Disenfranchised by an Ecosystem

Disenfranchised by an Ecosystem

The Plan Bay Area EcosystemMany residents attend community meetings objecting to high density housing near transit – yet find themselves facing highly organized, well-funded opponents who have controlled the conversation for years – before the residents ever showed up. These groups helped usher in designations of many Bay Area neighborhoods as Priority Development Areas – hot-spots where 80% of new housing growth is targeted by Plan Bay Area.

While residents would learn of neighbors wanting to build kitchen extensions, somehow our elected representatives overlooked telling us about far more radical development plans. Finally when residents did show up to voice their concerns they found themselves either dismissed as a nuisance as anything from “johnny come latelys”, to being labelled as NIMBYs and racists.

The outcome despite a near 10 to 1 ratio of high density opponents to proponents is that fast growth and high density is going through in the Bay Area. In Marin, where the author lives, the following has occurred:

  • Civic Center in San Rafael is going to be turned into a 5-story Northgate City metropolis. Its “Transit Town Center” PDA designation signals MTC’s target to pack in 7,000 housing units within ½ mile of the SMART train station where there are currently only 1,165 units. (Read this MTC guide to understand PDA designations).
    Update: Through a multi-year opposition by hundreds of residents, including the author, this Civic Center PDA designation was finally rescinded in September 2013. It will be revisited in 2016.
  • Marinwood and Lucas Valley face absorbing 546 high density housing units. This has the potential to cause significant impact on schools – it is estimated to place a burden of $4.9m year on local taxpayers if schools are to maintain their quality due to subsidies and tax exemptions provided to low income and affordable housing developers and residents.
  • Strawberry and Marin City face similar fates, Marin City’s situation is especially perplexing as high density affordable housing could displace the black population of Marin, many of whom are on low incomes and cannot by definition afford affordable housing. Reassurances that these residents will be able to return after development are contradicted by a strong body of evidence – such as in Atlanta where only a reported 332 of 5,000 families returned when their housing was replaced with mixed income units.

Residents opposing this fast growth would repeatedly return from meetings where they far outnumbered proponents – dumbstruck by how this could have happened – and was continuing to happen. It defied logic – until investigation uncovered the start of the money trail. And so we must follow the money…

Plan Bay Area – Following the ABAG Money

Plan Bay Area and the associated Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) are the two major tools being used by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to drive our cities and county to embrace high density housing.

ABAG claims there is no loss of local control, but if these RHNA  numbers aren’t met with planning allowing high density growth then city and counties face the following consequences (source: city of Menlo Park Housing Element FAQ):

  1. Limited access to state funding for such community needs as economic development and transportation.
  2. Lawsuits from developers and from housing advocates.
    Potential consequences of being sued include:

    1. Court orders to the community to bring the Housing Element into compliance within 120 days, which limits community input.
    2. Suspension of local control on building, such as suspension of a community’s authority to issue building permits or grant zoning changes.
    3. Court approval of housing developments, which may include large projects that may or may not be wanted by the local community.
    4. Payment of attorney fees that usually exceed $100,000

Any reasonable city mayor would deem such liability as prohibitively expensive for the city. Cities that have been successfully sued include Corte Madera, Pleasanton, Alameda, Benicia, Fremont, Berkeley, Napa County and Santa Rosa.

Pleasanton faced legal fees of $3.9m in a 7 year legal battle according to the city manager. These amounts can have a devastating impact on city services – especially with many cities already dealing with large unfunded pension debt. In the city of San Rafael in Marin County for every $1 paid in taxes to fund city services a further 59c goes to cover pension benefits of current and past employees. San Rafael is far from unique in this respect.

While there are harsh penalties for resisting, locations that embrace intensive high density development via Priority Development Areas receive lucrative transportation and housing grants.

The Ecosystem of Advocacy Groups

Plan Bay Area started its conception years ago in conjunction with a number of housing and transportation advocacy groups. These groups formed strong relationships with ABAG, MTC and have also endeared themselves to counties, cities and businesses.

Here in Marin an organization calling itself the Grassroots Leadership Network was formed, it evolved to become Marin Grassroots. Receiving donations of over $634,116 in 2011, with plush offices located amongst Marin County offices, and employing multiple full time staff it doesn’t quite align with the definitions of Grassroots on Wikipedia.

Like other housing and transportation advocacy groups, Marin Grassroots embedded itself in the committees involved in planning. They showed up early and often while most of us slept unaware of the radical change that was planned for us.

In March 2013 Marin Grassroots along with other housing advocacy groups was paid by MTC to conduct focus groups to capture feedback from minorities and low income residents on their needs (see page 4). A laudable goal, but paying a political organization with a strong agenda to increase high density housing and switch residents from cars to transit was surely unlikely to produce unbiased conclusions.

But these groups weren’t treated just as vendors, they are partners of ABAG with Marin Grassroots awarded a $56,000 grant by ABAG.

These groups would attend community meetings, not disclosing their relationships to ABAG and MTC and cheer on ABAG and MTCs Plan Bay Area, holding up signs promoting the plan.

When finally accused of derailing conversations and failing to disclose that they were funded by taxpayer , ABAG and MTC contributions they claimed not to have taken a position on Plan Bay Area . Yet even the most glancing visit to the Marin Grassroots’ website proved otherwise as they strongly advocated not just the enactment of Plan Bay Area, but it’s most severe variant – the Environment, Equity and Jobs alternative (EEJ) – even going so far as to create a petition advocating adoption of this alternative . The EEJ option diverts a further $2.5bn from maintaining and expanding highways towards transit.

Consider also that these advocacy organizations are non-profits (501(c)(3)s) where donations are not taxable.

Marin County Connections

Marin County through the supervisors has become heavily intertwined with Marin Grassroots. Between 2009 and 2011 the county paid Marin Grassroots $115,000 (see item CA-4 (d)(ii)).

The Marin County supervisors are very involved with Grassroots, involving them on committees and attending and supporting their “We are Marin” party.

The Billion Dollar Community Foundations

The other way that these groups raise money is through bequests made typically by wealthy individuals to Community Foundations such as the Marin Community Foundation (MCF) or the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF).

MCF has assets of over $1 billion gathered initially through bequests such as Mrs Beryl Buck and subsequent donors many of whom made donations in their wills. It is meant to direct funds to improve the quality of life and diversity for the people of Marin. However of late, MCFt has donated $250,000 to Marin Grassroots and $75,000 to Stand Up for Neighborly Novato – both housing and social equity advocacy groups that have supported Plan Bay Area. In total Marin Community Foundation is channeling over $1.9m into what it describes as “Increasing public support for affordable housing and influence zoning changes that support affordable housing”.

Meanwhile SVCF published a press release in October 2013 announcing over $1.6m to to support organizations working to improve land use, expand affordable housing and increase transportation choices

Where Does this Leave Residents?

Now we know what’s occurring residents can better understand how we got into this fast growth situation. Plan Bay Area was conceived and promoted by a network of political patrons. What we can do about this is vote out officials that let this patronage occur, especially those who supported it. For instance in Marin we should look to displacing:

  • Supervisors Steve Kinsey , Katie Rice Judy Arnold voted to make Marin Grassroots Director, Ericka Ericsson , a Marin County Planning Commissioner despite a perceived lack of experience.
  • All the Marin County Supervisors are “host sponsors” of Marin Grassroots upcoming “We Are Marin” picnic event at Civic Center Park.
  • San Rafael city council candidate and fast growth proponent Greg Brockbank, alongside Marin County Supervisor Kinsey have both regularly attended and shown their support for Marin Grassroots events such as the declaration of the state of emergency where fast growth opponents were labeled a racist lynch mob. Supervisor Kinsey spoke with the Marin Grassroots and Concerned Marinites protest outside the Citizen Marin town hall.

Elected officials need to be on notice that their patronage and support of these organizations is unacceptable. Voters  should demonstrate the ramifications of this behavior at the ballot box – in Marin this means voting for supervisor candidates Damon Connolly and Toni Shroyer. Businesses and individuals can also help offset the imbalance by donating to campaigns of politicians that truly represent residents.

What is needed is major reform – voters need to send a clear message – this political patronage is unacceptable and residents do not want their towns overrun and rapidly urbanized by fast growth.

Most, if not all the organizations referenced above have the best of intentions. The author’s concern is that funding is occurring that is either not well thought through , and/or not representative of the intentions of those providing the funding. With a more transparent, inclusive process, the author believes a different, superior outcome would have occurred quite different than that proposed by Plan Bay Area and subordinate housing and transportation projects across the region.