The Marin Post

The Voice of the Community

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Senator Wiener’s housing bill won’t boost affordable housing

State Senator Scott Wiener (Marin Voice, Feb. 25) makes a number of assertions about housing needs, and his own legislation (Senate Bill 827), to cure the lack of affordable housing with measures that have limited the rights of citizens to control the growth and type of growth their cities and towns might experience.

The logic here is that voters and property owners do not know how to handle democracy on the one hand or their own property environment on the other.

As a voter and a property owner I think Senator Wiener needs a lesson in civics.

His legislation puts the fate of our towns in the hands of developers and bureaucrats and constrains property owners from protecting the value of their investment by voting for local representatives and by passing legislation (sometimes by initiative or referendum).

He thinks we should not have property rights on the local level. He seems to think that people in Sacramento know what is best for us.

But, the past 60 years has seen a general reduction of local control of zoning by a number of Sacramento laws all driven by the idea that by giving free reign to developers we will have more affordable housing.

Yet this theory has failed.

The situation regarding affordable housing is a crisis. One only needs to look at the California Budget and Policy Center's September 2017 study showing that "high rents are one of the major causes of poverty in our state." And it seems dysfunctional to build so-called commuter or transit hub housing when you do not provide new transit assets to move people from those units to work. If pollution is the target to attack as well as housing, then work done by UC Davis scientists, Lin and Prince (see: C.Y. Cynthia Lin and Lea Prince, “The optimal gas tax for California,” shows that raising the gas tax above $1.37 would result in behavior change, reducing pollution and it could produce sufficient funds for new public transit.

Senator Wiener has made the argument in the past that environmentalists are responsible for high rents which is undermined by the 2003 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, which looked at changes in housing law that have limited the ability of local authorities in controlling housing, as in Housing Elements and other local influences on housing, including zoning.

The study found that limitations on local control had little effect on the production of affordable housing. However, people like Scott Wiener have been pushing more restrictions on local elected officials' influence on housing development supposedly to produce more housing.

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos stated in an Op-Ed piece that San Francisco had produced 23, 000 units of luxury units and only 1,200 units affordable for middle class families in the previous 7 years (cited in Lewis, 2015).

Given the fact that Mr. Wiener served as San Francisco Supervisor for 5 of these years one wonders why he did not force his proposed law on the people of San Francisco and reduce his own power as a Supervisor to influence housing?

Why has San Francisco destroyed more affordable housing to make way for luxury housing? San Francisco has one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation.[1]

Supporters of Senator Wiener's position invoke supply and demand theory to explain the need for housing, but they misunderstand how it works. Cities in America do not build housing today. Some did in the past, and a few are attempting to do so again.

In the 1970s, I was part of a group of housing advocates who helped set up community development corporations and I sat on the board of one. We built housing and the process was daunting in the attempt to produce affordable units.

Basically Senator Wiener seems ignorant of the fact that most all housing is built by private builders, aided by banks and investors who (because we live in a capitalist economic system) want to make the highest profit possible. People want to charge for rents and for a return on loans for construction what the market will bear.

Yet if Scott Wiener wanted to really do something about affordable housing, he could follow Singapore and produce state housing. Some legislators want a state bank to process marijuana producers' income. Such a bank could be also a housing development bank and so we could solve two problems at once. Let's be constructive, work together and avoid the posturing.

But, let's look at this from the perspective of a new movement in urban planning, densification.

In an article in the Financial Times, Hugo Cox wrote of the similar situation in the United Kingdom. Under England’s last Labor Government, a law was passed to give local residents more control of development, called the “Localism Act,” it was a response to densification.

As housing spilled out across the country, in England, and the "densification" movement made towns and cities unlivable by destroying amenities (parks, low rise housing, neighborhoods with character, etc.), the goal of densification became clear: a means to more market rate housing development, not better communities with affordable housing. While hiding behind the propaganda of affordable housing and energy efficient high rises with "in-flling" projects, the real goal was just to make money. The quality of construction that was produced was also questionable, as was the case with the Grenfell Tower and the fire that took 79 lives.

We need to have a Localism Act in California, to give back our control of our cities and towns.

In a current finding on Australia's housing policy where densification has been the underlying concept for two decades, Financial Times writer Hugo Cox reports that the recent boom in apartment house building has failed to meet the needs of an expanding population for the simple reason that "...much of it was designed with investors in mind rather than occupiers in mind."

Investors, builders and policy experts have got it wrong. Perhaps we should leave it to local governments to solve.

Niccolo Caldararo is an anthropology professor at San Francisco State University. He is a former member of the Fairfax Town Council.

[1] A review of this data is to be found in the yearly publication of the San Francisco Housing Inventory.