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Legacy Part 1

A Legacy of Flawed Housing Policy -- PART 1: The demise of local control

In the late 1990s, in Marin County, we started to hear rumblings about ‘regional governance’ and how the San Francisco Bay Area’s Association of Regional Governments (ABAG) intended to increase the Regional Housing Needs Assessment ‘housing quotas’ (RHNA) for San Francisco Bay Area cities and counties--which dictate how many housing units each municipality had to ‘build’ over each 8-year ‘housing cycle.’ (Even though, it has always been acknowledged that 95% of those municipalities don’t build, can’t build, and never have built any housing.)

At that time, control of local zoning and planning was still acknowledged as being under the “police powers” of local governments, as granted by the California State Constitution.

Today, that is no longer the case.

Local government has now, essentially, been stripped of all control of local planning and zoning for housing and mixed-use housing development, unless municipalities succeed in achieving the increasingly unrealistic housing goals handed down by the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) in Sacramento.

By and large, local government officials have failed to see this storm on the horizon for the last 20 years (or didn’t care to admit it) and have lacksadaisically assumed ‘it can’t happen here.’ But the latest round of ABAG quotas are so egregiously out of whack with reality that it has finally awakened them from their lethargic slumber. The problem is the effort needed now to stop the Sacramento-driven, build-like-crazy juggernaut is a hundred times what it would have been to nip it in the bud more than a decade ago. It would also be impossible for our infrastructure and public services to support it.

It’s clear that there is no way the majority of Marin County cities and towns, or Marin County itself, will be able to meet their 2023-2031 housing cycle quotas. Marin County’s housing quota, alone, has been raised almost 1,000 percent from the past cycle, translating into a projected population growth rate that is 10 times its historical, annual average.

As a result, in the coming years, it is likely that most if not all Marin towns and cities will be found to be “non-compliant” by HCD and therefore subject to fines, penalties, and endless lawsuits by private developers and corporate-backed, housing advocacy trolls demanding zoning rights and project approvals. And those cities and towns that are presently non-compliant in the current housing cycle may be subject to those consequences, possibly as soon as January 1, 2023.

A case in point: Affordable Housing Development in Mill Valley

Like many Marin County cities, Mill Valley, where I live, has been talking about affordable housing and a commitment to solutions, for 25 years. And for all the professed concern, Mill Valley has little to show for it--which, by the way, is not their fault because we are one of those small cities that cannot possibly build housing, on their own.

In the meantime, however, the regulatory framework California cities operate under has completely changed, and not for the better.

Over this time, Mill Valley has had some outstanding city council members and occasionally a good city manager or planning director, who’ve tried to address these challenges, but by and large, their voices of reason have been drowned out by a well-intended but unqualified (to make decisions about real estate development) majority of fellow councilpersons and rotating teams of uninspiring, paper-shuffling staff, all under the advice of head-in-the-sand legal counsel, compounded by the relentless onslaught of state housing legislation, leading them to flawed city planning and housing development policy decisions.

Yet another failure has been the result of our casual ‘you be the mayor this year and I’ll be mayor next year’ form of government, which results in a lack of follow-through on anything lasting more than an election cycle and a total breakdown of institutional memory about what has already been discussed, tried, and failed in the past. Time-wasting and asset-wasting mistakes are repeated, ad nauseam.

Worse, housing agendas have at times been driven by over-sized, ‘I’m the only one who can fix this’ egos, smothered in political correctness and the ambitions of those unable to accept their own lack of ability to engage in the difficult task of productive, creative, problem-solving. Unfortunately, real estate and housing development are, in particular, areas in which it’s paramount to know what you don’t know and seek out expert counsel that does know to advise you.

The net result has been a legacy of bad decisions and tragic inaction at moments of real affordable housing opportunity. And throughout, there has been a general resistance to heed the warnings about the bad news that was coming down the pike.

Mill Valley, like many other Marin cities, has done its best to encourage Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and the city changed the zoning on its major arterial, Miller Avenue, a decade ago to allow mixed-use housing development in commercial zones. And, since its last HCD housing quota was a bit more realistic, Mill Valley was lucky to have private developers build enough homes (but unfortunately mostly luxury housing) to meet their quota in the current 2014-2022 housing cycle. But that’s where the good news ends.

What Mill Valley is currently doing, apparently out of fear of the impossibility of meeting its new 2023-2031 quota, is decidedly worse.

CLICK HERE to read PART 2: People reduced to data

CLICK HERE to read PART 3: Foreseeable failures

CLICK HERE to read PART 4 - New projects seeking approval; Richardson Terrace, Mill Valley

Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident, the Editor of the Marin Post, and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO THE MARIN POST AND CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.