Public lands may be key to solving Bay Area housing crisis

Ameena Golding/Staff

While I opposed AB 2923, the transit-oriented development bill signed last month by Gov. Jerry Brown, because it takes authority for some local land-use decisions away from city and county governments, the governor’s action nonetheless highlights the ways lands owned by public agencies may hold a partial solution to the Bay Area’s housing crisis.

Authored by San Francisco state Assemblymember David Chiu, AB 2923 allows BART to streamline the planning and construction of housing projects on its property. And as contentious as the politics around this legislation may have been, its eventual enactment underscores a growing seriousness of purpose around the Bay Area about bringing real solutions to the region’s housing crisis to the fore.

The timing of the governor’s signature on AB 2923 coincides with a newly released report from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, identifying the untapped potential for transit-oriented housing development in areas within a half-mile of rail stations and bus corridors.

The construction of affordable housing in the Bay Area has long fallen short of goals in the region. At the same time, real estate prices have skyrocketed not only for low-income residents but also for working families.

It’s been a double whammy for Bay Area residents.

But we are working on solutions. Last month, the MTC released a report that identifies 700 publicly held parcels, which are noted on a downloadable database and interactive web map, available on the MTC website by searching “Public Lands Study.”

The land identified in the report could have the capacity for the addition of about 35,000 units to the Bay Area housing stock. In Alameda County alone, 153 parcels were identified, accounting for 248 acres on which new housing units could be developed.

The Public Lands Study focused primarily on transit stations served by BART, Caltrain, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. Other locations included the bus rapid transit corridor now under construction by AC Transit along the International Boulevard and East 14th Street corridor.

But there is more public land beyond transit to be looked at: cities, counties and school districts also may have lands for housing. The idea is not to build housing in every nook and cranny of public land available, but to take an honest look at what might work to help solve what has become a daunting issue in the Bay Area. Public agencies should make a conscious and consistent effort to prioritize housing construction on as many parcels as possible where it makes sense.

The study does not claim that development on public lands will solve the region’s housing crisis, but it offers the seeds of a real solution to the region’s housing woes. It was clear to the study’s participants — a cross section of public agency representatives, housing developers and real estate industry consultants — that the dearth of affordable housing will not change without changing the status quo.

Using land near transit holds promise, as residents can then use nearby buses and trains to get to their jobs. It can help slow the phenomena of people living in far-off places outside the Bay Area where housing is more affordable, which leads to long commutes, more car-jammed highways and thousands upon thousands of vehicles pumping greenhouse gases into the air.

Developers of affordable housing also benefit, as more funding options may be available for building units served directly by transit. These types of projects can often be leveraged with other state and federal programs to multiply their impact. Affordable housing projects in the Bay Area often face numerous political and procedural challenges, ranging from concerns about environmental impacts to the lengthy and uncertain approval process, which drive up costs. Agencies should take steps to reduce development costs and risks by streamlining the approval process.

The Bay Area needs affordable housing to better support its communities and the environment. Studies show that affordable housing can reduce the aforementioned environmental impacts associated with long commutes from less expensive housing markets.

It can also increase economic productivity for individuals and regions, allowing people to spend their income on more than just housing.

As the Bay Area’s metropolitan planning organization, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission can encourage jurisdictions to look at housing development on these surplus public lands.

The crisis reminds me of an old Scottish saying:“It’s a lang road that’s no goat a turnin’.”
It means we shouldn’t lose focus on the task at hand, and things can’t keep going in the same direction forever.

So let’s be bold and find solutions to our housing dilemma and work toward solving this tough issue that affects us all across the Bay Area. Using public lands to helping combat the housing crisis is a big step. It’s a step that cities, counties and other public agencies must take together.

UC Berkeley graduate Amy Rein Worth is the mayor of Orinda and represents the cities of Contra Costa County on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.