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Locating housing and jobs in California’s already urbanized areas

The Bay Area will grow by nearly 2 million people in the next 30 years. Some conclude that this growth means the region’s cities need to expand — but expansion isn’t necessary. Comparing the potential for infill development in the Bay Area with the growth projections for the next 25 years shows that, with the right planning and involvement, the region has enough space within its already urbanized areas to accommodate this projected growth. If the region’s cities and towns adopt smart growth policies that match community visions, more than 100 percent of the housing and jobs needed by 2035 could be provided in existing urban areas. Growing in this way would protect the natural areas and working farms that are so important to the Bay Area’s economy and quality of life.

According to the Associations of Bay Area Governments, between 2005 and 2035 the region will need an additional 720,000 households and 1.66 million jobs. This research also shows that during the same time, infill development in the region can add 1.69 million jobs (102 percent of the need) and 785,000 new homes (109 percent of the need). This infill development can be concentrated within seven sub-regions in the Bay Area where new development is most appropriate. Together, these “smart spots” could accommodate approximately four-fifths of the region’s growth needs.

Growth will happen in three main ways:

  • real estate and development activity on “opportunity sites” (providing 42 percent of infill growth and 38 percent of jobs);
  • homeowner improvements or minor intensification of existing buildings on in-law housing sites (providing 4 percent of infill growth);
  • intensive local government efforts inside Priority Development Areas: infill development areas within existing communities that are at least 100 acres and have a local commitment to develop housing and services in a pedestrian-friendly environment served by transit (providing 63 percent of infill growth and 64 percent of needed jobs).

The “opportunity sites” mentioned above refer to sites that lie outside of Priority Development Areas and thus have not been included in previous calculations for potential infill. Opportunity sites are properties that are likely to be redeveloped through real estate activity because what stands on the land is less valuable than the land itself — such as empty strip malls and parking lots. Throughout the Bay Area, more than 25,000 opportunity sites can make room for new infill development. Across their combined 17,000 acres, these properties can provide the region with an additional 303,732 homes and 636,836 jobs. Measured in acres, the largest area of opportunity sites will be residential neighborhoods, but measured in the number of homes, the vast majority will be found in mixed-use neighborhoods that also have nearby shops and services.

Small-scale residential infill development will play a significant role, albeit a smaller one. Across the region, landowners in residential areas will create new places to live without redeveloping properties — by making minor changes to existing properties. Homeowners may build “granny cottages” or in-law units, or convert their garage or basement into separate apartments. Housing in these neighborhoods will increase by about 5 percent, or one new home per city block.

Priority Development Areas encompass the most intense areas of focused infill, and therefore provide a significant portion of both the housing and jobs created by infill development. The involvement of local governments is crucial to containing infill. For instance, local governments can make public spaces, such as BART parking lots or closed military bases, available for development. Also, targeted city activity can raise property values, bringing more redevelopment activity. Updates of local county assessors’ parcel data show that on many parcels of land, the improvements on the property will become less valuable than the land itself — which means these parcels will become economically viable for redevelopment. The Bay Area has the potential to meet its needs for new homes and new jobs without sacrificing the open space and quality of life it now enjoys, but the region cannot achieve the targets through profit-driven real estate activity alone. Without the efforts of cities and the addition of public lands, the region is unlikely to succeed.


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