Housing Is Hot Topic at Rail~Volution, a Huge Conference on Transit

Screen Shot 2016-10-12 at 12.51.43 PM
Image: Rail~Volution

Some 1,200 city planners, transportation professionals, city officials, and journalists crowded into the San Francisco Hyatt Regency this week for the 2016 Rail~Volution conference, a gathering aimed at “building livable communities with transit” in cities and towns across the country.

From the conference press release:

The… conference brings together thought leaders and innovators to discuss the relationship between public transit and land-use, examine best practices in transit-oriented development, and look at how to maintain diversity and inclusion in the face of a changing urban landscape.

Monday’s opening session featured San Francisco MTA Director Ed Reiskin. He welcomed attendees from all over North America and spoke almost entirely on housing cost and supply issues — and transit’s role in solving them. “We can really think about how and what we do can address those challenges,” said Reiskin. “Not to say transportation and planning are magic bullets, but I do think they can and should be part of the solution and we should use a lens of not just how can we make our cities more livable, but can we make our cities more livable for everyone?”

That tack continued with a chock-full-of-data presentation by Kim-Mai Cutler, journalist and columnists for TechCrunch. She explained that the classic suburban-style single-family homes built by Joseph Eichler were once available to working-class families in the Bay Area. “In 1950, a home in Palo Alto was 1.5 times the median income, or about $9,400,” she said. “Today if you looked at an Eichler, it’s more than $2 million.”

That means homes are now completely out of reach for Bay Area fire fighters, teachers, and basically anybody who’s not at the top of the salary bracket. “We need to build,” said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. We have simply stopped building enough supply for it to affect the price. We are decades behind.”

He and other speakers took pot shots at Howard Jarvis, the businessman and politician who brought us Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that slashed property taxes. “Howard Jarvis was the guy who pioneered the free lunch,” he said. “It fiscalized our land-use policy. Housing became a loser, and auto-sale malls became a winner,” he said, since governments had to turn to sale tax to gain any revenue, “and we have been dealing with that vexing problem ever since.”

Still, Heminger, Cutler, and other speakers were positive about the outlook for the Bay Area, pointing out that many problems — like housing and the overcrowding of BART — are also a function of economic success. There’s so much demand for housing because high-paying jobs have attracted so many people to the region, they said. “The innovation of Silicon Valley is not a bad thing — but we have some catching up to do,” Heminger said. “But I’d rather be catching up with economic development” than not having it in the first place.

Hat tip to Streetsblog SF‘s Roger Rudick for the coverage. Streetsblog Denver was there too — stay tuned for more takeaways relevant to the Mile High City, home of Rail~Volution 2017.