Tackling Affordable Housing and Transit in the Bay Area

In January, a panel discussion hosted at the San Francisco office of Perkins+Will addressed the Bay Area’s region-wide cautionary tale.

san francisco think tank transit
Rendering from a study, commissioned by Lyft and executed by Perkins+Will’s Mobility Lab and Nelson\Nygaard, on the future of transportation in San Francisco. Courtesy Perkins+Will MobilityLab

The astounding success of the tech sector in the San Francisco Bay Area has created an immense housing shortage, overwhelmed the transportation network, and exacerbated social inequity. What are some of the structural issues and potential solutions that can help turn the situation around? In January, a panel discussion hosted at the San Francisco office of Perkins+Will addressed this area-wide cautionary tale.

While transportation and housing are regional issues, change is difficult when power is concentrated locally. To wit: The Bay Area has 28 different transit agencies that cover 101 communities in the area, a fact which was pointed out by Joshua Karlin-Resnick, senior associate at transportation consultancy Nelson\Nygaard (a subsidiary of Perkins+Will). In addition to transportation, land use is important to address regionally. “Cities are incentivized to think of jobs over housing, and the borders of our cities become fortress walls—it’s a really destructive set of forces,” said Karlin-Resnick. Panelists praised cities such as Toronto and Melbourne for addressing this dilemma. “Regional bodies have been created that have the ability to override local aims when the issue becomes of regional importance,” said Robert Ogilvie, the Oakland director of local urban think tank SPUR. “One of the existing tools is the disbursement of transportation funding, a potential carrot or stick to have a greater impact on what localities do.”

san francisco think tank transit
Study for section of Wilshire Boulevard Courtesy Perkins+Will MobilityLab

Diminished parking needs, given the decline in auto ownership and the rise of autonomous vehicles, may be a catalyst for driving changes in urban land use. “We’re at an inflection point right now,” said Gerry Tierney, associate principal and co-director of the Perkins+Will Mobility Lab. “It’s not really responsible for us to tell our clients to continue to integrate your parking with your building, when you know that space is going to be redundant in 20 to 25 years. And who is going to decide what happens to the freed-up space? We need to expand that discussion out to include all stakeholders.”

The lack of affordable housing is particularly acute in the Bay Area. “My advocacy has moved from ‘education needs more funding’ to ‘education needs more funding and housing,’” said Kalimah Salahuddin, vice president of the Jefferson Union High School District school board. “No district in our county is paying teachers enough for them to afford rent or buy a house, so we’re seeing a mass exodus of our teachers.” The district has taken the bold step of putting forward a bond measure to develop 80 units of workforce housing on district-owned land. But affordable housing projects can be a tricky sell. “People object to affordable housing because they think of a cement block with holes in it, and they don’t want that next door to their homes,” said Salahuddin. “The challenge is to help people see different examples of density that they really like,” Ogilvie added. “If we’re able to sell that and design and implement that, then we can deal with a lot of the problems that we have.”

The Think Tank discussions in San Francisco were held January 31 and February 1. The conversations were presented in partnership with DWR Contract, DXV/GROHE, KI, Sunbrella, Visa Lighting, and Wilsonart.

You may also enjoy “Architect Peter Barber Is Reinventing London’s Housing.”

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