No home sweet home

Marantz co-authors book that gets to the bottom of California’s housing crisis

You’d have to live in a cave to be unaware that California is struggling with a housing shortage (and if you live in a cave, you should already know California is struggling with a housing shortage). Local, regional, and state officials have sought and continue to seek remedies to the lack of housing. That’s why Nicholas Marantz and Paul Lewis decided to explore the problem’s deeper roots and offer possible solutions.

Lewis, an associate professor of politics and global studies at Arizona State University, and Marantz, an associate professor of urban planning and public policy at UC Irvine, offer the fruits of their research in their new book Regional Governance and the Politics of Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area from Temple University Press.

Through their unique multidisciplinary lens, the authors use not just the city of San Francisco but the entire 101 cities within the majestic Bay Area as their laboratory to zero in on why housing costs in California and other parts of the United States have risen so sharply over the past couple decades.

“One of the main reasons for that is that the supply of housing is not keeping pace,” Marantz says. “The supply of housing in these economically vibrant regions is not keeping pace with the demand because new housing often gets blocked and is not allowed. That’s the result of zoning laws, and zoning laws are local laws.”

He explains that there is a need for new townhomes and apartments, but many of the small, wealthier cities are almost entirely zoned for single-family residences, preventing multiple units on even the largest lots. This pushes the demand for housing to what Marantz calls the “urban fringe.”

That sprawl has problematic consequences, he says. “It means that if people want to work in an urban area, then they must commute, potentially a long distance. We’ve seen people buying houses in the Central Valley to commute to the Bay Area.” Building at the urban fringe also means that more people are exposed to the risks of wildfires.

With little to no undeveloped land left to build on, the answer to keeping workers closer to their work is to make dense areas denser with new multi-family housing. Marantz and Lewis find that larger cities in urban areas are more open to such housing than smaller municipalities, even after controlling for demographic and economic attributes. “We looked nationally at census tracts, which are basically neighborhoods, and found that a city of 500,000 to 1 million people on average gets 46 more multifamily units over our study period than otherwise similar tracks,” Marantz says. “That may not sound like much, but when you add up all the census tracts in the U.S., it turns out it is quite a lot.”

Getting the buy-in required within a region to place those new units is the rub. Lewis and Marantz write, in an article published by Fortune's The Conversation on July 10, about local efforts to keep subdivisions and townhomes out of Bay Area towns such as Woodside, home to Silicon Valley CEOs, and Atherton, whose notable residents include NBA superstar Seth Curry and billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.

When it comes to reform, the authors are not proposing, as others have, the creation of regional authorities that can overrule local governments for the greater good. “But,” Marantz says, “we do think — and this is in some ways the way that state policy in California is moving – you should limit the discretion of local governments to deny housing approvals and impose requirements that they allow some of their lands to be redeveloped.”

While that may lead to council members in certain small wealthy cities getting yelled at by the likes of Silicon Valley CEOs, NBA superstars and gazillionaire-funded armies of lawyers, Marantz argues that it can be useful in the end “because it takes some of the pressure off local officials. They can sort of point the finger at state officials.”

As we contemplate which finger gets wagged at Sacramento bureaucrats, Marantz says his new book provides a “menu of different options” that can address our nagging housing problems.

“We have a table in the book with the pros and cons of different reform options,” he says. “Concerned citizens or legislators or advocates can essentially just use that menu and take from it what they will and what they think is most valuable.”

Valuable to Marantz in completing Regional Governance and the Politics of Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area was UC Irvine.

“It’s an unusually congenial environment for doing this kind of research,” he says. “I have been able to have great conversations with colleagues. The work that many of our Master of Urban and Regional Planning students do feeds into the classroom discussions that we have, and that inspires my thinking. We also have a terrific cohort of Ph.D. students who, like many of the faculty, are doing cutting-edge research that pushes me to think critically about these issues.”
— Matt Coker