Public participation: A thing of the past?
In the past few months, Marin has seen several oversized, multifamily, “urban infill” projects sail through the approval process with little opposition by planning commissions or elected council members. Two examples are Richardson Terrace in Mill Valley and Magnolia Village in Larkspur. There’s been considerable public push-back against both projects.
The “architecture” (if one can call it that) of both could be characterized as uninspired, if we’re feeling charitable. But, that aside, it’s the approval process without any real opportunity for public input that has people riled up.
Community Venture Partners recently appealed the Mill Valley Planning Commission’s approval of Richardson Terrace to the Mill Valley City Council, requesting changes so that the project was “consistent” with the policies and regulations in the city’s General Plan Land Use Element and the Zoning Ordinance. "Inconsistency" is grounds for an elected body to request changes to a project without running afoul of state housing laws.
On March 6th, we presented facts and circumstances to support our reasons for the appeal. We did not threaten the city or oppose affordable housing. On the contrary, we supported requiring more low-income and affordable-by-design (smaller) units (even if it meant more density) and fewer luxury condos.
The arguments we presented were intended to help the city justify requiring changes to the project. They had been vetted by seasoned CEQA and municipal law litigators, again, not to threaten the city but to assure city council members of the veracity of our suggestions. Unfortunately, the project was approved without any changes. That decision appeared to have been made before the hearing started.
The response in this and similar cases has been for elected officials to thank everyone for their comments, emails, and letters, and say, “What can we do? We had to approve it. Our hands are tied.” And, though it’s true that the endless cascade of state housing laws has done a great deal to cripple the powers of locally elected officials to control local planning and zoning, in our opinion, elected leaders have to try harder.
I’m not saying the situation is not challenging. It's very challenging for locally elected leaders. Getting letters threatening lawsuits from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HCD), the State Attorney General’s office’s “Housing Strike Force,” and a myriad of well-funded, Astroturf, housing “advocates” like “Californians for Home Ownership (a front for the California Association of Realtors) is not fun. And, trust me, I understand how that feels.
Soon after the hearing I began receiving multiple threats against me, personally, warnings that I am now being “watched," that our nonprofit is being “investigated,” that an undisclosed vigilante group intends to shut us down, and other defamatory tirades by a YIMBY CA acolyte, using a pseudonym.
(The matter has been referred to law enforcement authorities.)
Clearly, there is a lot of anger out there. But, one lesson to be learned from all this is that decades of our local, elected representatives' appeasement and capitulation to hyper-aggressive, unelected state agencies, autocratic Sacramento legislators, and well-funded corporate interests have only emboldened state government overreach. And the tolerating of increasingly vicious hate speech and intimidation tactics by Senator Wiener’s YIMBY shock troops is a very dangerous road to go down. It enables the same kind of closed-mindedness anger that these same people would quickly condemn the MAGA crowd for, though both are equally abhorrent.
Our elected officials might want to ask themselves, when in history has appeasement of a belligerent aggressor turned out to be a good policy.
Public meetings and community participation used to be an actual “thing.” People engaged in local decision-making and sometimes things changed. Now, at best, the public engagement process is just Kabuki Theater.
Since many of us predicted this day would come, starting back in 2007, when Darryl Steinberg promoted Senate Bill 375 (legislation based on the fact-challenged belief that “high-density development was categorically good for the environment”) and we started warning about the dangers of “top-down, one-size-fits-all” legislation, let me be first to say that traditional methods of public participation in local government decision-making about housing development no longer exist. All decision-making power is now at the state level.
As such, at the very least, we need our locally elected officials to “make an argument” to preserve local planning and zoning powers on behalf of the community and those who will pay the impact costs of these developments, which will fall on the shoulders of local taxpayers.
But what about the "housing crisis?"
Unsupportable demands and missed opportunities
Just consider this one fact. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates that the country needs to immediately build 3.8 million more homes to meet our national housing need. At the same time, California Governor Gavin Newsom and HCD contend that California needs to immediately build 3.5 million more homes to meet the state’s housing need. Since California’s population is only 11.9% of the total US population and the state has been losing as many as 1 million residents a year, someone’s math is wrong.
That said, there have been many opportunities for locally elected governments to band together and push back on Sacramento’s unelected and unsupervised agencies, in a meaningful way, for more than a decade but so far most Marin officials have only managed to write polite letters asking for reconsideration.
For example, as a result of a scathing report by the Office of the California State Auditor, which stated that the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) quotas are not accurate, adequately supported by evidence, or determined in accordance with state law, Attorney Pam Lee filed a lawsuit on behalf of the City of Rancho Palos Verdes and the City of Lakewood, CA, against Rob Bonta and the State Attorney General’s office, challenging HCD to immediately correct those housing quota calculations.
Marin local governments were asked to please support this action with de minimis sums ($25,000 each) but all declined for fear HCD would punish them for availing themselves of their Constitutional rights.
Similarly, the Orange County Council of Governments (OCCOG) filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate (“Petition”) in Superior Court, against HCD, to which the cities of Redondo Beach, Lakewood, Torrance, Cerritos, Downey, and Whittier were subsequently added as petitioners, alleging that HCD’s determination of regional housing needs administered by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) was incorrect, lacking in substantial evidentiary support, and the result of a process that violated procedures prescribed by state law. Transgressions noted included HCD’s failure to properly calculate population and household statistics, among other things.
And as this is written, Huntington Beach is standing up to HCD and the State Attorney General on the same grounds, demanding the state show evidence to support their housing quota allocation demands.
Marin officials already have forums to bring their own arguments to HCD. One such organization is the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers (MCCMC). Others avenues are as members of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and as members of the California League of Cities. However, to date, no such collaborative argument has ever been made, even though the handwriting has been on the wall for more than a decade.
Virtue-signaling without substance
When it serves their purposes, usually around election time, all we hear about is a candidate’s commitment to affordable housing, community character, our way of life, our values, the environment, social equity, fiscal responsibility, and being in the vanguard of innovation. But then, once in office, somehow, at yet another late-night, marathon, public hearing about another ill-conceived luxury condo monstrosity with just enough “service workers” units crammed in to get out-sized development bonuses, code waivers, and a myriad of other benefits at the taxpayer’s expense, all that “commitment” to doing the right thing is nowhere to be found.
In some ways, it’s understandable. After all, there’s nothing in our culture that rewards doing the right thing, particularly if it’s not profitable to do so. And the disincentives are high: being targeted and slandered, losing clients, losing opportunities, and losing “friends” in high places. So, the safe path is to ‘go along to get along.’
A good example is anything related to environmental impacts.
Money talks: Environmental protection is no longer on the agenda in California
California was once known as a national policy leader on environmental issues. Perhaps, its crowning achievement was the passage of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 1970. A seminal piece of legislation, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. It and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have been credited with being the impetus for creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, DC. CEQA made assessment of environmental impacts and environmental protection mandatory considerations in government decision-making.
Fast forward to today and concern for the environment is barely mentioned in California housing policy decisions and if so, begrudgingly. Governor Newsom has labeled CEQA public enemy number one. He considers CEQA to be only a tool used by “the rich” (definition: anyone who owns their own home in a suburban community) to promote a NIMBY agenda. He’s doing everything possible to eliminate CEQA from housing development decisions and blaming CEQA for seven years of his own failed state housing laws that have done nothing to create any significant amount of low-income housing for those in need. Like any other law, CEQA has been abused, at times, but such cases are summarily dismissed by the courts.
(Surveys of major California housing developers have never shown CEQA being among the major impediments to the development of low-income, affordable housing. The number one impediment has been and remains financial feasibility: not enough profit)
Meanwhile, Sacramento politicians love to give lip service to alternative energy, “green” building, and “zero-carbon” technology. Yet, somehow, every housing development I’ve seen that resulted from maximizing the legal loopholes and give-away provisions in state housing laws looks like a rehash of the same environmentally degrading plans and building methods we’ve been using since the 1970s.
We’re constantly told that such concerns would make their projects “financially infeasible.” These are now magical words that instantly wipe away decades of meetings, workshops, studies, and everything else that went into creating a city’s General Plan—the anachronistically named, “constitution” of our local government.
For all intents and purposes, today, CEQA is a hollowed-out shell of its former self and it certainly does nothing at all, anymore, to protect the environment in urban, ex-urban, or suburban communities. In the eyes of state housing law, if you’re not in a rural wilderness or there’s not a listed, endangered species permanently squatting on a piece of land, every property is fair game to be classified as “urban infill,” exempt from CEQA, and ripe for very high-density, multi-family development.
Frankly, the whole thing is heartbreaking.
State housing laws and policies would be laughable if they weren’t so destructive, particularly in disadvantaged communities of color like South Central Los Angeles, where they are fueling gentrification and displacement. And, never mind not having adequate infrastructure, road maintenance, parks, schools, parking, traffic safety measures, public services, police and fire protection, mental health and social services, or even the necessary tax base to pay to support the costs of all of those.
This is of no consequence to housing law zealots and ideologically intoxicated Sacramento politicians funded by major tech corporations, unions, banking and development interests, and the California Association of Realtors.
The ongoing tragedy of how we build
According to the California Green Building Standards certification system,
“Green building rating and certification systems require an integrated design process to create projects that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition.”
Regarding the two projects noted above, other than legally mandated energy-saver appliances, low-flush toilets, LED lights, double-pane windows, and digital landscape-watering timers, neither of the projects are fully solar-powered or have water recapture systems (hardscape has increased dramatically) or use carbon-reducing, environmentally beneficial materials or passive solar concepts in their design or construction methods. In other words, all we’re getting is, essentially, the same old apartment floor plans and the same old “bricks and sticks” construction we’ve been building for decades.
And don’t even ask about social equity.
Are the “units” we’re building really helping those most in need?
All the “affordable” housing projects I see going up in California are mostly either market-rate housing or “affordable” for families of means. In Mill Valley, for example, a housing unit qualifies as “affordable” (for the purposes of housing law bonuses and waivers) even if a family earns $216,000 per year--120% of median income. These projects only have a few units thrown in that are actually for those who earn only 30% to 50% of median income (for so-called “service workers” who seem to be defined as having no life of their own). Their apartment designs appear to be only for people who fit a narrow, sitting at a desk, in front of a computer, searching, typing, and talking on Zoom calls lifestyle.
We’ve now defined “housing” based on rigid ideas that warehouse “statistical” people: not real people with complicated, real lives and who don’t fit out-of-date definitions of “family” or what constitutes “work,” leisure,” or “employment,” all of which are changing, rapidly.
(Only 42% of California’s adult population is married and only 2/3 of those have children living with them. The other 58% are single, divorced, separated, widowed, or something else. Many of these are single parents or living in cohabitation arrangements.)
99.9% of all businesses in the U.S. are small businesses. And out of all 33.2 million small businesses in the country, only 650,000 have more than 19 employees and 27.1 million have only one employee: the owner. So, for most of these individuals, their home is also their office or workplace.
There is a whole world out there of gig workers, remote workers, sole proprietors, small business service providers, entrepreneurs, and ‘working people’ who do manual labor and work in “the trades” and who need trucks and vans and trailers and lots of storage space for materials, tools, supplies, and equipment in order to make a living doing landscaping, carpentry, house cleaning, tech installation, and all the other maintenance and repair services everyone needs.
Like everyone else, low-income people want housing that addresses their lifestyle needs; things like live/work housing, lofts, or affordable-by-design-units that are located near their clientele. And, increasingly, many lead unconventional or alternative lifestyles: people who don’t go to an office every day but work odd hours or part-time or at more than one job or who are creative spirits or crafts persons or someone whose life includes a variety of hobbies, side-hustles, and other activities and endeavors.
And the vast majority of all of these people qualify for and are most in need of low-income housing. But we are not building any housing for them.
Why is that?
It’s pretty simple. It’s because private developers are not and will never be in the social equity business (and we shouldn’t ever expect them to be) and because no one in Sacramento really cares or seems to know anything about the lives of any of those people.
Not a single piece of legislation passed in the last decade prioritizes low-income housing.
Time to pay attention
Most of the public has not been paying attention, lately. Hard to blame them considering everything that has been happening in the past 3 years. But, now, CVP is getting more and more calls from desperate residents who’ve just found out that a hideous development got approved across the street from them. But by then, it’s too late.
Public participation in the traditional sense is dead, but a new form needs to replace it.
The ball is in our court.
Over the past three years, Community Venture Partners has been working with community groups and elected leaders, utilizing public/private partnerships in several cities and counties in Northern and Southern California to develop new planning and public engagement methodologies to enable superior, community-supported, community-serving mixed-use, affordable housing solutions.
In concert with that effort, we are in alpha-stage development of new immersive, parametric, 3D modeling visualization tools/software that will greatly enhance public participation in real time.
Creating viable bottom-up, community-based planning methods will be essential to adequately address the increasingly complex challenges about how communities can grow in an equitable and sustainable way. Only by getting ahead of the game can we hope to reduce the kinds of controversies discussed in this article, which will inevitably grow more contentious as we move forward.
Our goal is to integrate compatible housing typologies into the fabric of each community to best serve its unique low-income, affordable housing needs. The private sector must develop better planning methods and ideas to enable and incentivize development of affordable housing and provide those solutions to the public sector, because the public sector lacks the capability, flexibility, and experience needed to do so on its own.
We hope to make announcements about our progress with these initiatives in the coming months.
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 all California residents.