The Marin Post

The Voice of the Community

Blog Post < Previous | Next >

Marin Post

Has a Sleeping Giant Awakened?

The San Francisco Standard recently published an article (“Angry San Francisco homeowners plot to kill city’s rezoning plan”) about grassroots groups in San Francisco who are speaking out in opposition to state housing mandates that are driving city planning officials to propose sweeping changes to the allowable density and height of new housing throughout the city. The article describes how one resident, who is labeled “an anti-development firebrand,” is arguing that the city’s plan to add 82,000 units of high-density housing (to fulfill the state housing quota) is “unnecessary, punitive and ineffective.”

For those of us who have been following state housing law for decades and questioning its Escher-like illogic, it’s heartening to see this emergence of new protests from what has mostly been the “silent middle class” (a group that is notoriously busy and over-scheduled, working, raising children, supporting their local communities and its institutions, and paying their taxes) recognizing the severe consequences of the 140 housing laws passed in the last decade.

(See RHNA vs Reality) and The Gaslighting of Single-Family Zoning)

The Demonization of Low-Density Living

Lower density urban, suburban, and ex-urban living, which describes large portions of San Francisco and most of the Bay Area (with some areas even qualifying as “rural’), has long been the whipping boy for academics, progressive politicians, and anyone with a beef about the American middle-class family lifestyle, which is constantly slandered as being inherently and unredeemingly racism, elitist, and worse.

All graduate “urban” planners, these days, have been indoctrinated with the mantra that we should blame everything from segregation to climate change to the dysfunction of cities to their own personal, psychological problems on the “burbs.” And though there is some truth to any of these allegations on a case by case basis, by and large, these characterizations are total nonsense.

(See "New Suburbanism 2.0" - A new way to look at planning, growth and the greening of our world. and The housing debate in California has lost its way, while misguided class warfare continues)

In California, this got its start around the time of the 2008 Financial Crisis, when Wall Street's financial shenanigans and the entire banking, institutional investing, and real estate development world collapsed under its own weight of the magical asset valuations and the ridiculous debt contrivances it depended on. And, right on cue, Milton Friedman’s adage that “in times of crisis, people will grasp on any idea, no matter how wrong, and run with it” out of desperation to find a quick fix, came to pass.

In the case of California housing policy, that manifested itself in the form of something called “Plan Bay Area” in the San Francisco Bay Area and Senate Bill 375 – a seminal piece of legislation based on the unsubstantiated claim that urbanism is good for the environment.

(See High Density Transit Oriented Development Won’t Reduce Greenhouse Gases.)

This torch was then taken up, most notoriously, by a hyper-aggressive California State Senator from San Francisco, Scott Wiener, who unabashedly hates everything about middle-class family life (a man San Franciscan's keep re-electing for reasons that escape me) and who has arguably been the best front man the good-old-boy crowd that brought us the 2008 Financial Crisis has ever had.

(See Mr. Wiener’s Whimsical World: The “Madman” Theory of Zoning and Does Scott Wiener Understand the Basics of the Housing Market?)

Originally, Wiener and his cadre of followers pretended that their push to develop high-density housing anywhere and everywhere and the need to strip all locally elected governments of any control of local planning and zoning was intended to address the need for “low-income” and “workforce” housing. But as the years have gone by and it’s become more and more obvious that decades of California’s “trickle-down economics” housing policies have completely failed to produce any significant amount of either (and we continue to lose existing low-income housing units much faster than we are replacing them), both pretenses have been abandoned.

(See How Trickle-Down Economics Fails to Fulfill its (housing) Promises)

The new marketing line has become “affordable housing” -- a term that is so loosely defined that it can now include housing for people making as much as 150% of the Area Median Income (approximately $135,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area), which translates into an annual income to qualify for a subsidized housing unit, of about $200,000. [1]

(See Lots of Housing Laws. Not much Housing. Part I.)

Most recently, however, even the term "affordable" has been abandoned. It appears all that matters now to the California Legislature (and their deep-pocket financial supporters) is just “build baby build," regardless of whether it serves the rich or the poor. Meanwhile, what makes all of this so absurd is that the entire "affordability crisis" has nothing to do with housing, in the first place.

(See Paradigm Shift: Rethinking Housing Affordability.)

Support Grassroots Journalism

CLICK HERE to donate to The Marin Post

And Now the Bad News

Although it's good to see more and more voices questioning state housing laws and arguing against the unnecessary, wholesale destruction of neighborhoods, it's important to note that other grassroots groups, community leaders, and locally elected officials have been on the front lines of housing and high-density development issues for a long time. As such, I would encourage everyone to learn from some of those past efforts, accomplishments, and ideas.

For reasons that remain unexplained, the 103 San Francisco Bay Area cities and counties have never joined together as a unified voice to push back on statistically unsubstantiated state housing quotas and the community-destroying nature of these laws or brought legal actions to rein in rouge, unelected, state housing agencies (e.g., The Department of Housing and Community Development), or demanded a seat at the table in planning for our future.[2]

(See California State Auditor Releases a Scathing Report on RHNA process and Unbounded Bullying by HCD)

However, grassroots organizations have the opportunity to do what their elected
representatives have failed to do, to reach out to each other, collaborate, share resources, and generally work together to accomplish shared goals. Because the stark reality is that despite the tremendous efforts of so many for so long, presentations of thoroughly researched and fact-based studies and analyses that unmask, dissect, and reveal the nonsensical financial and socioeconomic assumptions embodied in state housing laws, have been unable to slow the ‘development at any cost’ juggernaut that is about to, once and for all, ride roughshod over local control, forever.

(See Sacramento housing mandates don't make any economic sense)


It's become glaringly obvious that no one in Sacramento really cares about facts, logic, common sense, local circumstances, neighborhoods, history, tradition, financial analysis, environmental impacts, equitable solutions, better ways to achieve affordable housing, or anything else. First and foremost, for our state representatives, this is only about promoting a political ideology that benefits financial power, political influence peddlers, and stakeholders (bankers, real estate developers, realtors, construction unions, and others) who stand to benefit financially.

We’re dealing with a cabal of interests that firmly believes that trickle-down economics and the mantra that “markets” can solve all of our socioeconomic challenges are sacrosanct and constitute the only acceptable basis for state housing policies.

But, the acolytes of this ideology could not be more wrong about how to provide affordable housing for those most in need.

(See YIMBY Hegemony is Showing Strains and Housing Law Failures and YIMBY Bounty Hunters)

As it stands, it appears that nothing can be won by arguing about zoning and planning within the parameters embodied in the State's false premises. It seems that the only viable options are voting in a slate of new legislators, litigating against the state's over-reach and inappropriately impactful projects one by one, and passing a well-written and very well-financed state ballot initiative that would return all planning and zoning "police powers" to locally elected governments, as codified in the California State Constitution.

(See RHNA State Audit and Potential Lawsuit by California Cities and Counties and RHNA Quotes, Unfunded Mandates, Buffer Sites, and the CA State Constitution)

As Editor of the Marin Post, I invite all community group leaders to create an account and publish articles about your ongoing efforts on the Marin Post, our free, open-source, online news magazine platform. The Marin Post has quickly become a leading forum on issues of shared community concerns and a trusted source repository of up-to-date information, with readership growing rapidly throughout the state.

[1] Note that “median” does not reflect the “average” and in a places like San Francisco that skews the number higher.

[2] The Association of Bay Area Governments is simply a symbolic artifact of a time when local officials had a say in state planning agency decisions.