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Zoning Boards Shouldn’t Make Decisions By Judging People’s Lifestyles

11:03 AM EDT on August 27, 2013

A development of studio apartments planned for Berkeley, California, is setting off all the usual NIMBY complaints about height and proximity -- as well as a barrage of snap judgments.

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Zoning Commissioner Sophie Hahn encapsulated the condescending response to the apartments, which will be between 300 to 350 square-feet, when she compared them to "penitentiary housing.”

David Edmondson at Vibrant Bay Area makes the point that not only is that an insulting position to take, it's well outside the scope of the zoning committee to be imposing their personal preferences onto other people's housing choices:

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some other hangout, I’m not so concerned about my home’s size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live on a Mill Valley hillside, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise off the Embarcadero.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it’s the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are “a new style of tenement housing,” I get upset. And when a policymaker (Sophie Hahn) says of studio apartments, “It’s a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing,” that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

This should go without saying, as well, but many parts of the country have very serious housing affordability problems. Limiting the supply of housing based on patronizing assumptions about what's good for tenants doesn't help.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Metropolitan Planning Council's Connector blog talks about how the new Divvy bike-share system is changing bicycling in Chicago. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign says Stamford, Connecticut, needs better streets for walking and biking as it grows. Urban Cincy takes a look at whether it's more environmentally friendly to shop in stores on online. And Human Transit gives an overview of the geometry of successful transit systems.

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