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Marin Water Shortage, Hook Up Moratorium and Affordable Housing: How It Can All Work Out

Marin and the Western United States of America are suffering a drastic drought. Recently the Marin Municipal Water District Board proposed a moratorium on hook ups for new construction as a means to save water. This was done within an effort to increase conservation by customers as well as search for other supplies. However, opponents of the moratorium have appeared, arguing it is too little and will depress the supply of affordable housing.

There are two main issues opponents of the moratorium have consistently made in public. One is that the savings in water is minimal. The water crisis we are in contradicts this assertion, and this is not just because conservation efforts could save more water, but because even with draconian restrictions, which I support, the situation is already dire. Whatever we can save is necessary to avert even worse conditions as general drying increases. The second issue is housing. What is unfortunate is that when one reads the list of opponents we find they are builders, financiers, promoters of housing. We would expect them to protect their incomes. But their arguments are not in the public interest. I will now detail my reasons.

A. On Housing, Low Cost Housing, Profits and Demand Strategy

1. We are building housing in the wildland interface. Marin has failed, as has the State of California and most municipalities, to contain sprawl. A recent Independent Journal (IJ) article by Olga Rodriguez (June 12, 2021) summarized a report by U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation that found California’s state and local agencies are encouraging building and rebuilding in the most fire-prone areas of the state.

2. Opponents of the moratorium claim it will slow the production of affordable housing. What is clear is few affordable units are being built anywhere, but if we are to see such dwellings added to our housing stock it is in the urban cores where they can most affordably be situated. This is because of the urban infrastructure. Large dense housing units are more efficient than small spaced units. Electrification and plumbing can be provided at a fraction of the cost in high rises than in small units, though at a diminishing return as over 20 stories the benefit disappears (https://phys.org/news/2017-06-high-rise-energy-intensive-low-rise.html). Yet even when we are considering “large” units of 10 to 30 compared to 100 to 200 the way an inner city core promotes efficiencies is still great (https://www.citylab.com/design/2012/05/limits-density/2005/).

But we have to ask why American cities have a glut of high rise developments and still little affordable housing? That is because builders and financiers are pursuing luxury buyers and planners and politicians are supporting them (https://www.forbes.com/sites/joelkotkin/2017/08/31/high-rise-glut-affordable-housing/#2acd6f3f53e0).

Most units built are not primary residences but are speculative investments (back to the commodification of housing). What we need is a housing policy that prevents the construction of commodified units and promotes affordability.

3. There is a world-wide problem in housing. One has to ask why. Part of the answer is how housing is financed and built. It would seem obvious that over the past 60 years planners have failed to "plan" for both housing and traffic. If NIMBYS are responsible, as is often asserted, then why do we have a world wide housing crisis? From San Francisco to Nairobi, Cairo to London there is a crisis. Squatters' slums are growing across the world due to a lack of planning and affordable housing, as Robert Neuwirth demonstrates in his 2006 book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters. A New Urban World. New York: Routledge.

To blame local citizens for the housing problems is contrary to fact. In the post-WWII period the government provided significant financial support for new housing and to upgrade substandard housing, both with the FHLA and government sponsored housing as well as Redevelopment. Even with this massive government effort the conditions for low cost, safe housing fell very far from needs as Nathaniel Keith (Politics and the Housing Crisis Since 1930, New York, Universal Books, 1973) demonstrated in his survey of housing costs and income since 1930.

Government support fell substantially after 1970. After this date housing size exploded and that was a central reason for the increase in cost. Reference to DataQuick on housing built between 1980 and 2010 or using U.S. Census data shows that most housing built was over 2,000 sq. ft. (up from about 900) and definitely not affordable for most workers given the fact that wages have been flat since 1970 (see New York Times article at: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/a-decade-with-no-income-gain/).

But this was not the only factor, investment in housing changed the landscape, as housing became "commodified" as Margaret Jane Radin explained in her analysis of housing financing and public housing policy: Rent Control and Incomplete Commodification: A Rejoinder Author(s): Margaret Jane Radin Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1988), pp. 80-83. The same situation has occurred elsewhere.

The Financial Times (21 November 2017) published an article by Jonathan Eley that documents the effects of housing becoming more an asset to be invested in that a dwelling to be lived in. He shows in a chart from government data on housing units built and households, that since 1996 the production of housing has kept up with the creation of households (families). So if England is building enough housing to keep up with population why is housing so expensive? The reason is cheap money and speculation in housing. More REITs and investment vehicles are buying housing as investments, so the market is driven, not by housing needs of people but by the need to acquire hard investments, assets, that are secure. Even in China there is an investment boom in housing speculation.

So, where do we see affordable housing? Where governments own the land and the housing, as in Hong Kong and Singapore and where the government sets rental prices at wage levels. Both countries have housing bubbles, just as our "financialization" or commodification of housing, but government action has stabilized housing for the majority of the population about 50% in both locations. So if we want affordable housing the county or the State of California will have to build it.

Some might be uncomfortable with big government taking over this portion of the housing market, but then several laws supported by builders and banks, as in Senate Bill 35 in 2017 were designed to gut local government controls of development and enhances Sacramento’s power, so housing advocates trust in big government. What local governments can do now is stop the destruction of our most affordable housing, rentals as in duplexes, small homes and existing rentals that are under siege not only by Airbnb which is displacing rentals, but in the demolition and/or gutting for larger single family units.

4. A water hook up moratorium could help fix this. Cities and towns cannot force builders and investors to build affordable housing. The ABAG numbers are a blunt instrument based on the flawed theory that more housing will result in more affordable units. The strategy of any business is to produce an item for sale that has greater demand than supply, this guarantees profits. So with the housing industry. However, if the MMWD was to order a moratorium on water hook ups, then builders would be forced to utilize existing structures to produce housing as these have water hook ups. Thus by reconstruction a 2,000 square foot home could be redesigned to create four 500 unit living spaces. Cities and the County could produce special incentives to support this choice. This could put us on the road to more housing within our current built urban-scape without increasing the footprint and could also result in more affordable units with reduced water requirements as congregated united have less supported greenery. We would win on all counts, more housing, less water use, and environmental containment.

B. On Water Resources, Demand and Conservation

Will Houston’s article in the IJ recently (“Plan for new well survives challenge”) relates how Marin’s authorities are ignoring factors that make the drought worse. More wells is one of these factors. NASA images show the ground is sinking across California as groundwater is pumped out for gardens, agriculture and drinking. Bridges, roads other infrastructure are suffering (Kurtis Alexander, “Land sinking fast as aquifers drained” SF Chronicle, August 20, 2015).

The County needs to address this issue now starting with a moratorium on wells. We need a groundwater ordinance, a countywide study of groundwater quality and drawdown, a groundwater management plan, and a groundwater replenishment district and a conservation district. The County should require existing wells be licensed and charged a fee for use to pay for water table recharge testing and procedures and related studies.

California is finally doing something about water wells. After decades of intense pumping (2 million more pumped out than is recharged) the state legislature passed laws regulating pumping. Marin is one of the worst offenders. Laws passed in 2014, especially the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act (SGWM) should have made a difference. But it has had little effect due partly because 2020 was the first year for compliance and it has little teeth or enforcement staff (Susie Cagle, The Guardian, 27 Fed 2020).

The main problem we face with groundwater resources is that Marin has no countywide groundwater study or plan. According to the California in 2014 Department of Water Resources data in Bulletin 118, no Bay Area county had one, and none had yet passed groundwater ordinances. According to the SGWM submitted by Marin County only 2 wells in the County have been monitored and as of 2019 there were only plans to monitor 5 more (https://www.marincounty.org/-/media/files/departments/cd/ehs/water/groundwater-resources/marincasgemplan062019.pdf?la=en).

Former Supervisor Katie Sears was right in her comments about the abdication of the Supervisor's responsibility for the ground water basins in Marin. As reported by Richard Halstead, (County Transfers jurisdiction over groundwater site, Sept 24, 2018) the Marin County Supervisors modified boundaries over the San Point Area Basin giving away control over the Wilson Grove Basin (physically located in Marin) to Sonoma County. This was done to avoid the law passed in 2014 requiring counties across the state to develop groundwater plans to achieve control of losses to over use and to develop recharging methods. (see UC Davis website for details: http://groundwater.ucdavis.edu/SGMA/)

Groundwater is a local responsibility under the State Constitution, although AB3030 has had the effect of increasing water basin and other studies of groundwater since 1990 and Proposition 13 (the one passed in 2000 not 1978) allocated money to the counties to do so. Yet, Marin lacks a study, a water replacement district and a water conservation district. Most of the groundwater management plans submitted to the State “…are brief recitations about continuing the agency’s existing programs.” according to the analysis undertaken for Bulletin 118.

In the past 4 decades thousands of wells have been drilled in Marin to allow homeowners, commercial enterprises and public entities to avoid restrictions on water use imposed by drought conditions and overuse of our water supplies. Those that have been done with permits are filed with the County and some of the towns, but there are few reports with comprehensive information about the water use or quality.

People are using a public resource for private ends as the water draw-down affects the water table, all our streams and rivers and generally our wildlife and flora. Human use is drying out the county and promoting a change in the environment.

We are seeing this in Marin with the reports given by MMWD staff on complaints of users on increased salinity. This is underscored by the poor production of the Gallagner Ranch well that was predicted to produce more than 300 gallons per minute but only gives out half that. We are making the situation worse day by day.

Finally, we need not only a moratorium, but a County-wide plan to protect and restore our water resources.

Tags

ground water, land subsidence, hook up moratorium, housing