Viewpoints

California’s fear of high-rises is making housing crisis worse

Soil engineers work outside the Millennium Tower in San Francisco in September 2016. The 58-story building has gained notoriety as the “leaning tower of San Francisco.” But Joe Mathews says California’s fear of high rises is making the housing shortage worse.
Soil engineers work outside the Millennium Tower in San Francisco in September 2016. The 58-story building has gained notoriety as the “leaning tower of San Francisco.” But Joe Mathews says California’s fear of high rises is making the housing shortage worse. AP

Want to spook your neighbors this Halloween? Don’t bother with ghouls or ghosts. Instead, just decorate your door with a picture of an eight-story apartment building.

Californians are famously fearless. We devote ourselves to extreme outdoor sports, buy homes near earthquake faults and launch startups against all odds. But in the face of tall buildings, especially multifamily high-rises, we turn into a bunch of scaredy-cats.

 
Opinion

This statewide acrophobia has helped fuel a historic housing shortage that holds back our economy, drives up homelessness and forces us into long, unhealthy commutes.

Taller buildings provide the population density to support robust public transportation and thriving retail corridors. But California is held back by Munsters-era zoning codes that bar tall multiunit buildings from many neighborhoods. And even where they are permitted, frighteningly complicated regulations create long delays that make taller buildings expensive.

To their credit, some cities have been advancing proposals for taller buildings, but smart plans are little match for California’s collective resistance.

If you dare, you can witness the plague of height fears in Oakland, which faces a massive backlog of 18,000 approved but unbuilt units, many of which would be in taller buildings near transit. In housing-starved Long Beach, citizens are revolting against an update of a three-decade-old land use plan to accommodate taller buildings. In Santa Monica, a new Expo Line rail connection should be encouraging taller development, but longtime residents oppose it.

Instead of facing our fear of heights, Californians construct self-deceiving justifications. We tell ourselves that earthquakes make taller buildings less safe, even though studies show that poorly designed smaller buildings are more likely to collapse. We focus too much on the upfront costs of high-rise buildings – which are more expensive to build because they require stronger materials – and ignore all the hidden costs of single-family housing.

And we are highly selective in our fears. We fear the apartment building downtown more than the elaborate home surrounded by brush on a hill. We block tall buildings in our town centers because we worry about new crowds of new people, then complain about all the resulting rush-hour traffic. We oppose new housing because it will change the character of our neighborhoods, then lament homeless camp down the street.

Our fears literally distort our vision. Many Californians oppose tall and thin buildings, even though they actually offer better views than shorter and squatter buildings that act like walls in blocking views.

Which is too bad, because many areas of California with high-rise housing – downtown L.A. or San Diego – are vibrant and successful. The benefits of pursuing a taller future would be considerable: faster growth, more tax revenue and fewer greenhouse gases.

The current gubernatorial campaign might provide an opportunity for reassessing the altitude of our development. The top two contenders, former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, made their cities more vertical. But both got hammered for doing so. Today they are surrounded by political professionals who, when it comes to the highest issues, are perpetually scared to death.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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