Over the last week residents across the county experienced the “sinister Marin” telephone housing survey asking questions that might as well have been “are you a racist?” to find out which angle of attack would be the most effective to push through high density housing across our county.
The survey’s backer was not disclosed, but the exercise clearly involved big money. My contact at CALM - a loose coalition that has been pushing for high density development in Marin – denied it was their doing. Those with market research insight told me that a simple 300-400 respondent telephone survey costs in the realm of $25,000+.
What was most puzzling is the number of friends who have been active in the high density housing discussion who were contacted. There are 100,000 households in Marin. The likelihood of being one of the (say) 400 respondents should be 0.4%. However a survey of 50 friends across Marin involved in high density housing revealed that over 6 had taken the survey – that’s 12%. Others thoughts on the matter are:
- Coincidence: after a highly active email thread we were all primed the survey was happening so we grabbed the phone quickly. (This is my belief, I’m not convinced of any conspiracy)
- Pre-Targeted Respondents:The organization conducting the survey pre-seeded respondents with those they identified as involved in the high density housing wars. They wanted to build a profile and understanding of their opponents that they could use later. (This was the belief of others, they pointed to the 12% sample when statistics suggest that of our group of 50 only one of us should have been called)
- A very large sample size: Perhaps the survey sought 2,000 or more respondents. This would suggest a backer with very deep pockets. If the ballpark cost was about $25,000 for a 400 respondent survey then clearly the price for 2,000 respondents would be much more significant.
The “Are You a Marin Racist?” Fishing Expedition
Survey questions were rotated, likely at random, but some surveys add logic so that depending on how you answer prior questions different questions are asked later. I was not asked these questions – but I have had reports that the following questions were asked (note that these are not verbatim):
- If someone moved into the house next to you that was different to you would this be positive or negative, rate on a scale of 1 to 5
- Do you prefer to live in a neighborhood where everyone is the same as you?
The only agenda I can imagine behind these questions is ascertain, or potentially to build a case that Marin might be a racist county and to quantify that. There were multiple leading “fishing expedition” questions of this nature that in the wrong hands could easily be manipulated to paint a desired objectionable picture of Marinites.
Such sound bite stats could easily then be “weaponized” into press releases and used to disarm opposition to high density housing – only thanks to this survey they won’t say high density housing. Instead the survey will have armed its ‘ commissioners with the precise replacement term designed to garner the most support.
This can then be used to present that this is a major reason for the opposition to high density housing - so therefore we should go ahead and build.
Which Development Related Issues Resonate?
Respondents are asked which of the following they are concerned about:
- The high cost of housing
- Difficulty finding affordable housing
- The sense of community in your neighborhood
- Provision of housing for the average worker
- Is it possible for someone in the Bay Area to work their way out of poverty
- Is it possible for anyone in the Bay Area to find a job
Based on the survey answers an organization pushing for development could identify the path of least resistance. They can then focus all efforts on this angle.
Which Angles Are the Most Persuasive?
- Increasing the supply of housing will allow people to live nearer to where they work reducing traffic congestion (any reader of this peer reviewed UC Berkeley paper Is the Jobs Housing Balance a Transportation Issue? by Genevieve Guiliano will know this claim is utter nonsense).
- Increasing the supply of housing will make housing more affordable in Marin. (Ignoring the absence of evidence to substantiate that such ocean-boiling policies have ever achieved this elsewhere. Marin is a very attractive place to live next to one of the cities in the US with the highest wages and many jobs. Housing prices will always be high in such a location).
And conversely respondents are asked about statements made by opponents of affordable housing (the survey conveniently neglects to mention that these opponents support affordable housing, just not high density affordable housing):
- It will change for the worse the character of our community (note, I always qualify this as architectural character. High density supporters are going for the “trap” that if you oppose change to community character that this is dogwhistle racism – of course they are judge and jury on deciding when this line has been crossed).
- It will lead to crime (I am inconclusive on this. A lot depends on the effort and responsibility of the management company. Singapore is very high density but has very low crime – however harsh sentencing laws are likely a factor).
Which Organizations Could Push Pro Housing Message the Most Effectively?
Respondents are asked which individuals or organizations they find believable. The list offered is a blend of the typical pro-high density mouthpiece organizations together with others likely thrown in for calibration or to ascertain the best media channels to focus on. Respondents are asked to score the following;
- The League of Women Voters – while ostensibly claiming neutrality the League is now widely viewed by many as a partisan lobbying group. Its Transportation and Land Use Committee is controlled by Judy Binsacca, chair of the multi-million dollar EAH Housing non-profit. Mary Murtagh, the CEO of EAH Housing has also been highly involved with the League of Women Voters. If you think non-profit housing means these companies are altruistic then check out the bottom of this discussion which lays out the stratospheric salaries of the people involved. The discussion highlights that Mary Murtagh earned in excess of $264,000 back in 2011. It’s big money!
- Sustainable Marin – this has become a very strong mouthpiece for the high density message. Sustainable Marin leader Kiki Laporte joined Susan Adams as an aide just prior to her failed re-election run. Here’s a video of Kiki Laporte in action at a press conference where special interests groups demanded that Governor Brown declare a state of emergency because Marinites were racist (Randy Warren of San Rafael penned an excellent op ed that disseminated this ludicrous stunt that completely backfired) . Laporte’s Sustainable San Rafael organization frequently makes outlandish claims about how high density housing and transit oriented development will lead to reduced emissions, so we must allow this housing to be built (or we will accelerate climate change). I’ve published many retorts to these claims here on Planning for Reality.
- Labor Unions – I remain positive on many unions, especially private unions, but I’m aware some (by no means all) public unions are politically active see high density as an opportunity to swell their ranks, membership dues and power.
- Marin Conservation League
- The local chamber of commerce
- Church groups
- The Sierra Club – a group that has come out on both sides of the high density housing debate.
- Homeowner Associations - clearly focus can be placed on these organizations to push through information. I suspect most people do trust their HOA, but these organizations are not so susceptible to manipulation.
Party Affiliations Thoroughly Probed
Respondents are thoroughly probed on their politics:
- Are you a registered Democrat or Republican
- If so are you “strong” with the party or not?
- Are you politically liberal, moderate or conservative
Perhaps this is yet another attempt, that will of course fail, to expose that all opponents are right wingers and/or affiliated with the tea party.
Which Term Resonates the Best?
Respondents were asked to score the following words from positive (5) to negative (1):
- Affordable Housing
- Workforce Housing
- Community Housing
- Low Income Housing
Of course the accurate and precise term “subsidized housing” is never suggested.
The Mysterious Survey Backer
Nobody yet knows who commissioned the suryey, however the number of people called indicate that the survey has big money – likely $25k behind it. Then there must be more money to act on the answers. My best guess is the billion dollar Marin Community Foundation. They frequently conduct phone surveys – I recently responded to one on their age research – so this is their modus operandi.
Marin Community Foundation are on record as having a $10m fund pushing over 5 years to increase affordable housing. Although the page has disappeared from their site they also had a $2m fund specifically aimed to lobby local elected officials to allow more zoning of affordable housing.
The second contender is Hanson Bridgett, a Marin legal firm that represents a number of housing developers and has a dedicated land use team. Hanson Bridgett was one of Supervisor Kinsey’s biggest donors (Marin IJ article here). As many by now know Kinsey is highly influential and has been driving pro high density housing policies at the county. Not only did former Supervisor Gary Giacomini of Hanson Bridgett donate $7,500 to Kinsey’s campaign, so did multiple other attorneys from Hanson Bridgett.
I’ve also just learned that Hanson Bridgett were one of Supervisor Judy Arnold’s biggest donors. Arnold also has pushed a high density agenda. It must also be noted that supervisor elect Damon Connolly, who I have come to trust and replaced Susan Adams also received donations from Hanson Bridgett.
Excerpt from Hanson Bridgett website:
Hanson Bridgett’s land use attorneys have extensive experience representing clients in all phases of the California land use approval process. We represent developers, property owners, investors, financial institutions, private citizens, and governmental entities across the entire gamut of all aspects of land use regulation in California.
Through many years of experience, our attorneys have developed close working relationships with agency staff and public officials across the Bay Area and the expertise to forge valuable partnerships in new cities. Our firm’s extensive experience representing government agencies gives us a unique perspective on the practical and political workings of government. These relationships allow us to take our knowledge of our clients’ business objectives and the policy goals of the government agencies to create mutually beneficial solutions. The success of our land use attorneys is due to a keen awareness of ongoing development opportunities and political constraints, and the ability to create dialogue with community, environmental, and government leaders to identify and address key community issues.
As many may know Supervisor Giacomini is by now (in)famous for his outburst at the April 1st Board of Supervisor meeting where he made this statement (watch the video):
“Morning supervisors, I’m Gary Giacomini and I, as you know, I sat in you seat for some 24 years, and I want to say that I have never seen such a mean-spirited electorate out there, what appears to be, and I wanted to say that it’s like a combination of the flat-earth society, the know nothing party and the pitchfork gang and they’re assaulting you on all kinds of fronts.
…another thing about your enemies they don’t, they ask questions but they don’t care what the answers are because they have a vicious agenda which is anti, anti-government, tea party-ist kind of mentality
Is any of this activity illegal? Likely not. However it is more a matter for residents to be aware of a survey that is open to manipulation. A survey with big money behind it, and a lack of transparency into its’ motivations or likely future uses. A survey that delivers an incisive tool to a lobby trying to push through specific commercial goals. The author expects to see the results fashioned into some headline grabbing press release. You’ll know it when you see it – it will be the one that tries to label opposition to high density housing as immoral. It will surely distort the conversation – and jeopardize our beautiful county for commercial interests.
What Do You Think – Add Your Comment Below
The author does not know the source – and is interested in hearing what others think? I’ve now implemented Disqus commenting – the same system that’s used by the Marin IJ – so chime in below and say what you think about this survey.
Note: The author does not speak for or in any way represent Citizen Marin.