City of Mill Valley
The Mill Valley Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) Task Force has released a 93-page Report with recommendations for six aspects of life in Mill Valley, including “City Leadership”, “Law Enforcement”, “Housing”, “Culture and Recreation”, “Economic Opportunity”, and “Education through Community Partnerships.”
The cover page refers to the report as “A foundation to activate a seismic shift toward an equitable and inclusive future for Mill Valley.” The Task Force will present their findings to the City Council Monday night, December 7th at 6:30 pm.
There appears to be a lot in the report that is praiseworthy. The need to understand and remove racism and any other “isms” that separates us has certainly never been more important. The city and Task Force have our appreciation for investigating this topic.
However, my review and comments are focused on the first recommendation in Section III: Ample Affordable Equitable Housing Opportunities (p. 35-41):
“to pursue regulatory options to expand affordable, equitable housing opportunities.Change the residential zoning regulations to allow all single-family houses in Mill Valley to be divided into two homes. Streamline the ability to covert a single-family home into two condominiums, which could then be sold or rented separately.”
Like so many who write about “affordable housing,” the section perpetrates inaccuracies that, if not challenged, will create a “seismic shift toward a more inequitable future for Mill Valley.” By naively concluding that wealth inequity starts with zoning and housing; while failing to focus on the socioeconomic conditions that result from unequal access to education and healthcare, income disparities, the inability for working people to accumulate assets, the Report’s housing recommendations widely miss the mark.
The Report’s recommendation to support top-down changes to local zoning regulations will make affordability worse, further undermine social equity, reduce the authority of our locally elected officials and agencies, and move individual and community wealth into the hands of non-local corporate housing developers.
To keep it simple, I’m using a Q&A format to address eight issues of importance.
Q-1. What is the definition of “afford”?
A: “Afford” means to have enough money to pay for something. According to Webster, it means “to manage to bear without serious detriment.”
Q-2 What is the definition of “affordable”?
A: According to Google, “affordable” means inexpensive or reasonably-priced.According to Webster, it means to be afforded: having a cost that is not too high. The term “affordable housing” is liberally sprinkled throughout many documents, but almost always inappropriately diverts attention to housing, when the real issues to be addressed to produce a sustainable solution are predominately economic.
Q-3 The Task Force’s housing recommendation calls for the City to “Change the residential zoning regulations to allow all single-family houses in Mill Valley to be divided into two homes. Streamline the ability to convert a single-family home into two condominiums, which could then be sold or rented separately.” (p.39). What’s wrong with that?
A: This “solution” would double the population of Mill Valley and the burdens on our schools, roads, public services, and infrastructure. Further, corporations and investors, who are abandoning malls as a source of high returns on investment, have turned their sights on single-family homes.
The New York Times magazine article (8/31/20) is entitled, “A $60 Billion Housing Grab by Wall Street.”The subtitle explains, “Hundreds of thousands of single-family homes are now in the hands of giant companies—squeezing renters for revenue and putting the American dream even further out of reach.”
As unregulated housing monopolies grow, individual wealth and freedoms will shrink.
Q-4 Why do we treat housing affordability different from other types of affordability?
A: Gov. Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed recently dined at The French Laundry, where meals cost $350/person. Most people would say, “We can’t afford to eat there.” But it’s “affordable” to some. Yet no one proposes there should be lot splits to make way for more Burger Kings. When it comes to other aspects of affordability we’re clear on the concept: People eat where they can afford to pay for a meal. Building one or more Burger King in the vicinity of The French Laundry to assure access to “affordable” food would be considered ludicrous. The issue is not just housing, as if it exists out of its socioeconomic context. The issue includes access to money, assets and power; and tax regulations that burden the poor and reward the rich and so much more. For example, according to the Economic Policy Institute, since 1979, wages for the bottom 90% have continuously been redistributed upwards―frequently to the very highest 1.0% and 0.1%. Shouldn’t that be the problem our city should be concerned with whern studying “affordability?”
Q-5 Recommendation #1 (p. 39 of the Report) is to “Pursue regulatory options to expand affordable, equitable housing opportunities.”What does this mean?
A: Over the past four years, legislators have passed 64 housing bills that regulate a top-down, one-size-fits-all effort to sidestep community General Plans and Housing Elements and undermine CEQA environmental protections. Many of the bills move zoning and land use decision-making authority from locally elected City Councils into the hands of developers / real estate speculators. YIMBYs and legislators would like us to believe low-income people will have money for housing if builders increase supply. Instead, data shows that housing costs go up and down regardless of density. Respected economist Joel Kotkin, writing in the LA Daily News (3/10/18) says, “In reality, the YIMBY’s suggestion that new, dense housing will improve affordability for all is patently absurd.”
Q-6 What is the history of moneyed interests trying to reduce opposition to their plans to capture wealth?
A: In 1991, HUD (Housing and Urban Development) issued a report called “Not in My Back Yard—the Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing.” (Also known as the “NIIMBY” report). It’s interesting to note that this report was created in response to major developers using their political influence in Washington DC, to push back on the restrictions of environmental protection laws, and actually had nothing to do with building affordable housing. But ever since, developers, the building industry, and legislators have misguidedly blamed conscientious City Councils for the shortages and costs of housing. Because as we all know, cities don’t build housing and the state hasn’t provided funds for housing subsidies.
Q-7 What will happen if groups like the Mill Valley DEI Task Force and the City Council join the YIMBY chorus to take away local control (from themselves!), under the false belief that will make housing affordable?
A: Diversity, social equity and inclusion will suffer. Income disparity will increase. Resources will accumulate into bureaucratic regional, state, and federal agency hands and be more difficult to access at the local level.
Aaron Glantz tells the story about what happened in the corporate-driven housing melt-down in 2008 in his book “Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream.” Economist Joel Kotkin’s latest book describes the dire emerging future in his book “The Coming of Neo Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class.”
Q-8 What is a better alternative to changing zoning regulations re: single-family homes?
A: Follow a four-step model:
- Stay focused on the real problem: Income/wealth inequity. Unaffordable housing is the symptom. Advocate for economic reform. Raise the minimum wage. Tax companies that have too great a wage disparity, as San Francisco just did. Learn from real estate professional how creative finance and financial leverage work and how cities can employ those techniques to promote the development of more inexpensive housing (not just more housing). And so much more.
- Support and empower the City Council before it becomes obsolete. Encourage them to push back, not embrace, unsustainable housing regulations.
- Oppose state and federally-driven solutions that favor builders, developers, and real-estate speculators that undermine local self-determination, over local solutions. Ask again, “Where’s the water going to come from? Where will the funds for sewers, safety and other infrastructure come from?”
- Organize, educate, network, and stay involved.
The Task Force deserves our appreciation for taking a deep dive into many aspects of this complex issue. We have a great opportunity to continue working together for the good of ALL people and strive for a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.