Equitably Addressing the Bay Area Housing Crisis


California is facing an extreme affordability crisis that is driven by the interrelated housing shortage, economic inequity, and climate crises. We are not building enough housing at any income level. When we don’t create enough homes, prices go up and working-class and low-income families are forced to live far away from where they work or grew up. This continued upward pressure on the cost of housing means that Bay Area residents are having a harder time finding safe housing and purchasing even a modest home.

California is short over 3.5 million homes, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, which forces more workers to become super commuters—people who have to drive more than 90 minutes to get to work. The lack of affordable housing close to jobs also increases pressure for sprawl development closer to the fringes where urban infrastructure intermingles with wildland vegetation, also known as the Wildland Urban Interface ( WUI). That is exactly where wildlife risk is more pronounced, yet this land is being rapidly developed in the Bay Area.

Housing Policy and Climate Mitigation

In California, about 40% of (GHGs) come from transportation, the bulk of that from gasoline and diesel-burning vehicles. The carbon footprint of our auto-centric urban planning is even greater when we count oil refining and upstream emissions outside the state. Denser forms of development reduce the dependence on personal vehicles, reducing travel time and costs, the consumption of oil and gasoline, and the planet-warming GHG emissions responsible for elevating the risks of climate change.

Even as California has made great progress in cleaning up its electricity grid, transportation emissions were on an upward trend prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some counties, as much as two-thirds of emissions are from automobiles. Building more climate SMART (Sustainable, Mixed, Affordable, Resilient, Transit-Oriented) housing in the right places can mitigate climate impacts and reduce housing costs and inequities. But in order to do this, we need to change the way we build and eliminate the stigma around multi-family homes. As we encourage and engage in equitable, fire and flood-safe infill development, it is imperative that we think about how we can maximize the benefits we get from our land. We need to build more infill housing in existing urban areas and ensure that all housing includes a healthy amount of green infrastructure like bioswales, carbon sequestering trees that provide shade and help regulate microclimates and mitigate the urban heat island effect, native plants that can provide habitat, and other nature-based solutions to climate risks.

Dense housing in Sunnyvale. Karl Nielsen/Greenbelt Alliance

What’s at Risk

What’s at Risk

Housing Affordability: The limited supply of homes drives up the cost. This continued upward pressure on the cost of housing means that Bay Area residents are finding it harder to afford to rent or own a home while balancing other financial obligations.

Legacy of Racist Zoning: The compounding crises of climate change and housing affordability disproportionately impact low-income people and communities of color. The current Bay Area housing shortage is due, in part, to systemic racism and racist zoning practices, such as redlining and single-family zoning. Generations of racial disparities in wealth, exacerbated by federally backed lending practices that discriminate against communities of color, have resulted in the majority of single-family homes being white-owned. Increasing housing supply and density is a powerful tool to address housing affordability, segregation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cities need to actively plan for diverse housing options that are accessible to people of all backgrounds and income levels, adopting the principles of Fair Housing.

These practices perpetuate an ongoing system of implicitly racist housing policies that financially penalize people of color and make our communities even more segregated.

High Vehicle Emissions: Sprawl and scattered development patterns influence greenhouse gas emissions. Auto-centric development patterns force people to rely on high emissions personal transportation due to a lack of proximity to jobs and housing.

Extreme Climate Disasters: Communities across the Bay Area have already felt the acute impacts of climate change. Flooding and wildfires have led to the devastating loss of homes, jobs, and tragically, lives. Continuing to build new housing in areas at high risk of climate disasters will only further limit the region’s housing supply in the long run, while threatening communities and precious natural assets, such as wetlands and forest land, that are crucial in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Critical Actions to Take Now

  • Increase density within existing communities in non-Fire Hazard Severity Zones and away from flood zones. By building more homes in already established urban areas, we avoid paving over trees and habitats that serve as heat sinks and carbon banks, all of which provide high-value climate benefits. It is critical to support growth in safe infill locations and streamline the permitting process when appropriate, while still allowing for a public process, requiring environmental review, and rewarding jurisdictions that meet housing goals.
  • Ensure fair and inclusive zoning policies that make housing accessible to everyone. This can be done by permitting more growth in high-resource communities and reducing or eliminating single-family zoning and other exclusionary zoning in areas that are not prone to fire and flood risk. It is critical to ensure wealthy communities are zoned for and build their fair share of both market-rate and affordable housing by not locating affordable housing exclusively in low-income neighborhoods. Throughout these zoning changes and all processes, it is critical to prioritize people of low income and communities of color in housing policies and outreach.
  • Prepare communities for climate impacts and require nature-based solutions for climate resilience in future developments. Local jurisdictions must be better equipped to help communities struck by natural disasters rebuild and respond rapidly and inclusively. Housing should be built in a manner that protects current and future communities. Integrating green infrastructure into new development and redevelopment is a necessary investment in climate resilience and public health that will reduce energy consumption and the costs of extreme heat and flooding to cities and health care systems. Cities should require developers to integrate green infrastructure into development and the public right-of-way adjacent to developments at a level that exceeds water quality mandates. It is critical to implement improvements to move or protect critical public assets threatened by sea level rise or rising groundwater as well as require and incentivize green infrastructure in future developments and, when possible, use green infrastructure as a preferred alternative. When applicable, it is also beneficial to consider permit for new housing that exceeds current green infrastructure requirements.
  • Enable community involvement in decision-making around climate-resilient development. This can be done by offering compensation for meeting attendance, providing transportation and childcare to public meetings, and giving residents and community-based organizations ample time to provide feedback on proposals and documents. By embracing these best practices in planning processes, infill development has the opportunity to rejuvenate parts of the city that currently contribute negatively to GHG emissions and urban heat islands and pose fire and flood risk without leading to further displacement.

Incremental Density: Missing Middle Housing 

Too many communities lack a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types. These missing middle homes are compatible in scale with single-family homes, and help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living, respond to shifting household demographics, and meet the need for more housing choices at different price points.

These housing types are considered “missing” because, even though they have historically played an instrumental role in providing housing choices and affordable options, very few of these housing types have been built in the past 30 to 40 years.

The term “middle” has two interpretations. The first, and most important, represents the middle scale of buildings between single-family homes and large apartment or condo buildings. The second relates to the affordability or attainability level. These types have historically delivered attainable housing choices to middle-income families without subsidies and continue to play a role in providing homes to the “middle income” market segment that typically straddles 60% to 110% AMI, in new construction, for-sale housing. This varies across different markets (Parolek & Nelson, 2020).

Missing Middle Housing is about house-scale buildings that have more than one unit within them. House scale has a maximum width, depth, and height (Parolek & Nelson, 2020).

Missing Middle Housing illustration by Daniel Parolek, Opticos Design.

Climate Benefits of Missing Middle Housing

There are many climate benefits of gradual density like Missing Middle Housing. Coupling infill development with broader legalization of -plexes—from duplexes to fourplexes—throughout California could mean millions of additional homes that are close to where people want to work and play, dramatically reducing GHG emissions—something we need to do to meet the State’s climate goals.

In August 2020, the San José General Plan Task Force made a recommendation to planning staff to explore studying the allowance of up to four unit residences in single-family neighborhoods citywide. This effort, known as Opportunity Housing, would concentrate new development in infill areas and protect open space, both necessary to achieve emissions reduction. Efforts like this add density to existing neighborhoods in a way that cost-effectively expands housing options for San José residents while maximizing land use and infrastructure.

A 2019 study found that “80,000 commuters drive between the northern end of San Joaquin County and the Bay Area, an average of 120 miles, 75% of them alone in a car.” With incremental density unlocked via Opportunity Housing, more people can afford to live closer to where they work and play, allowing options for biking or walking, thereby decreasing the greenhouse gases emitted from driving. Opportunity Housing supports transit, especially as transit-oriented development places homes near bus and rail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Opportunity Housing does not stop the production of single-family homes, it simply removes existing restrictions and allows homes to be converted into 2-4 homes in single-family zoning areas. The new buildings would also still need to blend in with the single-family home landscape and the duplexes or triplexes built under the plan will not alter a neighborhood’s character.

As cities around the region move forward with initiatives to reform single-family zoning like Opportunity Housing, there have been bills passed at the state level to make this easier and financially viable. State bills such as SB9 (2021) and SB10 (2021) make it easier to add incremental density, provide increased financing options, and streamline the process to make it possible for homeowners of all income levels to add density to their properties.

In addition, building missing middle homes in cities would decrease wildfire risk. Fire science shows that medium-density development in the Wildland Urban Interface presents the highest risk of loss of lives and homes to wildfire (read more in the Co-Existing with Wildfire section). The arrangement of homes in subdivisions and rural communities in fire-prone landscapes is increasingly not viable. Placing missing middle homes in cities and towns near services, jobs, and transit reduces wildfire risk. This does not, however, negate the risk of evacuation during a wildfire. Cities are grappling with how to add the needed housing while keeping existing and future residents safe. It is essential to consider evacuation routes when building or deciding where to zone additional housing.

Critical Actions to Take Now

  • Advance zoning and implementation changes that encourage sustainable, small, and mid-sized multi-family and workforce housing, especially in lower density in non-Fire Hazard Severity Zones. Expand form-based zoning to increase multi-family housing in low-density neighborhoods near transit, jobs, services, parks, high quality schools, and other amenities. Increase heights and remove restrictions on density in non-Fire Hazard Severity Zones where existing or new high-capacity transit is planned to encourage housing and the creation of mixed-use corridors.

Parking Policy Reform

One obstacle to building infill and Missing Middle Housing is existing parking policies. By eliminating minimum parking requirements and instituting transportation demand management requirements for new development, cities can make strides towards greater environmental sustainability, affordability, and other quality of life goals.

Transit in Sunnyvale. Karl Nielsen/Greenbelt Alliance

Reforming parking policy increases housing affordability. By eliminating parking minimums, developers will be able to decide appropriate parking levels based on tenants, project location, and other factors, thereby avoiding the cost of constructing greater parking supplies than necessary. Parking is expensive for developers to build, with estimates ranging from $34,000-$75,000/parking space. This cost is ultimately passed on to the tenants and accounts for up to approximately 17% of monthly rent (Gabbe & Pierce, 2017).

Reforming parking policies can also increase climate resilience. Currently, zoning codes typically mandate a minimum amount of off-street parking spaces for construction. This leads to underutilized land (up to 30% in the South Bay), a decrease in density, and an increase in the reliance of cars. This means that congestion and air pollution increase while degrading walkability and community environments. An excessive amount of surface parking decreases permeable surfaces, which makes areas more prone to floods and increases the urban heat effect. Right-sizing our parking will play a key role in addressing all of these issues.

This policy is one part of the puzzle to create a more climate SMART, livable Bay Area. By reducing single-occupant trips in new development, greenhouse gases, energy use, and air pollution are also reduced. Other pieces of the puzzle include increased investment in public transportation systems, alternative transportation, and micro-mobility. Additionally, progressive changes to land-use policies, including, but not limited to, the cities adopting the statewide Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) policy will further lead us to climate sustainability.

So what does reforming parking policy actually look like? A good parking policy should have two approaches:

  1. By combining robust transportation demand management strategies with the elimination of minimum parking requirements, we can reduce the need for parking spaces (which frees up resources) and increase opportunities for sustainable travel in new development.
  2. By taking this dual approach—reducing parking spaces while reducing the need for parking—cities will be able to build more vibrant, walkable communities that then build our climate resilience.

Benefits of Parking Policy Reform

  • Increase housing affordability. As the Bay Area’s population increases, we need to find ways to minimize the impacts of new residents, commuters, and visitors on the transportation system to accommodate this growth. The current standards are not enough to accommodate this expected growth.
  • Eliminating parking minimums enables right-sized parking, such as low-parking or no-parking development where there is a market for them. This can be done by unbundling parking.
  • Offer more mobility options, prioritizing space for biking, walking, transit, and public space.
  • It can make infill developmenteasier and help improve affordability.
  • Promotes the transition to a more diverse, multimodal transportation system. A citywide transportation demand management program provides more sustainable transportation options for a building’s tenants, employees, residents, and visitors, which benefits neighborhoods and the city and region at large.
  • Improve environmental sustainability and quality of life (better air quality due to fewer cars on the street, less GHG emissions from fossil fuel combustion).

Policy Matrix

Ensure fair and inclusive zoning policies that make housing accessible to everyone.
Strategy Actions Source
Prioritize Black, Indigenous, Peoples of Color (BIPOC) families in housing policies, outreach, and practice. Prioritize shelter, transitional, and affordable housing in cultural districts and other relevant geographies with historically marginalized racial or ethnic identities to encourage their stabilization. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Subsidize and develop incentives for building housing targeted towards vulnerable populations in high-opportunity areas, especially along transit-rich, commercial, and social service corridors. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Design public space, planned developments, and transportation systems to advance racial and social equity by co-developing processes with Black, Indigenous, Peoples of Color (BIPOC) communities and understand their needs before designing the space. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Increase density within existing communities in non-high fire severity zones.
Strategy Actions Source
Advance zoning and implementation changes that encourage sustainable, small and mid-sized, multi-family and workforce housing, especially in lower density neighborhoods. Provide financial assistance and education to lower income, small property owners to add housing (such as ADUs) and rehabilitate existing units that are healthy and resource efficient. San Francisco Climate Action Plan , Sausalito General Plan
Re-zone to allow for multi-family housing throughout the city and county. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Implement permit streamlining for new housing that exceeds current inclusionary and sustainability requirements. San Francisco Climate Action Plan , Sausalito General Plan
By X year, establish codes and regulations that facilitate use of new materials (e.g. cross-laminated-timber) and new technology (e.g. modular housing) to lower costs and increase resource efficiency of construction. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Expand green construction training and apprenticeship programs to grow the local pool of skilled labor and reduce construction costs. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Expand form-based zoning to increase multi-family housing in low-density neighborhoods near transit, jobs, services, parks, high-quality schools, and other amenities. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Increase heights and remove restrictions on density in non fire severity areas where existing or new high-capacity transit is planned to encourage housing and the creation of mixed-use corridors. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Increase the density and diversity of land uses across jurisdiction. Every five years, identify and assess under-utilized publicly owned land and roadways that could be transformed or repurposed. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Increase growth in high resource communities that are not prone to fire risk. Make sure wealthy communities are zoned for and build their fair share of both market rate and affordable housing, don't place affordable housing only in low income neighborhoods. San Jose General Plan
Promote the development of a 15-minute neighborhood to provide active, walkable, bicycle-friendly, transit-oriented, mixed-use urban settings for new housing and job growth attractive to an innovative workforce and consistent with the city’s environmental goals. San Jose General Plan
Fund transportation, transportation demand strategies, and electric charging stations as part of future development. Oakland Climate Action Plan
Implement parking policy zoning reform to eliminate or reduce the number of parking spaces a developer is required to build, instead making it market driven. Oakland Climate Action Plan
Manage the threat of climate risks on existing and future infrastructure and require nature-based solutions for climate resilience.
Strategy Actions Source
Reduce or prohibit development in the most hazardous areas. Hazards and climate impacts to consider are earthquake liquefaction, flooding (riverine and sea level rise), groundwater infiltration, landslide, and wildfire. This strategy can also expand to create beneficial uses, such as open space, flood mitigation and recreation, for non-developable high hazard lands. Require new development to plan for and protect against 42 inch 100-year storm events plus an additional 36 inches of sea level rise. Ensure that the design of future developments incorporate flood protection measures to protect improvements from a 100-year storm event and anticipated sea level rise. Sausalito General Plan , San Francisco Climate Action Plan , Alameda County General Plan
Consider permit streamlining for new housing that exceeds current green infrastructure requirements.
Preserve on-site natural elements in new development, when feasible, that contribute to the community’s native plant and wildlife species value and to its aesthetic character. Sausalito General Plan , San Francisco Climate Action Plan , Alameda County General Plan
Create zoning to require communities to be more wildfire resistant by establishing greenbelt zones for carefully landscaped areas inside and around neighborhoods and subdivisions, different from landscape-scale open space buffers and large fuel breaks. The Critical Role of Greenbelts in Wildfire Resilience (Greenbelt Alliance)
Require and/or incentivize green infrastructure in future developments and, when possible, use green infrastructure as a preferred alternative. San Francisco Climate Action Plan
Restrict or limit construction of new development in zones or overlay areas that have been identified or designated as hazardous areas to avoid or minimize impacts to coastal resources and property from sea level rise impacts. SCAG's Climate Adaptation Model Policies for General Plans (2020)
Adopt (or renew) local policies that maintain space between cities including urban growth boundaries (UGBs), urban limit lines (ULLs), and community separators—preferably voter approved—to contain growth, prevent sprawl, and reduce wildfire risk. The Critical Role of Greenbelts in Wildfire Resilience (Greenbelt Alliance)
Prepare current and future communities for climate impacts.
Strategy Actions Source
Incorporate Climate Hazard Overlay Zones. Develop overlay designations to address potential future at-risk areas, such as areas prone to wildfire (that may not currently be within a State Responsibility Area or High-Risk Fire Hazard Severity Zone), subsidence, future floodplain or area of temporary inundation, or area at risk for high wind/storm events due to future climate change impact models. Incorporate these designations into the Safety Element, Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, and other planning for disaster response and emergency preparedness. SCAG's Climate Adaptation Model Policies for General Plans (2020)
Disclose current and future hazards. Review standards to ensure that new developments and substantial remodels in at-risk areas incorporate low-impact, resilient, infrastructure and are protected from potential impacts of flooding from sea level rise and significant storm events.
Develop policies that require residential property managers and landlords to disclose hazard risk information to renters in a manner similar to that required when residential properties are sold, including if the property is listed on a fragile housing inventory.
Require sellers of real estate to disclose permit conditions related to coastal hazards, property defects, or vulnerabilities, including information about known current and potential future vulnerabilities to sea level rise to prospective buyers prior to closing escrow.
Risk Reduction to existing development. Conduct an assessment that identifies housing units and neighborhoods in fire hazard severity zones that do not meet current fire safe building codes and develop retrofit programs that target highest risk areas, taking into consideration the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires due to climate change. SCAG's Climate Adaptation Model Policies for General Plans (2020)
Implement improvements to move or protect critical public assets threatened by sea level rise or rising groundwater. Alameda County General Plan
Protect housing affordability during recovery. Develop a community planning process to support rebuilding of affordable housing after a disaster, adopt policies to support the replacement of affordable housing units that have been damaged or demolished, and prioritize the deployment of interim housing in vulnerable communities. MTC Resilient Housing Policies
Establish a Transfer of Development Rights program. Establish a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, which could place permanent conservation or hazard mitigation easements on properties in high hazard areas to prevent or minimize the vulnerability of new development, including, but not limited to, seismic, flooding, or wildfire hazards. These programs can provide compensation to property owners in areas with higher or increasing hazard exposure to relocate potential development to areas with less exposure to hazards. MTC Resilient Housing Policies
Implement a Managed Retreat Policy Implement a policy of Avoid or Managed Avoid program for areas at-risk of repeated damage due to climate change hazards, such as areas of high subsidence, extreme wildfire risk, and floodplains to allow for natural modification of the landscape and reduction in risk to property and life. A Managed Retreat Program would include standards that trigger when development is relocated, modified, or removed. MTC Resilient Housing Policies