The "L" Word

The next entries into my #HALA series starts on page 21. This includes things like ADU/DADU stuff, adding a story to LR zones, and low-density housing options in SF zones. These 12 recommendations are, from what I can see, are what lead people to oppose all of HALA. I'll give them the attention they deserve....next week. 

As a break from the drab (seriously - traffic on the pages that just are fact-based, piece-by-piece examination of the recommendations is much lower than opinion posts), I decided I want to touch on the "L" in HALA - Livability. 

I get why this was included in the committee name. It's a great buzz word, after all! In politics, we use "livability" all. the. time. During the Prop. 1 campaign in 2014, for instance, part of our messaging was to note that parks and community centers are key to livable communities! And I wholeheartedly believe that. While there are some who think we should upzone everything and get rid of all design review and other regulations, I don't fall into that camp. One thing missing in East Fremont, for instance, is any public space or park. On a map, the neighborhood looks close to Lower Woodland, Troll's Knoll, Wallingford Playfield, and Gas Works.

But the reality is that this area is boxed in by Highway 99, Stone Way, Bridge Way, and NE 46th - none of which are particularly pedestrian friendly. So while I wholeheartedly support the proposed zoning changes in this area (especially with the proximity to 99 and the Rapid Ride routes), I also believe there must be a plan in place to provide that backyard for the existing and future apartments and condos that are moving in. 

Livability, however, is a very subjective term. It's a values-based discussion, where each of us comes to the conversation with our own set of values and beliefs about what is liveable for us. It's easy to attack someone when their values around livability are different, rather than try to acknowledge their perspective, and respectfully move forward with a conversation about what livability means to others. 

The first thing I think of around this is the ongoing debate around microhousing, with an exclamation "I would never live there," or "I don't know how we can say it's humane for anyone to live in such a small space!" 

With the average rent for a one bedroom apartment right around $2,000, and studios around $1,500, microhousing units provide an affordable alternative. I see these typically going for $700-1000 per month, and while they're small, they provide a roof over the head, a bathroom, a shower, and often are with great access to transit. So if you're making $36,000 per year - right around 60% AMI - you have some choices: get on a waiting list for an affordable unit, spend more than half of your take-home on rent for a small studio, or spend about a third of your take home on a marginally smaller microhousing unit. Or get stuck with a two-hour commute, or worse, end up homeless. 

What would I do? I would go for the micro unit. Some other people might choose the two hour commute. Others still would spring for the studio. Each of these is a choice, and my choice would be no less valid than your choice. But taking away that one extra option - the micro unit - has a real-life implication on people, and based on the idea of "I wouldn't, so neither should you." 

What we consider requirements for a livable community are similar. What I consider livable - sidewalks that aren't crumbling along major roads, parks and public open space, thriving bars and restaurants, access to good transit. 

But above all, I believe that livability must include access to safe affordable homes. As a matter of public policy, I would say we must make the public space - the back yard - a part of the plan. But I admit - I would willingly sacrifice a few trees to ensure more families have housing security, and to ensure we're seeing less suburban and exurban sprawl. I think it is great that some folks put solar panels on their roof, but that should not be used as an excuse to force more people into cars to commute because affordable options near transit and grocery stores are blocked. That has a much more adverse impact on our climate than a single property has a positive impact. 

This is part of the reason I hate the word "NIMBY." While there are those who want no change around them (I actually spoke with someone last night who said she thinks growth is fine, just not in her neighborhood, which is right on a Rapid-Ride line, because she doesn't want anymore people there), most people I know who get this term thrown at them are not opposed to growth or zoning changes per se, but also are concerned with their view of "livability." One person I spoke with recently described it like this: There are things about my neighborhood that I love, and I want people moving here to have the same love of the neighborhood, which is why I want to preserve as many trees as we can." But when you take that message and flip around and just shout "NIMBY!!!", you shut that person down, and lose a potential ally in building a more affordable and welcoming city. When you do that, you don't get to turn around and complain that that person didn't help out when you believed it was necessary. I mean, you can. Do what you want. 

With Livability being such a subjective call, it probably shouldn't have been in the name of the committee or the report. But it is, so as we move forward with implementation of HALA, I believe we should emphasize section L.1, and it's call for "consideration" of parks and open space. And have a meaningful conversation around tree canopy, what that means, and where we can all get to "yes." I also hope that there will be more of a concerted effort from the City to emphasize how we are going to address walkability, especially in our urban villages that have hostile walking conditions. 

I say this because I love my neighborhood. And I want to welcome new people into my neighborhood. And I want them to be able to experience the many things that make my neighborhood great - the ones that make it livable for me, and the ones that make it livable for others. And, frankly, I think that policy makers do, too. If we're willing to listen.