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Richard Hall - photo of Bob Glober of the Bu

In the Heart of the High Density Housing Echo Chamber

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…

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.

A Breath of Fresh Air from ABAG’s Brad Paul

The conference split into sub regional break out groups – for the North, East, South Bay and San Francisco. I found myself in a group with Brad Paul, ABAG’s Deputy Executive Director, who had just purchased a home in San Rafael after renting in Greenbrae.

Our group started off with two vociferous pro-development voices from the North Bay Organizing Project. I believe this group may have come on a bus together, and they had cleverly split so that they had at least one representative in each group. Asked what tools we could use to solve the affordability crisis, they raised the issue of enforcing fair housing violations. This is where landlords deny renters access for discriminatory reasons. Apparently despite some landlords being repeatedly charged, few if any fines are being collected. I agreed with the group’s view that this should be enforced, but I hesitate when the project’s members pushed for authorities to strip repeat offenders of their property. ABAG’s Brad Paul came across as informed on this matter, expressing that such a transfer of ownership seemed unlikely to be supported by the law. The Organizing Project's members persisted, insisting this had been achieved in southern California.

Affordable Housing Make In-Commuting Worse?

Affordable housing is typically presented as reducing in commuting based on the presumption that new residents will be those who previously commuted into the County. So I asked ABAG’s Brad Paul “can affordable housing be selectively rented only to people who live or work in the same county?”

Paul explained that no such criteria could be imposed. If affordable housing was built in Marin it must be advertised and offered to applicants from anywhere in the region, or the country for that matter. There would typically have to be a random lottery. Given the volumes of applicants from the different counties it would be likely that many successful applicants would move to Marin and still have jobs in other counties, serving to only exacerbate traffic and compound congestion.

On the heels of this, Paul presented a great solution. While such selective could not be imposed on a new affordable development, they could be imposed in different circumstances. He explained an example of Ecumenical Housing buying an existing privately owned building in San Rafael’s Canal District. If this building had low-income residents but was at risk of becoming unaffordable due to rent increases – then an affordable housing developer such as Ecumenical Housing could buy the building, capping rents and ensuring reasonable annual increases. It could also impose the criteria that new (replacement) residents were residents or workers in Marin County.

Second Units Upheld As a Solution

Another solution discussed was removing the red tape and fees associated with allowing homeowners to make second unit conversions. But Brad Paul suggested a funding incentive to accelerate the process. Paul explained that while it might require $100,000 to fund an affordable unit in a new development, one solution might be to offer homeowners a $30,000 grant to convert a second unit, so affordable units could be created for a fraction of the cost.

Darkening SF: Air BNB and the 2 Week A Year Residents

Another threat that the group identified was AirBNB and short term rentals. From Sonoma, we heard how a house could be rented to a person who used it as their primary residence for $3,500 a month; yet the same house could be rented on AirBNB for $3,500 per week. This AirBNB factor is resulting in a significant amount of housing stock being switched from serving residents to tourism. In addition, the short-term rental revenue that is generated bypasses taxes such as room taxes that could help our region.

In San Francisco, ABAG’s Brad Paul explained, an increasing number of houses were unlit and uninhabited at night as they are used as second or third homes by residents who might reside in these properties for just 2 weeks a year. Again, this trend removes housing from the general stock.

Steve Kinsey’s Solution: Next Time Put Lipstick On the WinCup Pig

Our North Bay breakout group was framed with speeches by elected officials. Steve Kinsey told the group that “we must dismantle the institutional issues preventing diversity. We have made great efforts to protect the environment, but we must now make special effort to protect diversity”. He went on, together with Jake Mackenzie, to push the transit-oriented development mantra that we must link housing to transit. His answer to push future WinCups through? That in locations such as Marin, there would have to be the highest levels of quality of design. It was frustrating hearing this – it seemed like his solution was to put lipstick on the pig of the future WinCup with better design aesthetics so somehow residents would ignore their more major concern that the development will exacerbate traffic congestion.

Steve also approached Susan Kirsch, suggesting that Marin could build all the affordable housing it needed by building it all at San Quentin. Needless to say, neither Susan nor I share Kinsey’s vision.

A Plan Bay Area Priority Development Area Victim Speaks Out

Almost at the meeting’s conclusion was a crowning moment for residents – a brave, low-income San Jose resident was given the microphone. She explained that she had to had to move five times because the locations where she had lived had been targeted by Plan Bay Area as Priority Development Areas (PDAs). Each time she moved, her daughter had to change schools.

Most recently, to try to finally escape from being targeted for displacement by a PDA, she bought a mobile home near Oakridge Mall in San Jose – only to find her area designed a PDA for commercial development. So once again she anticipates having to move and her daughter will have to change schools.

When is ABAG / MTC Funding a Forum for Residents

Our overriding sentiment, as Susan and I drove home, was where is our forum? ABAG and MTC had laid out the red carpet for developers and affordable housing advocates with no expense spared. We heard one ABAG speaker tell us that only a few weeks prior, the Bay Area Council – a pro-growth business special interest group – at another dedicated meeting, had professed similar views about the severity of the crisis and difficulties that developers face. But, where was Citizen Marin’s private meeting with ABAG to explain our crisis: our lack of water, the impacts on our schools and the acute traffic congestion we experience?

Our regional planning bodies need to recognize that this debate must allow all stakeholders to be given an equal opportunity to speak, and admit that this important discussion is not being conducted a level playing field.


affordable housing, Marin, Steve Kinsey, ABAG, MTC