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Snowflakes in my backyard: San Francisco Planning Comments on SB 827

In the early 1970s, my “budding” career designing residential bathroom additions (“Will those be granite or marble countertops?”), took a detour when I spent nine months working as a psychotherapist-in-training at the Primal Institute in Los Angeles. This somewhat inexplicable happenstance was the result of me building bookshelves at the Beverly Hills manse of Arthur Janov: the then rock star, “on the cover-of-the-Rolling Stone” psychologist whose wizardry had recently inspired John Lennon to compose his John Lennon Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums.

I had been on my lunch break, sitting by the pool overlooking Benedict Canyon, when Janov himself emerged from the house, beside himself, because he’d been unable to soothe the soul of his lovely but quite enraged girlfriend, and in a fit of exasperation asked me if I would go in and sit with her and try to help out.

More than shocked, but having nothing to lose, I spent the next two hours conducting an ad hoc, private therapy session for someone who was clearly in a great deal of emotional pain (about their relationship, it turns out, which explains why his efforts to “therapize” her were futile).

My technique consisted of muttering whatever laconic comments came to mind: things like, “Wow, that sounds bad,” and “Gee, how did that make you feel?,” which resulted in her emerging from her girl cave euphorically proclaiming that she had never felt better in her life and demanding that Art put me on the staff at the Institute immediately – which is exactly what happened.

The lesson here, of course, is not that I possessed some great skill, but it speaks volumes about the power of allowing someone a safe place to just spill all their tear-drenched truths that they’ve been holding inside for a long time. In any case, in this Forrest-Gumpian reality, then, “I was a therapist.”

In fairness, I had spent some months trying the therapy myself so I knew a bit about it – in those days, if you wanted the cutting edge of self-discovery, it was Primal, EST, Gestalt, Transcendental Meditation or jumping into Orgone boxes.

In any case, one of the first things you’re supposed to learn as a therapist is that “everyone’s pain hurts, bad.”

This meant that as a therapist, contrary to the obvious truths before you, whether you’re listening to a suicidal patient who had been physically beaten, mal-nourished and psychologically abused as a child, or a run-of-the-mill, middle class neurotic -- who had never known want and whose parents had paid a fortune for their Ivy League education and summer sabbaticals overseas, but who were nonetheless “depressed” because they were “never really understood” or seen “for who I am!”-- you had to act as if each of their personal definitions of the “pain” that they described as “really bad,” were somehow equally worthy of your time.

This is in no way said to make light of anyone’s pain. There are a million reasons why one person’s annoyance can be another person’s Waterloo. Some of us are far more fragile, while others are almost impenetrable, regardless of the circumstances.

Most practicing therapists are really good at this kind of cognitive dissonance, otherwise they’d probably lose half their patients by perhaps suggesting they stop ruminating about their troubles and take a risk and change their lives, if they're so unhappy with it… and by the way, on the way out, get down on their knees and kiss the ground and thank the Universe for their good fortune to be able to pay $400 an hour for the session.

Needless to say, I had trouble with this therapeutic “technique." It tends to enable a person's dysfunctional view of the world rather than free them from it. It's a counterproductive remedy. It didn’t take too long before the Institute and I parted ways. To this day, I still have a problem with the “everyone’s pain hurts, bad” concept, particularly when it manifests itself as political correctness.

Surely, there is such a thing as objective degrees of “bad,” right? For example and without condoning either men’s actions, to declare an equivalency between Al Franken’s oafish and sophomoric behavior and the notorious, felony menacing of people like Harvey Weinstein is sort of absurd, isn’t it?

In any event, this all too human tendency to base our beliefs and perceptions on subjective, false equivalencies seems to be somewhat epidemic today. We see this even when it’s obvious that every crisis is not really a “crisis,” but perhaps more just a difficult situation we find ourselves in, which needs to be addressed.

Understanding the difference may be the only way to make sense of what we’re seeing in our body politic, which brings me to Senator Scott Wiener and his YIMBY constituent’s remedy for all the “pain” they see in the world: SB 827 -- a similarly counterproductive remedy that enables a dysfunctional world view.

Things are tough all over

As I’ve noted in past articles, young, educated, urban professionals do face some housing challenges in the Bay Area and in fact, in pretty much every major city in the Western World (London ain’t cheap). At the same time, the cost of living in general, with our seemingly endless layers of fees and taxes and special charges has gotten burdensome for everyone in spite of the fact that inflation is supposed to be tame, at least according to government “statistics.” And, in California, being the highest taxed population in the country (state & local income, sales and real estate taxes and fees), it’s an even bigger problem.

However, none of this justifies the accusatory rhetoric and just plain mean-spirited tenor of the pro SB 827 campaign.

Scott Wiener was recently quoted in Wired Magazine saying,

“It makes me nuts when I see wealthy Nimby homeowners in Marin and elsewhere suddenly becoming defenders of low-income people of color. These are communities that fought tooth and nail to keep low-income people out.”

Race-baiting allegations such as this, constantly repeated by Wiener and his supporters, imply that public opinion against high density development is racially motivated, rather than being based on what the record shows are the real objections: traffic congestion, environmental damage, lack of water supply, impacts on infrastructure and public services, etc. And, if his allegations were true, why are communities of color in major metropolitan centers against SB 827 and other such pro-gentrification legislation? (Click here to read a letter in opposition by 37 major progressive, grassroots community groups in Los Angeles).

The biggest irony here, of course, is that SB 827 doesn’t even require that low income housing be built for all those low income people that Wiener claims to care so much about. In fact, his legislation reduces (SB 35) or removes (SB 827) local inclusionary zoning as a requirement. Wiener just likes to use low-income families as a useful talking point.

Following his lead, well-organized supporters of SB 827 have even demanded that the state “outlaw single family zoning” and pass laws that “force seniors to sell their homes (to young urban professionals) and move away.” I wonder where they would have all those “evil” seniors go: to internment camps, perhaps?

The nonsensical nature of these demands notwithstanding, this new American “Red Guard” is encouraged by Senator Wiener (whose quest for political power is fairly naked), and emboldened by copious amounts of funding from tech companies, which are eager to have the state (i.e., taxpayers) pay for the impacts of their voracious, profit making juggernauts.

Elected officials in almost every city and county in the San Francisco Bay Area have written letters to Senator Wiener, stating their objections to SB 827. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, those letters tend to be filled with fairly insipid comments, the tone of which is more akin to asking permission to be excused from participating, than outright opposition. Even more dangerously, municipalities are attempting to negotiate with the Devil on this and trying to coach their comments in a politically correct way, but in the process are giving away the store and putting themselves and their communities in a lose lose situation.

This is not an “SB 827 needs to be changed” situation. This is a “Hell, no!” situation. There is nothing about this proposed legislation that is worthy of discussion. It is based on ignorance and hatred, and corrosive to communities, disadvantaged populations, the principles of our State Constitution and the sovereignty of local elected government and their General Plans.

It shouldn’t be on the table for discussion in the first place.

Who’d ‘a thunk it

Many people, myself included, have enumerated the fallacies embodied in this developer’s wet dream legislation that Wiener is proposing. But, since being a taxpaying resident who owns a single family home immediately makes one’s comments somehow tainted and dismissible, the current battle of rhetoric quickly devolves into a pointless and tasteless standoff.

In these truly dim times, however, there are voices speaking up that are above reproach.

As a child of the 60s, I never would have imagined that I would be rooting for the FBI to save us from Washington DC politics. More ironically, I never would have imagined myself being grateful to planning staff in San Francisco, for being a voice of reason.

Their recent comments on SB 827 are a case in point. Those comments, submitted to the SF Planning Commission, show what a clueless, planning neophyte Wiener really is, even when it comes to his own city. It helps unveil Wiener’s complete ignorance about what a General Plan is, how and why cities conduct planning and anticipate outcomes, or the variety of planning regulatory challenges and nuances that exist in the most populous state in the Union with the 5th largest economy in the world.

The February 5, 2018 comments by the San Francisco Planning Department are not a public policy response. Clearly, the staff is being respectful of the fact that turning their comments into public policy positions is the purview of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. So, they tread carefully in their language. However, there is no doubt that they believe SB 827 is divorced from the City’s planning realities and would do far more harm than good.

In their initial summary they note:

The bill would have its greatest impact on the State’s core metropolitan regions with more extensive transit service. In San Francisco, this would be virtually the entire city. In the rest of the Bay Area, large swaths of Oakland, Berkeley, and San Jose would be affected, as would all areas right around Caltrain, BART, and SMART stations, various singular corridors along both sides of the Bay… and areas around ferry terminals.

They go on to point out that the bill would also prohibit the enforcement of

Any design standard that restricts the applicant’s ability to construct the maximum number of units consistent with any applicable building code.

It’s important to consider that cities such as San Francisco are supposed to be Wiener’s base: the places you would think would be most supportive of his vision, because they generally share the overriding goals of providing more housing near public transportation in their General Plan and Housing Element, and because they share his belief that aggressive housing development will bring down housing costs. So, why aren’t they supportive of SB 827?

As they explain

Although the General Plan, as the embodiment of the City’s guiding policy document for the evolution of San Francisco, shares these key objectives with SB 827, the General Plan also explicitly emphasizes the importance of planning for land use change in consultation with communities and in consideration of a variety of relevant factors in the context of each area—urban form, open space, historic preservation, and other factors. [Emphasis added]

And that it’s important to consider

the practicalities of implementing the bill and other key inconsistencies with General Plan policies, particularly the importance of maintaining key urban design standards related to livability, walkability, and context.

It is telling that these observations are essentially identical to the objections voiced by every city council and planning agency in suburban counties, such as Marin.

The SF Planners go on to point out that SB 827 does not address the demolition or removal of existing affordable housing units, potentially opening the door to runaway gentrification, and that the bill would significantly up-zone most of the city (by their calculation 96% of San Francisco would be affected). This would have the impact of over-riding their typical 45 foot height limit and increasing it to 85 feet on almost all major streets in San Francisco.

In addition to that massive up-zoning, they note that development would be covered by the State Density Bonus Law,

Hence what is proposed as 45', 55', and 85' heights could actually be 65', 75'-85', and over 100' respectively.

This again echoes the comments made by suburban cities and counties. The obvious question is how can someone be a State Senator and former San Francisco Supervisor and not be aware of this? Or, is Wiener aware of it, but he just doesn’t care.

But it gets worse. The SF Planning Department continues:

SB 827 appears to eliminate the ability to enforce Planning Code standards or other adopted Design Standards that are the backbone of livability, walkability and urban design quality. The bill’s provision regarding design standards is dramatic. …SB 827 as proposed, completely eliminates all design standards related to building envelope… This would preclude the ability to maintain any standards regarding rear yard, lot coverage, exposure, open space, setbacks, and bulk controls of any kind, to name a few …these planning controls establish basic housing and neighborhood livability standards such as access and connection to daylight, openness in urban density, and natural spaces. [Emphasis added].

As it is in other cities, the SF Planners also point out that the bill would undermine all of their current affordable housing incentive programs and initiatives, which tend to hold density out as a carrot to coerce developers into building affordable units: SB 827 simply gives this bonus density away with no affordability requirement attached. Worse still,

The bill provides potentially huge additional value to property owners throughout the state, without concurrent value capture.

In other words, what does the City get back for this property rights give-away and how do they monetize this so they can provide all the infrastructure and public services these new developers will instantly demand?

How is this in any way equitable to existing residents?

Finally, they point out how completely impractical it is to tie density (a long term planning tool) to the timing or bus routes or the bill’s other definitions of what constitutes a “transit rich” opportunity site, when those transit options are in constant flux.

The minimum standard for a corridor to trigger the major rezoning is a single bus line that runs four times an hour during peak morning and afternoon commute hours (i.e. a couple of hours per day). This bus could run only during these peak hours (such as an express bus) or have much lower headways at other times of day (e.g., 20-30 minutes). It may not run at all on weekends and there may be no other transit that serves other destinations other than that one bus. [Emphasis added]

Additionally, the bill refers to transit “corridors,” but it is true that many bus routes that meet the peak hour service definition are commute express buses that may not stop for miles along their journey, stopping only at the ends. However the proposed this bill would appear to up-zone the entire path taken by such a bus (for example, in San Francisco the areas adjacent to Highway 101 would be up-zoned, because of bus use along the Highway;

[In Marin, this would include the entire length of highway 101, regardless of the actual transportation options available]

However, bus routes are not a fixed form of transportation like trains are: their routes and schedules change, adapting to real time demand. So, how exactly does that work for zoning, which is a permanent planning device?

As the SF Planners point out, under SB 827

The zoning map would be dynamically tied to constantly shifting factors and would require constant monitoring of transit service levels and routes to maintain an updated zoning map. This could mean that zoning could fluctuate somewhat dramatically over time as service levels increase or decrease due to transit budgets, ridership, travel patterns, or agency service strategy. Under the proposed bill, if an operator were to cut service from 15 minutes to 18 minutes, that would trigger a sudden rezoning for 1/4-mile around the bus route; similarly minor increases in transit service could trigger dramatic rezoning.

They go on to ask, what happens when other regional transit agencies, such as Golden Gate Transit, decide to change their schedules or add or eliminate bus routes? SB 827 will put local zoning (and de facto changes to the city’s General Plan) in the hands and at the whim of these outside agencies. How does that work?

To cut to the chase, it doesn’t. SB 827 may be one of the most amateurish attempts at legislation California has ever seen.

Everyone’s pain hurts, bad

Let’s go back to the problem that we should all want to solve: how do we provide housing for those most in need in our communities? That’s the democratic, egalitarian goal we should all be embracing, first and foremost when it comes to housing issues. It’s the basic principle that motivated the federal government to create the FHA in 1934 and addressing it is the path to socially just city planning.

You’ll notice that doesn’t include picking favorites or building housing for those who just want more. That means that if major tech companies create major housing shortages, while they’re piling up there hundreds of billions in profits, it’s not our civic responsibility to make sure their employees have housing. It’s really their problem to solve and if that requires moving their headquarters somewhere else or paying everyone who works for them a lot more money (and that includes third party service providers like cleaners, gardeners and trash haulers), that’s still their problem.

This brings me back to Wiener and his band of snowflakes.[1]

Wiener’s knock on Baby Boomers--all those seniors who should be forced to sell their homes and go “away.” -- is that Boomers had it easy and are selfish.

But, is there any truth to that?

In past articles, I wrote about how much luckier I was than my parents or grandparents, to have been able to grow up in what was then called a middle class family in the 50s: a family of four in a 920 square foot house, owning one family car, having one party-line phone and neighbors who were mostly working class—house painters, electricians, insurance salesmen, etc.—with stay at home moms and if anyone vacationed anywhere further away than Florida, it was a really big deal on the block.

But, the 50s have been over-rated. We spent our youth ducking and covering under our school desks preparing for the atomic bomb everyone seemed pretty sure the Russians were going to drop on our heads any day now, and learning about the “Commie” threat that was somehow everywhere around us.

Later, we went off to college just in time for the reinstatement of the military draft and the Vietnam War. Everyone who lived through that time lost friends or family or saw someone come home crippled and broken. Many promising careers got cut short.

The 60s are glamorized today, but the abiding tone was non-stop tension. It was a time when you could go to prison for life for possessing a single joint and thrown out of school for having long hair. I’m not complaining, but that’s just how it was. Was it unfair? Yeah, I guess you could say that.

And, if your parents didn’t have the money to pay for college, which many didn't, it forced you to find a way, work nights and weekends, then find a place to live, close to school, which brings us to the issue of housing.

But, housing was much cheaper back then, right? Well, let’s see about that.

It’s true that you could live many places in the country then and spend very little on housing, but that is still somewhat true today. But, that has never been true for anywhere you really wanted to be. And, in the 1960s, New York City was the epicenter of the world, career-wise. It was the place to be, even more than Silicon Valley is today.

In 1969, a small one-bedroom apartment in a crappy old building in a dangerous neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (Avenue B or C) cost you about $250 a month, if it wasn’t rent controlled (hard to come by back then because people with rent controlled units never moved – generations of families grew up in the same apartment).

As a graduate architect at that time, I made about $5 per hour doing drafting work. A graduate architect today probably makes about $50 per hour doing CAD. So, based on that, the rent for that apartment should be about $2,500 per month, today, which is pretty much exactly what it is[2], except that there are no longer any run down neighborhoods on the Lower East Side and the streets are safer than they’ve ever been... and the countertops are now Corian not ugly, speckled Formica.

Real estate values have an uncanny way of keeping parity with wages and inflation over the long run, even if there are long periods of transitions where that is not the case, such as now.

Okay, but there’s more to life than just rent, right? What about other lifestyle opportunities? Surely, everything else was still much easier for Boomer college graduates, right?

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when the bulk of Boomers graduated college, the country went through the longest period of stagflation it has ever known. Then the mid-70s “oil shock” turned it into a full-blown recession with cars waiting for gas, in lines around the block. The Post WWII boom came to an abrupt end.

Cities like New York teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and crime skyrocketed. Jobs were scarce, competition was fierce (too many Boomers seeking too few job opportunities) and the jobs you could find certainly didn’t offer climbing walls, sushi bars and fitness centers. And, there was no Internet or cellphones with apps to help you locate a job or an apartment.

So, I’m sorry, but I’m honestly baffled by Wiener’s anti-Boomer generation rhetoric. Heck, if you want to attack the Boomer generation, why not do it for giving up on environmental and social justice causes and trading in Water Buffalo sandals and tie-dyed t-shirts for Gucci’s and Zegna suits and wrecking the world’s financial system?

That notwithstanding, regarding the allegation about being selfish, I’ve yet to see any generation that’s cornered the market on that. But, I keep wondering these days, what is it going to take for people to start to feel grateful and lucky for all we have?

Coming full circle

How about we get back to the point of all this, where the whole discussion of affordable housing started? What about the poor and those who are really in need, who don’t get to go to college, whose children go hungry at night, or who have disabilities, or whom police and federal agencies racially profile, and who work manual jobs and live crammed into crappy old apartments? Those are the people in our communities who really have a housing affordability problem. What about them?

Why aren’t they even a footnote in Wiener’s agenda? If we believe we have any social responsibilities at all, isn’t this one of them?

SB 827 is an awful idea promoted by those who crave the power of top down, authoritarian government and corporate socialism over bottom up, one person one vote participatory democracy. It's based on fear-mongering and self-serving, small-minded politicians, the greed of major corporations and our unquestioned mantra that privatization and unbridled growth will solve everything: San Francisco’s housing needs, climate change, the national debt, peace on earth, you name it.

It’s nonsense.

Frankly, if we can’t do better than SB 827 to address our housing challenges, we should dissolve the State Legislature and start over.

Just say, "No."

[1] Wikipedia: A person who has an inflated sense of their own uniqueness, has an unwarranted sense of entitlement, or is easily offended and unable to deal with opposing opinions.