City of Mill Valley
The following letter has been submitted to the City of Mill Valley, in anticipation of the City Council's upcoming hearing to discuss the myriad of new housing laws recently passed by the State Legislature.
Dear Mill Valley City Council:
The Mill Valley City Council is scheduled to discuss Land Use and Housing at your November 18th meeting. Staff have provided a summary of the 18 new housing bills Governor Newsom signed in 2019, regional planning efforts, and an update on Plan Bay Area 2050 and implications for Mill Valley.
As written in the opening to the Staff Report, the heavy hand of the state, “continues to chip away at local control to remove barriers to build new Dwelling Units.” The report, appropriately, delves into the weeds of upcoming state-imposed housing challenges.
The tangled weeds are alarming enough, but a look at the broader environment from which the 18 new state housing laws emerge is startling.
Let’s assume we agree that all people deserve safe and secure lives, without corporate power and greed extracting unfair financial, social, and emotional toll from everyday citizens. Let’s explore the gap between this goal and current reality.
From a 5-mile High Perspective
The reality is we live in a world of unfair corporate power that includes corrupt capitalism, normalization of bribery, deceit, and manipulation. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, author of Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy, cuts to the chase about what we know is too often true: money rules.
Without courageous oversight, money rules without a moral compass. Instead, we get an ever-worsening distribution of wealth, leaving more middle-class people plummeting into poverty. Peter Phillips, Sonoma State University professor, founder of Project Censored, and author of Giants: The Global Power Elite. has documented the names and profiles of the 389 global wealth hoarders who call the economic shots and influence public policy around the world. Their skewed priority for uncountable profits creates endless suffering, and we witness the push back in global protests erupting in Hong Kong, Barcelona, Beirut, and other areas.
From a California Perspective
Real estate developers, global investors, and corporate interests, represented by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area Council, have found their champion in Senator Scott Wiener (D-SF). Year after year, Senator Wiener has pushed an aggressive package of housing bills, individually and collectively undermining local authority for cities to zone and plan for their own growth, safety, and services: 18 bills in 2019; 15 in both 2018 and 2017. This alarming trend turns over zoning and planning authority to the state, regional agencies, and developers, and takes it out of the hands of elected city councils working with Planning Commissions and community members.
Legislators claim that California needs 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 to meet state housing needs. That figure, however, when scrutinized, is wildly in error. Sunnyvale City Council member Michael Goldman, writing on his own behalf, has published extensively about the myth of the “housing crisis.” See http://meetingthetwain.blogspot.com/.
Similarly, the Embarcadero Institute, operating without funding from real estate interests, sets California’s actual future housing need at 1.2 million units. See https://embarcaderoinstitute.com/portfolio-items/3-5-million-california-housing-shortage-number-is-wrong-fueling-poor-policy/
The inflated numbers used by state agencies support the claim that there is a housing “crisis.” Legislators, carrying water for developers who fund their campaigns, don’t do their own independent analysis of the causes and solutions to the problem. Instead they parrot the developers and agree that “Cities are to blame.”
They point to local planning processes and the legal procedures set in place to meet California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regulations as “the” problem. They dismiss local Design Review Guidelines and permit “streamlining” and “by-right” provisions to put developers and well-funded, lawsuit-happy advocacy groups in charge, instead of community residents. And they heap all the administrative work on the shoulders of staff, and the cost impacts on residents, in the form of “unfunded mandates.”
If legislators balanced the perspective they are force-fed by corporate donors and corporate mouthpieces, like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, with the vision, values, and wishes of their constituents, they might acknowledge that the housing “crisis” is not simply a problem of supply and demand.Instead it is a problem of wealth and income inequity, unfair taxation, unfair corporate practices of “off-loading” their employee expenses on the public, in order to increase profits; inequitable access to assets, education, and health care; and the increasing financial burdens of unfunded pension liabilities.
Relying solely on the supply/demand perspective supports a “market driven” approach and the global financialization of housing, which will ultimately create a system reminiscent of feudalism: where those at the top control all the assets and everyone else goes into debt to pay rent.
From a Bay Area Perspective: Follow the Money
Bay Area legislators—Senators Wiener, Nancy Skinner (D-East Bay), and Assembly members David Chiu (D-SF) and Phil Ting (D-SF, San Mateo) continue to author legislation that undermines local control, using fear-mongering to claim that “We have to do something,” which they use to justify doing whatever developer/donors want, no matter how negatively impactful on our communities.
While it’s certainly true that we should all be doing something to help each community address its housing needs, many of the bills legislators supported in 2019 were hatched in the CASA Committee, which excluded 97 of the 101 cities in the Bay Area. CASA is an unelected, closed door committee, appointed by MTC and backed by corporate funders.
Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg and his wife created the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Let’s look at where some of that money went.
CZI has committed an estimated $3 billion to fund the “Partnership for the Bay Area’s Future.” Early on, $500K went to Enterprise Community Partners, a national planning and housing organization. In January 2018, Enterprise published a report called, The Elephant in the Region: Charting a Path for Bay Area Metro to Lead a Bold Regional Housing Agenda.
$10 million went to the San Francisco Foundation for housing activities from 2018-2023. San Francisco Foundation’s CEO Fred Blackwell served as co-chair of CASA. Fellow co-chair Michael Covarrubias is CEO at TMG Partners. TMG’s tagline is “the Bay Area’s Real Estate Developer.”
They describe the company as
“a privately held full-service development company… that understands the nuances of market trends and timing, allowing us to be highly responsive and opportunistic while contributing to the vibrancy of the communities that populate our region.”
CASA, an 18-month project under the auspices of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, created 10+ housing bills, including AB 1487 (Chiu) which creates the Regional Housing Finance Authority: a new and undefined, regional agency with the power to set public policy, assess fees, and place bond measures on the ballot.
Another $1.4 million went to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley. The Terner Center is known for cranking out reports that undermine the importance of CEQA and praising strategies that remove city councils from community decision-making and put developers in charge.For a full accounting of the influence of CZI read Zelda Bronstein’s account entitled, Facebook money pushes Chiu housing bill – Part A, published in The Marin Post.
The full scope of the influence of corporate money shaping the false narrative and buying influence in Sacramento goes even further.
The Commonwealth Club, on November 4th, long respected as a neutral source of balanced perspective, sponsored a program entitled, Our Region’s Leaders Discuss the Housing Challenge. At the event, Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation, announced that Hewlett was giving the San Francisco Foundation a $7.5 million unrestricted grant to further their housing agenda.
Fred Blackwell, SFF CEO, moderated a discussion that featured State Assemblymember David Chiu and Denise Pinkston, partner at TMG Partners and colleague of Michael Covarrubias, the co-chair of CASA; along with Gina Dalma, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Guillermo Mayer, CEO of Public Advocates.
But the Commonwealth Club, itself a recipient of funding from the San Francisco Foundation, failed to include a panelist representing locally-elected officials or one of many researchers who have documented the downside of high-density housing near transit.
The panelists’ themes were predictable. It’s a housing crisis and cities are to blame. Cities’ authority for land use planning and zoning should be further curtailed during the 2020 legislative session. All cities, regardless of their contribution to either the housing shortage or affordability, should be required to “do their fair share,” which should be decided by the Regional Housing Finance Agency, which was recently created under a bill authored by Chiu.
Plan Bay Area 2050 & Public Engagement
The Mill Valley update on State Housing Legislation (p.5) notes that “earlier versions of Plan Bay Area have fallen short in key equity goals, such as addressing regional affordability.” Could it be that the reason for this is that the plan is flawed?
Mill Valley has met its state housing obligations in accordance with its assigned Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocation, as prescribed by its state-certified Housing Element. However, because the city, itself, has no expertise or financial wherewithal to actually build housing, the state now feels it needs to be punished with more workload and the threat of potential fines.
In 2013, when the first Plan Bay Area came under scrutiny, some elected officials and many community leaders sounded an alarm. The handwriting was on the wall, but most elected officials remained complacent. Yet, year after year, the noose around the neck of local control has been tightening. The laws are moving in the wrong direction, benefiting developers and corporate interests, while plunging cities and citizens deeper into economic uncertainty.
The crisis we face is less a housing crisis than a crisis in democracy.
What Can Be Done?
Of course, cities need to follow the law and we count on the Mill Valley City Council to do so. However, the crisis in democracy requires everyone to get on board. As an elected body, you can do more to educate and engage the community around this alarming trend to trump on the rights of city councils and citizens to create safe and secure lives for all people, and to control local planning and zoning as is guaranteed in our State Constitution.
Host Town Hall meetings to supplement the farcical Pop-Up with Post-It Note public engagement offered by MTC re: Plan Bay Area 2050. Demand more support for local control from the League of California Cities. Call on your colleagues in other cities to do their part to strengthen local control, not simply comply with laws that make your role increasingly irrelevant.