Dispelling the Dispelling

Dispelling the Dispelling

Marin League of Women Voters’ Report Mistates Its Own Data

The League of Women Voters (“LWV”) is a wonderful organization that plays a crucial role in our democratic society.  They stand for “An honest and respectful sharing of ideas is vital to the functioning of American democracy.”

At the same time, LWV states, “We are passionate advocates – both women and men – who work to influence policy on specific issues by speaking out and putting pressure on our elected leaders.

Recently, LWV of Marin County released a publication entitled “Dispelling the Myths Surrounding Affordable Housing”.  The report does not claim to be endorsed by their national organization, and its cited authorities fully exclude those that have differing views.

Rather than a sharing of ideas, this report is one-sided advocacy of affordable housing.  And that is fine.  However, the report makes many conclusions unsupported…or even contradicted… by the very sources they seem to cite.   “Apples and oranges” are often a factor.

This blog posting provides a summary of fundamental flaws or errors in the League of Women Voters’ report.

Crime

LWV claims a Washington DC report LWV shows no increase in crime in nonprofit-owned and managed properties.  In fact, the cited report makes no mention of nonprofit-owned and managed properties.

LWV claims a Novato police presentation demonstrated affordable housing does not increase crime.  However, the numbers the police presented reveal that the only two affordable housing projects within the report averaged two police service calls each year per household.  The frequency was more than double the rate of multi-family housing that was not deed restricted, and presumably much higher than single family homes.

Although LWV claims the situation later changed, their report provides no data whatsoever in support of such a claim.

Affordability of Market Rate Housing

LWV’s entire study presupposes that families have only one wage earner, and then demonstrates that such a family cannot afford a middle price range apartment in Marin.  It does not address affordability by families with two working adults, or affordability of apartments priced below the middle price range.

Impact on Home Values

The study provided by LWV to claim that affordable housing does not lower surrounding property values is a study that extended the radius to dilute the results, and has nearly no data about property values within one-quarter mile of the affordable housing.  Further, the study only covers sales occurring between 1987 and 1992.  No data from the past 20 years is included.

Impact on Schools and Home Values

LWV concedes that affordable housing does not pay the basic 1% ad valorem property tax, and that their impact on schools is exempt from environmental review.  But LWV remains silent on who is then going to pay for San Rafael to build two new elementary schools and one new high school that will be necessary for 1,500 new students in San Rafael’s two Priority Development Areas (PDAs).

Dixie school district also faces a very serious decline in revenues with the buildout of Marinwood Plaza with 82 units made up of 88% low income and affordable units, with the Housing Plan utlimately having district 1 absorbing 546 units. Bridge Housing estimates that each household will have 2 school age children. The additional children will result in the following impact:

  • Class sizes will cross thresholds whereby Dixie loses “Basic Aid” status resulting in a loss of 16% of current funding
  • Instead of receiving $9,800 per year per student from property taxes the developer will pay a one-time mitigation fee of $200,000 and a total (not per student) of $9,800 annually

The author’s experience when he first moved to San Rafael about 8 years ago is that houses in the Dixie school district were priced $50,000 or more above equivalent houses outside of the district, because of the quality of the schools. With the above major impacts it should be left to the judgment of the reader to assess whether house prices will be affected.

Urban Legend

LWV claims affordable housing is needed to stop urban sprawl, but fails to state where urban boundaries are allegedly sprawling, or could sprawl, in Marin County.

Traffic Congestion

LWV claims that we will reduce traffic congestion by increasing the county’s population.  They fail to identify how that would moderate the driving patterns of existing residents.

The report further claims on page 7 that traffic delays in Marin increased 55% in a 4-year window 5 to 10 years ago, but does not show this period is representative.  If a reliable sample, it would mean that from 1993 to 2013, Marin traffic delays today are 900% greater than in 1993.  This is inaccurate.

Relocating Marin’s workers who live out of county only reduces traffic if once here they do not drive and the people who move into their old out-of-county homes do not also seek employment here, starting the commute cycle all over again.

Conflict of Interest

The Marin Independent Journal reports that this LWV report was in fact principally authored by Judy Binsacca.  Not disclosed within the LWV report is the fact that Ms. Binsacca is chair  of Ecumenical Housing, also known as EAH Housing.

EAH has developed $1 billion worth of affordable housing projects, and has annual cash management of $95 million.  Clearly, EAH has a vested interest in the promotion and expansion of the affordable housing market.

Irrespective of whether Ms. Binsacca as chairperson is paid or a volunteer, she has a vested interest in high density housing getting implemented in Marin County.  Arguably, the League knew or should have known about this relationship, and looked for someone outside the housing industry to write their report.  Alternatively, they should have placed special emphasis on fact checking the report before it was released, which fact checking was insufficient as the following report will now show.

Analysis of “Dispelling the Myths Surrounding Affordable Housing”

As will be shown, an objective analysis shows that rather than dispel myths, the League of Women Voters (“LWV”) perpetuates their own myths.

Crime

LWV writes on page 8:

”There are no studies or evidence that show an increase in crime or the presence of criminals when nonprofit-owned and managed housing developments are introduced into a neighborhood. ”

Source: Richard M. Haughey, “Higher Density Development: Myth and Fact”; Washington D.C.; Urban Land Institute 2005”

A reading of Mr. Haughey’s report makes it instantly clear:  It actually never discusses nonprofit-owned and managed housing developments.  It is merely a comparison of high density housing versus low density housing, irrespective of whether it is profit or nonprofit, affordable or market.

When LWV concedes that other nonprofit housing has had criminal activity problems, they attempt to differentiate it.   They say that Marin affordable housing is for people who want to remain in Marin and want to live where they work.  However, they do not provide a citation or source to show this is not just speculation or hope.  In short, even with their own evidence that affordable high density housing has created criminal problems, they do not concede anything contrary to the goal of promoting this housing plan.

For support of their Novato claim, LWV attributes data presented to the city council by former police chief Joseph Kreins.

A review of his actual presentation (see images attached to this article) shows it was not limited to nonprofit owned and managed housing developments.  Rather, Chief Kreins was reporting on multi-family housing in total, including only two affordable (“deed restricted”) housing projects coupled with eight other housing projects.  Of these ten total locations, the affordable housing rental units were 60% more likely to have police calls than other multi-family housing.

What LWV inadvertently proves is that affordable housing has a substantially higher frequency of police calls than does other housing.  In fact, during 2009 to 2010, more than 3% of all Novato police calls city-wide concerned just two buildings – Wyndover and Bay Vista …1,367 police calls for just two addresses…and these were the only two affordable rental housing projects in a city of 50,000 residents.

Stated another way, each affordable housing apartment generated an average of 3.9 police calls over the two years, compared to only 1.7 calls for high density housing that was not affordable rentals.[3]

While the presentation did not report on single family dwellings, it is probable that the average Novato single family home calls the police less than once every two years.  Compared to the two non-profit affordable housing complexes over two years averaging nearly 4 police calls for each apartment, the numbers tend to suggest that crime rates in nonprofit affordable housing are notably higher.

LWV claims this situation subsequently improved, yet they provide no statistical data to support this conclusory claim.  Perhaps such data truly exists, and perhaps it does not.  But the bottom line is that LWV stated a conclusion yet the only data they provided contradicts their conclusion.

But should the community be concerned about police calls or is it more important to focus on arrests?  What percentage of arrests come in the vicinity of non-profit affordable multi-family rental homes in Novato…whether resulting from service calls, patrol or investigation?  The question of arrests addresses crime itself, and it is for crime statistics that LWV remains silent.

Marin County Supervisor candidate Toni Shroyer further notes:

“It is important to note, corporate nonprofit housing does not pay any real estate taxes for 55 years, hence not paying for any of the police services that are needed.”

Affordability of Market Rate Housing

Page 3 states that two-thirds of all Marin employees earn less than the $55,176 annual income needed to rent a median one-bedroom apartment.

When discussing “affordability” the following should be considered:

1)      Many families have at least two workers, such as spouses, and do not depend on one spouse’s income alone to pay the rent.  Thus, even if two-thirds of employees earn less than $55k/yr, unstated is what percentage of families earn less than $55k/yr for total household income.

2)      If people cannot afford median housing, up to half of all rental units in Marin are cheaper than median.  The inability to afford the median apartment does not say whether employees can or cannot afford Marin entry level housing.

3)      If the issue is that families cannot afford to live in Marin with one breadwinner, welcome to 21st Century America.  Most families need a 2nd paycheck these days, all across the nation, because real wages have declined over the past half century, resulting in the concentration of wealth in the top 1%.  Many Marin residents depend on two earners in order to afford rent and mortgage payments.

Talking about “…middle class families who could buy a house elsewhere” is apples-and-oranges because it considers only one family member’s wages.  By example, they say a preschool teacher earns $37,250.  If so, a middle class family with two preschool teachers makes $74,500, and can live comfortably in Marin without us building any new housing.  Problem solved.
Studies cited by LWV do not actually state what LWV attributes to them

Page 6 has double-speak wording:

“One such study states that no study in California or elsewhere has ever shown that affordable-housing developments reduce property values.”

Consider:

  1. This quote does NOT say that no study showed affordable housing reduced values.  It says that one study claims that no study found it.
    Unstated by LWV, they are discussing a study covering home sales 1987 to 1992.  More than 20 year old data!  This reports a period when few people had an email address, Bill Walsh was coaching the 49ers, and floppy discs were still floppy.  It is unclear as to how relevant this data would be.  Since then we had the boom of the 90s and the real estate collapse in 2008. It could be valid, but clearly it could also be too outdated to be reliable.
  2. The underlying study itself was sponsored by BRIDGE Housing, an advocate of affordable housing, so not quite a neutral observer.  The BRIDGE report often uses the offensive name-calling term “NIMBY”, which also implies the authors were not neutral scientists.  Their study of property values concerned home sales up to 1 mile of BRIDGE Housing: .  Their claimed point is that property values did not plunge within the one mile radius of affordable housing.   But only a TINY percentage of this study’s sales were in the immediate vicinity of the BRIDGE Housing.    By example, they reference Gateway Commons in San Mateo, and analyze 480 home sales.  How many of those 480 sales were within one-quarter mile of the subject high-density housing?  One.

This is the most extreme example, but the ratios remain unreliable throughout.  However, here is a list of ALL properties in the “one study” and the number of homes reported:

Coleridge Park Homes – 384 sales, only 40 (10%) within 1/4 mile of affordable housing

Holloway Terrace – 612 sales, only 61 (10%)  within 1/4 mile

Pacific Oaks – 295 sales, only 18 (6%) within 1/4 mile

Magnolia Plaza – 136 sales, only 7 (5%) within 1/4 miile

Gate Commons – 480 sales, only 5 (1%) within 1/4 mile

Heritage Park – 900 sales, only 14 (2%) within 1/4 mile

Total: Of 2,818 sales only 145 (5%) were within 1/4 mile of affordable housing.

In short, the study expanded the radius from the high density housing until the impact was fully diluted, yet failed to report on the subset of impact in property values within ¼ mile.

The study makes a conclusory statement that properties very close to the high density property did better than those further away.  However, this 20-year old study, which clearly had plenty of empirical data at its fingertips, failed to cite any specific data to support that claim.

Further, the report fails to explain why there are so many fewer houses selling near high density housing than further away.  Perhaps there are fewer single family homes nearby.  Perhaps there are such homes but the sellers could not get out for the right price because there was now high density housing nearby.  The bottom line is that this is not a survey of home values or appraisals and how they are or are not affected by affordable housing.  This is merely a report on houses that actually closed a sale in the years leading through the 1991 recession.

This is a relevant area to explore because Northgate City, starting when San Rafael approved Northgate Mall increasing to 5 stories to build apartments on top of the shopping mall, is directly across the street from the residential neighborhood starting at 475 Nova Albion.  It seems implausible that a 5-story urban village mixed-use complex with substantial low income housing would not lower Nova Albion property values, no matter what this 20-year old study claims.

Urban sprawl

The LWV report discusses the goal of stopping urban sprawl.  Stop for a moment and think this one through.  Who is sprawling Urbana in Marin County?  If not for ABAG, isn’t Marin pretty much done sprawling?  Marin hit and protected its development walls.  This Slow Growth county is not at risk of encroaching onto our agrarian estates.  There is no urban sprawl problem in Marin except for the ABAG demand that Marin continue to build.

Urban sprawl is a problem of the OTHER counties, and Plan Bay Area insists that Marin solve that problem for them, by helping the other counties relocate their population to Marin, leaving our cherished heritage of Slow Growth as nothing more than roadkill.

Traffic congestion

Page 7 claims that from 2004 to 2008 Marin freeway delay increased 55%.  If you use Highway 101, do you feel there has been a 55% delay increase in that 4-year window AND that such rate of increase has not abated today?

Note that a 55% increase in a 4-year period is representative, from 1993 to 2013 the freeway delay on 101 would have had to increase 895%.  There was plenty of delay in 1993, but it is not nine times worse today.  The LWV reporting period (55% in four years) clearly is an anomaly when projected into long term rates.

Yet relevance is also unclear.  Precisely how does high density housing reduce traffic when none of the existing homes that have these cars is going to be torn down?   The underlying claim seems to presuppose that Marin is going to increase its population even if it does not build new homes.  That fundamental proposition is unsupported by proof.  Rather, logic suggests that supply is the determinative factor in population size.  If the housing supply remains stable or grows slowly, the population would do the same.

Page 7 continues by telling about how high density housing reduced the use of cars.  It compares how we drove in 2006 and how we drove in 2035.  But…it is not 2035 yet.  These are merely projections.  That is fine, but understand they are speculative rather than being proof of any result.

LWV reports that poor people have fewer cars than rich people.  That is a reasonable conclusion.  However, that should apply regardless of whether poor people are living in high density or low density housing.

From Page 8:

“Finally, it cannot be stated too often that, by building affordable housing near public transit and near where people work, traffic congestion will be reduced, compared with new development not located near services, transit and employment.”

Again, for Marin this presupposes that somewhere there is land for “new development” that is not located near services, etc.  But our land is already built up, and unless our protections on farm and open space give way, there is no real risk of any significant new developments.

The premise of the theory that urbanization reduces use of cars does make sense in San Francisco, New York City, etc.  Marin County does not have the population size to support transit solutions that make it work for those mega-cities.

Some in the rampant growth movement claim there are 45,000 workers who commute daily to Marin County, and if these commuters lived in high density housing near SMART and other transit, they would not drive to work.  Whether this theory is valid is a separate question.  However, when discussing the relocation of 45,000 commuters this would be a good time for the rampant growthers to tell the people of Marin exactly just how many new homes they want to build here.  Marin has only perhaps 100,000 homes at present.  It does not seem there is space to build 45,000 new homes for commuters unless the county is fully urbanized and/or we eventually develop our cities into 10 to 20 story apartment buildings.

And here is the underlying problem with ABAG/MTC affordable housing as a transit plan rather than only a housing plan for our poor:  When there are people willing to drive a longer distance to get a better paycheck, and you move them into affordable housing, you do not necessarily terminate their willingness to drive for a better paycheck.  Joey Vallejo no longer commutes Vallejo-San Rafael because now Joey lives in San Rafael.  But maybe he is willing to commute San Rafael-San Francisco for a bigger paycheck.  Maybe not.  He is already conditioned and willing for that commute time.  LWV makes a conclusory statement presented as indisputable fact when, in reality, it is their speculation.

Further, if Joey Vallejo then works in San Francisco, Frankie Fairfield might move to Joey’s old home in Vallejo and take Joey’s old job in San Rafael.  Then, in the name of reducing emissions, they are doubled instead.  Even if only 50% of the Joey Vallejos continue to commute, that would still offset all the gains made by the other 50% who move and stay put.  Affordable housing occupants cannot be evicted solely because they change jobs.  But if affordable high density transit housing is the basket into which all resource eggs are put, and it does not deliver the results promised, Marin may not have additional revenues available to work on real solutions to our problems.

Schools

On page 9, LWV essentially admits that affordable housing will not be paying for new schools, and that there is nearly one child for every unit (1,085 children in 1185 multi-family units). This number per unit is much lower – Bridge Housing estimates 2 children per unit.

Some dispute those numbers, but taking the LWV numbers as accurate:  If San Rafael’s Civic Center Station Plan is built, San Rafael can expect nearly 600 new children from 620 units, and from that probably 500 new public school students.  Add another thousand students for the downtown San Rafael PDA, and suddenly there are 1,500 new students.  This would require San Rafael to build two new elementary schools and one new high school. The median cost of a new high school in California is $89,012,856 (source: on page 16 of this School Construction Report) just for the structure, add in land and maybe another $50m,  then there’s a $2m EIR. A middle school is a meager $39,944,790 and an Elementary schools $36,276,277. These are median costs so likely under estimate the land and construction costs in Marin. The costs of schools are born over 40 years.  Regardless, the impact on taxpayers of the Civic Center PDA is likely to be in the vicinity of an additional $300- $500 property taxes per household. This will be paid via  special assessments or school bonds – residents of affordable or low income housing will be exempted from these costs.
But as LWV notes, building new schools is not an expense that can be charged to tax exempt homes and:

“…the (affordable housing) project may not be denied due to impacts on schools or to the inadequacy of school facilities.”

The building of the three schools will be mandatory.  The cost will necessarily be shifted onto the backs of the homeowners via higher taxes and tenants via higher rents.

The economic hardship on the rest of the community that must pay their own way is not a subject addressed by the League of Women Voters.

Conclusion

“Dispelling the Myths of Affordable Housing” is not written from a non-partisan viewpoint.  It raises a number of interesting and important subjects that should be part of the dialogue.  However, in its urgent desire to advocate its own position, the League of Women Voters ultimately encourages blind support.  It creates new myths more than exposing any existing ones.  Its handling of data and sources is inconsistent to the point where the report’s fundamental reliability is unstable.

It is further worth noting that not all supporters of affordable housing also support urbanization and high density 5-story apartment buildings in Marin County.  Environmentalists, which include many opponents of Plan Bay Area, do not support short-cutting environmental review (CEQA).  And not all opponents of urbanization oppose affordable housing.

However, most of us are great admirers of the League of Women Voters, and believe the errors and omissions here discussed were not known to the local members when the Marin chapter released its report.