Saturday, August 24, 2013

Planning for Reality: Affordable Housing - Separating Fact from Fiction

Planning for Reality: Affordable Housing - Separating Fact from Fiction

Affordable housing - fact vs fiction

Affordable housing - fact vs fiction

I’m a supporter of affordable housing. It must be carefully planned so it’s appropriate, impact is identified and mitigated in advance and it should be done in a manner considerate of both new and existing residents. However Plan Bay Area’s very high housing targets, combined with urbanists and developers' desire for high density housing have created “the perfect storm” in Marin.

Lately I’ve seen many claims made by other affordable housing advocates, and I'd like  to separate some of the facts from fiction. Before I do I want to disclose that I live in a single family home in an area designated (without my knowledge or buy-in) as a Priority Development Area. Given what we’ve seen with the Plan Bay Area ecosystem creating an echo chamber of supporting patrons it’s increasingly vital there’s transparency and disclosure of any possible conflicts of interest.

Disclosing Possible Conflicts of Interest

I understand that a document is being circulated by the Marin League of Women Voters on this topic – it seems appropriate for the league to disclose that their active member and past president, Judy Binsacca chairs the board of Ecumenical Housing, a non-profit with revenues of $95m, employing over 400 people and serving 6,500 housing units valued at over $1billion. I've learned that Judy was the primary author of this document. In the author's opinion, disclosure of such an association is important as readers weigh up the facts.

1)      Affordable Housing Requires High Density Housing Near Transit: FALSE

Somehow high density transit oriented development and affordable housing have become intertwined. Some may argue that only with high densities can developers justify building. I don’t see enough scrutiny of this – but I’d like to learn more and I’m unconvinced this has been explored.

I do see a lot of opportunity to build affordable housing using second units and conversions of existing disused or under-utilized buildings. I’d also think it’s reasonable to have some high density housing in downtown San Rafael which is not adjacent and up against neighborhoods of single family home. I believe these opportunities are likely to be sufficient to meet all of Marin’s genuine needs.

It would appear that urbanists and the social equity affordable housing groups have banded together into a single, even more powerful fast-growth lobby. If we could separate these arguments we may be able to provide a reasonable amount of affordable housing without high density near transit.

The single biggest objection I have is how unfair it is to place the new residents in known, harmful locations. Placement near transit here in Marin means with ½ mile of highway 101.  I’ve started to catalog all the studies chronicling why such placement is harmful:
  1. Bay Area Air Quality Management District: CEQA Air Quality Guidelines – see table 5-2 on page 52, increase in cancer risk. For reference highway 101 carries over 188,000 vehicles per day so here in Marin we are practically off the chart (in the highest 100,000+ vehicle band)
  2. Yale University: Minorities Breathe Worse Air Pollution
  3. University of Southern California, LA: Traffic Pollution Tied to Autism Risk
  4. Children’s Hospital of Los Angles: Proximity to Freeways Increases Autism Risk
  5. The Sierra Club: How Highways and Roads Cause Health Problems
  6. Johns Hopkins: Effects of Distance from a Heavily Transited Avenue on Asthma in Peru
  7. Tufts: Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health
  8. The World Health Organization: Health Risks of Particulate Matter from Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution
If you overlaid the map of Plan Bay Area’s proposed areas for intensive affordable housing development with a map based on unhealthy locations it would almost be a direct match. 

Could there be an any more significant sign of bad planning?

2)      We Must Build More Affordable Housing for the Workforce: FALSE

There is a frequently used premise that Marin should house its workforce. Does this mean San Francisco should accommodate its additional 265,291 in-commuters? (Source: US Census 2000).
The problem with this type of “sound bite”, sounds right statement is that it doesn’t reconcile realities. The realities are documented in a 1991 paper by Genevieve Guiliano of the UC Berkeley Transportation Center “Is Jobs-Housing Balance a Transportation Issue?” . Guiliano identifies the following reasons that there is no such causal link between work location and choice of proximate home location:

a)      Living close to work is not a priority for many people. Instead people give preference to neighborhood quality, availability of parks , quality of schools, racial and ethnic mix, micro-climate.
b)      Compared to housing costs commuting costs are small. Housing costs generally decline with distance from major employment centers, additional commuting costs can be traded off for cheaper housing. Thus many households choose to live in outlying areas, live in a larger house, and commute further to work.

c)       Many households are multiple worker households. Living near one household member’s job may mean living far from another's.

d)      Household mobility is high in the United States. Most people hold several different jobs over their working careers.

Guiliano concludes that even if the mix of residential units and commercial and industrial sites were somehow perfectly matched, and even if the resulting jobs base were perfectly matched with the resident workforce , the balance would likely be shortlived. Guliano states “The only way to guarantee workers live near their jobs would be to mandate the housing choices of workers” referencing 19th century factory towns.

3)      The New Residents Will Largely Use Transit: FALSE

Again we are hit by the “sound bite” sounds right science. The best assessment is to look at cities that have tried this over extended periods of time attempting the same high density near transit with an emphasis on fixed guide rails like Plan Bay Area .

Portland tried this experiment investing billions over 21 years in light rail and high density housing subsidies. They built one light rail system to the west of the city over greenfield sites where they encouraged transit oriented development and one to the east through existing suburban neighborhoods. The grand experiment failed, barely moving the needle on switching residents from cars to transit.

Typically 90% of high density housing users use cars to commute and not transit. This is detailed in this study conducted in Portland by the Cascade Policy Institute (apologies for the large file size, there are lots of photos of high density transit oriented development included showing all the extensive car parking by the "transit-oriented" residents). This proves what a utopian idea transit oriented development really is.

Consequently the only sure thing that will result in adding significantly more housing units in Marin is that highway 101 will become more congested - increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

An additional consideration is that the new affordable housing residents are more likely to own older model cars which emit more greenhouse gases.

4)      Affordable Housing Will Reduce Greenhouse Gases: FALSE

Cars are already greener than transit. Sadly SB375 has fixated state policy on reducing car and light truck emissions, with transit emissions removed from consideration. Figure2 in this report by Transportation Consultant Thomas Rubin highlights this disparity where emissions per passenger mile by transit far exceed that of cars. It shows a red line with cars already overtaking the mpg of transit on the blue line with the gap steadily widening. Consider that mpg are a very good proxy for greenhouse gas emissions.

5)      Affordable Housing Doesn’t Impact Single Family Home Property Prices: UNCLEAR
There are good arguments on both sides of this. I remain unconcluded and I'm interested in learning more.

On the side of “pricing will not be affected or will rise” there are studies affirming this, but I remain skeptical of bias. We’ve already seen MTC pay social equity advocates to conduct their market research and I’ve detailed out the ecosystem that incentivizes the transit oriented development school of thinking. There are many seeking studies affirming pricing will not drop and paying for such research, few if any are seeking or able to pay for research showing the opposite.

On the side of “pricing will fall due to nearby multi-family, high density housing” , Bob Silvestri presents excellent logic in his blog The Enronization of Democracy (I highly recommend this series) where he states:

“And if the development is predominately tax exempt, low income units, which will overburden schools and public services, values drop even more. This is because good schools and well-funded public services are one of the core goals of single family home buyers.”

6)      Marin’s Existing Ethnic Minorities & Low Income Residents Won’t be Displaced: FALSE

This is one of the most disturbing concerns that I have. Seemingly the need for very large amounts of new affordable housing are being used to remedy a perceived imbalance in racial diversity in Marin. I for one would like to see more diversity, but I’d like to see this achieved through appropriate mechanisms – low density housing in appropriate locations that is integrated and not segregated and that is in healthy locations.

Affordable housing advocates claim that no such displacement would occur if a low income neighborhood was replaced by a mixed income neighborhood.

Nowhere is more at risk of such displacement than Marin City. This is the one location containing Marin’s largest concentration of long-standing black residents. Here I defer to Bob Silvestri again who references the Deputy Director of Housing in San Francisco who stated:

“less than 5 percent of existing residents ever return after an area that has been redeveloped into new high density, mixed use, “affordable” housing. He confided, “No one ever comes back. It’s a big problem that no one talks about.””

7)      Affordable Housing Policies in Marin Need to Change to Address an Imbalance: BOILING THE OCEAN?

All new housing development in Marin must include 20% affordable housing. This means that as Marin grows organically based on market forces there will be a natural increase in affordable housing.

Many of the neighborhoods built around where I live, including my own, are made up of just such a composition and it works really well. The community is integrated and not segregated. I personally know several high density housing opponents who actually live in affordable housing themselves.
What I'm most concerned about is restoring any diversity imbalance may be a boiling the ocean exercise.  New homes will be occupied by a mix of races that may slightly increase diversity.

However how much new housing would be required to restore any perceived imbalance? We may have concreted over our Marin paradise and still not reach the goal.  The goal simply seems to be an undefined "keep building more".

8)      Opponents are Simply Being NIMBYs: FALSE

San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren deserves credit for explaining this. I have endorsed Randy and encourage others to do the same. He is currently the only San Rafael city council candidate openly opposed to high density development.
Randy hits home by delineating the matter as follows:
  • NIMBY is historically when a resident does not want a neighbor they consider undesirable, such as a group home for developmentally challenged adults.  In this scenario, the neighbors do not encroach on the resident's space or in any way really change how the residence can be enjoyed.  It disturbs the resident to have to see these people, and may lower the resident's property value.
  •  In contrast, the Fast Growth Lobby wants to overcrowd our streets and schools, and lower the quality of life in our community by converting a suburb to an "urb".  This DOES encroach on us because it impacts our ability to enjoy our village life, or to even maintain our life as a village.  It alters not just the home of the new arrivals but also alters our a way that a group home does not.

Again Marin merits some amount of affordable housing, but the numbers and the high density near transit format proposed aren't appropriate for the many reasons stated above. 

I’m always open to learning more and changing my opinion. I want to call out Franz Listen, Tina MacMillan, Dave Edmondson and Kenneth Dale who have helped me learn more about the issues at hand.  Please continue to give your feedback, or simply like and share these articles so that more are informed on this complex issue.

I hope that the information that I am providing is helpful to fellow Marinites – this is about transparency and about delineating fact from fiction so the right decision can be made for our county

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