Tuesday, February 23, 2016

In the Heart of the High Density Housing Echo Chamber

In the Heart of the High Density Housing Echo Chamber

Posted by: Richard Hall - February 20, 2016 - 5:03pm

Sometimes the best way to deal with an adversary is to go behind enemy lines and find out what they’re thinking. So today, together with Susan Kirsch, I attended the ABAG and MTC hosted event “Calling the Bay Area Home: Tackling the Affordability and Displacement Challenge” at the Oakland Marriott. The Marriott is an impressive venue. Attendees were provided with muffins, cake and Starbucks coffee for breakfast and an assortment of lunch boxes – this was no Plan Bay Area public meeting. Our regional transportation and housing planning bodies, MTC and ABAG, had truly rolled out the red carpet for this select audience.

While not up to Oscars standards, in regional political terms, the cast was star studded. The North Bay was well represented with Jake Mackenzie, ABAG vice chair, and Rohnert Park Vice mayor resplendent in a Famous Grouse rugby shirt just in case his strong Scottish accent was insufficient to drive home his characterful identity. Also in attendance, were Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey, Napa County Supervisor and former ABAG president Mark Luce, Novato Mayor Pat Eklund and supervisor candidate Susan Kirsch, with whom I carpooled to the event.

So Where’s ABAG’s Forum for Homeowners?

What Susan and I found most remarkable was how special interest groups of affordable housing advocates and developers had their own dedicated forum laid out at a 4 star hotel. Where, we asked, was the forum for the other major stakeholders – the homeowners and residents whose taxes paid ABAG and MTC’s salaries and office rent? Where, we asked, was our forum also paid for on our dime – the one that might be called “Calling the Bay Area Home: Preserving our quality of life and protecting local control”?

All we the residents can look forward to is another Plan Bay Area cattle call where we line up like sheep to have 2 minutes or less to speak our viewpoint, or submit our letters – we’ve seen that movie before and know it doesn’t end well.

Seattle’s Solution: Getting Developers and Affordable Housing Advocates to Agree

A gravity defying highlight had to be when Robert Feldstein, Seattle’s Director of the Office of Policy & Innovation, concluded the event – holding out the silver bullet, or as he clarified “the silver buckshot,” for how Seattle had solved the issue.

Seattle, he explained, had got both sides in a room – both developers and [affordable housing] advocates. They may take some time to agree we were told, and there was lots of room for disagreement between these “adversaries.” So what was the magic solution this group advocated that the Bay Area embrace? Mandate forced up zoning. It was an incredulous moment. Never did Feldstein seem to mention any discussion of representation of homeowners and existing residents.

Commercial Linkage Fees

One possible solution offered was “commercial linkage fees”. This is where fees are imposed when a new company comes to an area so that a corresponding amount of affordable residential development can be funded. South Bay representatives were often outspoken on this topic.

Mountain View to the Rescue

A councilor from Mountain View proudly announced that they would be increasing the housing stock by 50%. I wonder how many of the city’s resident’s are aware or even agree with this policy, let alone understand the impacts on traffic and public services, and the certain increase in high rise buildings?

A Salvo of Sound Bites

There were great sound bites that underscored the affordable housing challenge – this was framed as the issue of the day – but references to many important topics were absent: drought, increasingly miserable traffic congestion, overcrowded schools or unaffordably high taxes sure to be worsened by imposing more subsidized (affordable) housing.

Oakland’s Mayor Libby Schaaf explained to the audience that between 2010 and 2014 half a million private sector jobs had been added to the region, yet only 54,000 housing units had been built. She did make the most sensible statement of the entire event saying, “We cannot build our way out of this problem”. But this message was quickly lost as the forum progressed, with heavy representation by the building lobby.

ABAG Fires Back

ABAG’s new president, Julie Pierce, seemed intent on playing a reverse buzzword bingo, using critics' terms to defend ABAG's policies. We were told“We are a diverse Bay Area, it’s not a one size fits all…one size fits all doesn’t work” – cunningly twisting resident’s original concern that ABAG was imposing a one size fits all policy of high-density transit oriented development with Plan Bay Area. She concluded by saying that “local control is still really important”.

Developers & Advocates Push for “Carrots & Sticks”

A recurring theme throughout the conference was to link transportation funding to cities' acceptance of growth. Nowhere did there seem to be recognition that…

some locations already have acute transportation issues;
by drying up transportation funding, cities are forced to raise taxes just to maintain road and transportation infrastructure.

Instead, we heard repeatedly that more transportation funding should be shifted to One Bay Area Grants - known as OBAG. Repeatedly, I heard chants that cities that refused to accept their “fair share” of new residents should be denied transportation funding. I’ve witnessed this first hand with the imposition of the Civic Center Planned Development Area (PDA) the effectiveness of this carrot and stick policy.

Bob Glover, the executive officer of the Building Industry Association, even went so far as to directly state that "carrots and sticks" were needed to accommodate future residents - a phrase I have used in a prior article about Larkspur . He advocated that OBAG funding should be extended to help fund building new affordable housing. The builder’s advocate told us that the Bay Area really needed 1.2 million units, but had struggled to build only 500,000.

Glover exclaimed exasperation that those elected officials who had advocated development had found themselves voted out or recalled.

What One Tool Would Help Us Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis?

A panel of the willing was asked “what one tool would help us solve the affordable housing crisis?” – the panel’s answer: reform the California Environmental Quality Act. Exempt infill from CEQA. CEQA represents one of resident’s last lines of defense against development that would have adverse impact on quality of life and the environment. We were shown a 14 story tower block in Oakland by one speaker, who was frustrated that it had taken 2 years to push through this high-density behemoth because of CEQA.

The Unfair Wealth Accumulation by the Middle Classes
Blame was laid at the feet of homeowners – we were told how those who had purchased a home in the 1970s were “sitting pretty” with a huge amount of equity. The solution? A property transfer tax. We were told how zoning had served to protect the middle classes interest. An economist flown in from the East Coast reinforced the idea that zoning served as a barrier to economic mobility. Remarkably, this economist was also the only person who called out the lack of representation of residents and homeowners at the meeting – a welcome observation seemingly overlooked by organizers and many other attendees.

See the full Story HERE

Here is the meeting video

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