Deleted Scenes from The Lost Subways: Sacramento's Evolution Into a Big City

Today's deleted scene is about Sacramento, California, the state's capital.

Sacramento, California started out as a big city, and grew into a small town. In the 19th century, Sacramento was the second-largest city in California, it was the western terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad, and it was the epicenter of the California Gold Rush. Thus, it made perfect sense when state legislators decided to move California’s capital there in 1854, after a few false starts in cow towns like Benicia, Vallejo and San Jose.

But after the Gold Rush quieted down, Sacramento slipped into relative obscurity for nearly a century. While the city grew steadily, it never managed to keep up with San Francisco, San Diego or Los Angeles. In 1930, Sacramento’s economy was based on the bounteous agriculture of California’s Central Valley. 93,000 inhabitants lived there, less than contemporary Wilmington, Delaware or Evansville, Indiana. The electric company, Pacific Gas & Electric, doubled as the primary mass transit provider. The two other transit companies, the Sacramento Northern and Central California Traction Co., provided regional transit service to other Central Valley destinations as well as the San Francisco Bay Area. (Both stopped passenger service long ago.)

Suburbanization came to Sacramento like it did to most of the country, including large-scale downtown freeway construction, and the metropolis exploded in population, quadrupling between 1950 and 1980. This growth was largely directed into suburban sprawl, and growth has continued largely unabated as the nearby San Francisco Bay Area has failed to deal with its own housing and transport crisis, as seen in the chapter on San Francisco. Its relative affordability has made the metropolis a magnet for international immigrants and Californians priced out of the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2018, 2.3 million people lived in the Sacramento metropolitan area, more than Pittsburgh, Cincinnati or Cleveland. Even the construction of the Regional Transit light rail system in the 1980s did little to slow the sprawl.

This is partly due to geography, and partly due to politics. Regarding geography, Sacramento is flat and surrounded by farmland which is easily turned into subdivisions. As for the more complicated political issue, the simple fact is that Greater Sacramento hasn’t done much to encourage real estate development near light rail stations. Outside the 4 square miles (10 sq. km.) of the downtown core, light rail stations are surrounded by suburban homes and low-rise shopping centers with acres of parking, and RT’s rail service is neither frequent nor fast enough to justify the extra hassle of waiting for the train. The Sacramento City Council reformed its zoning in 2019 to fix this mistake, rezoning for more apartments and eliminating parking minimums near train stations, but the effects of these reforms haven’t yet been seen on the built environment.

Sacramento's reforms are quite sweeping, and represent a return to the less restrictive land use policies of the pre-World War II era, with three major changes.

First: the city changed the lowest zoning classification from single-family residential to four-unit residential. This allows rowhouses and small apartment buildings to be built in all of Sacramento's residential neighborhoods. This is important, because it distributes growth across neighborhoods instead of having the kind of high-velocity gentrification that's been a cardinal feature of the housing shortage for the last forty years.

As a bonus, it means that old, worn-out housing in suburban neighborhoods gets replaced with modern apartments, rather than being flipped or replaced with McMansions. And for the grognards who complain about "neighborhood character," these small apartment buildings fit in just fine with single-family homes. To illustrate using an example from Midtown Sacramento: on the left is a single-family home, and on the right is a four-unit apartment building.

On top of this, the City Council decided to rezone all the land near Sacramento's underused light rail system for 5- and 6-story apartment buildings. This is a huge deal, since so many of Sacramento's train stations are surrounded by acres and acres of parking lots, strip malls, and suburban subdivisions. Upzoning like this kills two birds with one stone: you alleviate the housing shortage, and you get more use out of the underused rail infrastructure.

Second: Sacramento changed its zoning law so that if it meets the code, you can build it. In expensive expensive coastal metropolises, the actual policy rarely matches up with what's written in the law book. This is because because there often isn't automatic approval for new housing which otherwise meets the zoning code. This means that if you want to build new housing, you don't just need an architect and a contractor - you also need a lobbyist. The process is arbitrary, capricious, and subject to all kinds of political meddling. This kind of bad-faith kabuki theater makes building housing very, very risky. You might spend half a million dollars on engineering, environmental review and legal fees, and still walk away empty-handed because a city councilman was feeling grouchy that morning.

Not in Sacramento. Sacramento abolished City Council review for new urban apartments, so if a proposed building meets the city's zoning law and building code, the city's staff approve it. Period. No environmental review, no public hearings, no nosy neighbors. This deceptively simple reform cuts the approval time for new apartments from a few years to a few months, and it's exactly the kind of reform that needs to happen elsewhere. More money for contractors, less money for lawyers. Everyone wins.

Third: Sacramento abolished their minimum parking law. This means that developers can build as much or as little parking as they please when they build new buildings. This is good, because minimum parking laws dramatically increase the cost of new housing. To illustrate, the average city lot is about 7000 square feet, and each standard parking space takes up about 400 square feet because you have to include clearance for the car to enter and exit. So, if you have four apartments on the lot, you're legally required to pave over at least quarter of the lot to accommodate parking, no ifs ands or buts. This is not cheap. And the worst part is, even one space per apartment is overkill. The data from similar sprawly places like Santa Clara County (the heart of Silicon Valley) shows almost 30% of garage parking spaces go unused, even at peak hours.

But the Sacramento way of doing things is only the start of fixing the housing crisis. Once you make Sacramento-style reforms there's a bunch of different ways you can go, depending on your ideological bent.

For the lefty types, it means building public housing, like they do in Singapore. For neoliberal types, it means a future of light-touch regulation and by-right zoning, allowing private developers to build large numbers of condo towers near train stations, like Tokyo. If you're a libertarian, you could try to eliminate zoning altogether and let the market decide, like Houston. All three are perfectly sensible ways of having cheap housing for everyone who wants it. But first, you have to make it easy to build housing in the first place. And for that, you have to be like Sacramento.

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