeley as well, as a lack of affordable housing has left many citizens “displaced out of the communities that they love, where they have … put down their roots.”

Tregub cited several city government efforts to increase affordable housing, including continued work on accessory dwelling units — small, cost-effective self-contained dwellings that have their own entrances and cooking and bathing facilities and are also on the property of a larger dwelling. He added, however, that additional state action could help the city further ease the housing crisis.

In early June, California senators approved a package of legislation to begin to tackle the housing crisis and increase the availability of affordable housing across the state.

SB 35, a bill authored by Wiener, would establish a “streamlined approval process” for cities not meeting housing goals required by the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, or RHNA, which includes the number of housing units each local jurisdiction must have.

For those cities not currently meeting the goals set by RHNA, Wiener’s bill would streamline the process of approving city projects, so long as they meet certain criteria, including affordability and environmental standards.

Skinner’s housing legislation, SB 166 and SB 167, were also among the bills approved by the senate. SB 166 would modify California’s “No Net Loss” zoning law by requiring that cities continue to provide a supply of sites for housing construction at all income levels. SB 167 would strengthen limitations under the Housing Accountability Act, which restricts a local entity’s ability to stop the construction of a housing project if the project meets city planning and zoning requirements.

“There are a number of reasons for this housing shortage, but one basic factor is that some cities have just not done their fair share to create housing,” Wiener said in his email.

Additional funding for affordable housing was approved by the senate in the form of bills SB 2 and 3, legislation authored by Senator Toni Atkins and Senator Jim Beall, respectively. SB 3 plans to establish a $3 billion bond to create more affordable housing units across the state, while SB 2 proposes a $75 fee for the recording of any real-estate related document not surpassing $225 per transaction. The revenue produced by SB 2 will go into the Department of Housing and Community Development’s Building Homes and Jobs Fund that will be established by the legislature.

Together, the two bills are expected to generate more than $4.1 billion in funding over the first five years after their implementations and allow for the creation of more than 70,000 homes and apartments across the state.

The collection of legislation has since moved to the state assembly for consideration and is expected to be voted on in the coming week.

For Skinner, continuing to address the housing crisis going forward means building more housing units across all income levels.

“We need more housing overall,” Skinner said. “There’s subsidized housing that would be lower income housing that’s necessary, but what’s additionally necessary is all units of housing.”

Tregub remains optimistic that this package of legislation will help alleviate the housing crisis and have a positive impact on Berkeley.

“While I do believe that it’s important to invest in housing at every level of affordability, where the greatest unmet need is through lower levels of affordability,” Tregub said.


Sydney Fix is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydney_fix.