Vilification, subversion of language, truisms and California’s one party government are just some of the tools being leveraged to push a developer funded radical rapid housing growth agenda that would dramatically reshape California’s single family home neighborhoods
While Donald Trump is accused of having the attention span of a goldfish, the same accusation could be made of California voters. Few read ballot measures, typically basing their vote solely whether the the “headline” is appealing, or perhaps deferring to the endorsement of the local newspaper – newspapers which are often not without bias. This fact has not gone unnoticed by those who can benefit from it.
This has led to one small but highly vocal minority special interest group hijacking not just state government but local councils and committees to push through their ideology – an ideology called “transit oriented development,” blended with the goal of driving rapid housing growth to address California’s housing crisis, above all other priorities and irrespective of negative, unintended consequences.
This special interest group has successfully hijacked the conversation using 6 key tactics:
Tactic #1: Propagate Opinions As “Truisms”
While Dilbert creator Scott Adams accuses Trump of using hypnosis techniques, the same techniques are being used very effectively by pro rapid-growth groups such as the YIMBYs, and some groups using the pretense of advocating for “sustainable” development (there are many groups that advocate genuine sustainability which the author has great respect for).
This tactic manifests itself at local council meetings, discussions with state government and, of course, in online community discussion forums.
I recently started a poll on Nextdoor.com asking the seemingly simple question, “Will building more housing in our neighborhood increase or decrease traffic congestion?”. I qualified this with “The change in traffic congestion may be on local streets OR on freeways”. For context, our neighborhood, which is primarily single family homes, with a sprinkling of 2-3 story apartments, is next to a newly built, but little used train station. Little did I realize I had set off an explosive conversation.
The poll results demonstrated that by far the majority of residents – 89% of 276 respondents – felt that building more housing would increase traffic congestion. At least two people commented “is this a trick question?”.
However, while the majority equated more housing with more traffic, interesting discussions ensued with some suggesting this might not be the case. Here is a selection of comments supporting the concept that more housing may reduce traffic congestion:
“blocking local development, forces more people to live further out, which is why the Richmond bridge has turned into such a nightmare. Stasis is not an option. “
“New residents, including those who don’t live there yet, are demanding something else. The problem is that these places can’t continue to stay the same.”
“Building around the new train station just makes sense”
It’s important to objectively assess these statements. They contain many suppositions presented seemingly as facts or truisms. The poster, while providing references to opinion articles, did not present data to substantiate that “blocking local development forces people to live further out”. Perhaps limiting local development means that people decide to move to different cities altogether.
One astute commenter pointed out:
“On the TV news last week [they reported that] 17,000 people commute daily from the Sacramento area down to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley because they can make 30-35% more down here.”
So even if development is blocked, high wages will always be a magnetic draw, causing car trips and increasing congestion. These residents may choose to remain in the Sacramento area for many reasons – for instance they want a larger home and are prepared to sacrifice commute time, they have multiple people working in their household in different locations or they choose to live near relatives, friends or preferred schools.
The statement “New residents, including those who don’t live there yet, are demanding something else“ again presents an interesting, but unsubstantiated opinion.
The pro rapid growth advocate stated “The problem is that these places can’t continue to stay the same.“”. This was met with the response from another resident:
“You say that stasis is not an option because the effect of blocking local development forces people to live further out. If I’m understanding, that statement assumes that the needs of the person stuck with the longer commute are greater than the needs of the person who wants to maintain the existing character of his community – including protecting against additional congestion. Maybe you are right, but it is an issue to be debated, not a certainty.”
Tactic #2: Vilification
A second tactic used by rapid growth advocates is to vilify opponents – accusing them of motivations so stigmatizing – such as supporting zoning because it is exclusionary to minorities – that it intimidates the opposition, in a form of online bullying. Typically these lines of attack are highly effective at shutting down opposition and thoughtful conversation. I received a number of private direct messages from people intimidated and tired of this form of attack.
While there are some (whose motivations I strongly disagree with and who frankly, make up a very small percentage of the North Bay’s population) who genuinely do oppose development to exclude minorities, there are many valid reasons that for decades have led to zoning decisions that limit development:
- Large parts of California have been set aside as off limits to development by environmentalists. For instance, a large planned city was proposed by developers in the Marin headlands called Marincello back in the mid 1960s. Fierce debate ensued but the outcome was the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is a national treasure that has been off limits to development ever since. Today over 80% of Marin County is off limits to development – a testament to a great achievement by environmentalists. It is the primary reason most people visit Marin.
- California has faced many periods of drought. Residents have seen water rates double and triple in recent years because Marin’s sources of water remain extremely limited. During dry summers, which are increasingly occurring as global warming drives the climate more toward extreme weather, rationing has become the norm even though County residents have adopted water saving appliances and home design at the highest rates in the nation.
While desalination plants have been proposed as one possible solution, they require powerful electric motors to pump seawater through filtration systems: electrical power that is produced mainly by greenhouse gas producing power plants, and their waste output is a concentrated brine solution that is so toxic to wildlife that it cannot be put back into the Bay and must be trucked to secured landfills in other states.
- Traffic, which is surprisingly mostly generated by local driving to schools and shopping is a daily challenge for many – and in many locations, especially around the nexus of freeways and arterials, it can result in substantial delays. These delays take their toll – taking away time from family life or work and increasing greenhouse gas emissions and air quality health hazards from slow moving and idling cars and trucks. This congestion has been combined with a noticeable under-investment in maintaining road capacity, despite a steadily increasing population, creating a perfect storm of dysfunctional transportation. However, at the same time Marin’s public transportation options (mostly buses) are woefully inadequate. It would be impractical and an unaffordable burden to the community to provide additional transit achieving a meaningful reduction in traffic.
- Parking is another issue that impacts quality of life and more importantly the survival of locally owned and and serving, small businesses in Marin. Small businesses in Marin depend on having convenient parking near stores in order to deal with the increasing competition of big box and online retailing. In addition, it can be difficult for the elderly (a rapidly growing demographic) and the disabled is one cannot park a reasonable distance from ones house or apartment. Allowing new development without providing sufficient parking for the new residents will only exacerbate that. In the Canal District of San Rafael, for example, residents now routinely have to walk many city blocks to their cars and finding spaces when they return from trips saps up needless time.
- Health is a major concern for many. Reports from many respected health organizations have identified substantial increased rates of autism, asthma, heart disease and cancer for residents living near freeways or major roads, yet pro rapid growth advocates stress the development of high density next to freeways as a number one priority.
- Finally many people move into a neighborhood because of its scale and walkability – because it is low rise and low density and easy to get around. For half a century homeowners have purchased homes and invested considerable efforts to improve those homes and their communities in good faith, trusting that zoning laws will prevent radical departures from the current height and density and architectural character of where they live. Had they wanted to live in a high density neighborhood they would have chosen somewhere different. And, contrary to the “truisms” promoted by rapid growth advocates, the vast majority come from humble beginnings and worked very hard to be able to live in the North Bay or other parts of the SF Bay Area. Their home is typically the biggest asset they own. One resident raising this issue on Nextdoor asks “By what right do you determine the change that should be made to the neighborhood and force your idea of the “correct” change on me?”
These are just some of the concerns residents care about.
However, the rapid growth lobby has finessed a strategy of bullying, name calling and vilification at the expense of common sense and economic facts:
- Homeowners raising any objections to high density development are immediately dismissed with the stigmatized and vastly over-simplifying label of being NIMBYs, when most are only trying to protect their lifetime investment in community and the environment (which, of course, is why places like Marin are so desirable in the first place)..
- Residents are accused of being racists and supporting zoning that excludes minorities, even though discriminatory zoning was outlawed decades ago and the historical purposes of zoning have always been predominantly related to rational and beneficial growth and city planning and public and economic benefits.
- Residents are routinely labelled as “rich” or other labels that are not only inaccurate, and only serve to expose the false assumptions and prejudices by those making the accusation. No one is denying that Marin residents on average are statistically better off than most California counties, but that does not mean everyone is “rich,” because the cost of living is Marin is also the highest in the State. The statistics are further skewed by the fact that as a small suburban and rural county (less than 250,000 people) we do not have any super dense, urban areas, which tend skew average incomes downward. The median age in Marin is also much higher than in urban areas: 46.1 old years vs 38 years old in San Francisco.
- Ironically, when it comes to affordability, on a statistical basis Marin is actually more affordable than San Francisco. The median income for a family of four in San Francisco and Marin are essentially identical at $103,845 and $103,801, respectively. Yet the median cost of a home is “over $1 million” in San Francisco and “$74,600” in Marin, according to the most recently available data. So, should housing advocates be turning their ire toward San Francisco as a “rich” insular community?
Tactic #3: People Should Be Able to Live Where they Work or Anywhere they Choose
There is a presumption made by some that there is an entitlement to live in a neighborhood because:
- A person grew up there
- A person has a job there
- A person has family there
- A person currently lives there
- A person just wants to live there and it’s unfair that they can’t
There are two extreme viewpoints that come out here.
At the one end of the spectrum is the opinion that anyone should be able to live wherever they choose. What is not stated here is that in a market economy, if a person cannot afford to live where they choose, then somehow that burden has to be taken on by someone else – typically if not government subsidy, by the existing residents of that community. It is not “free”.
For instance, residents of a 100% affordable apartment block built by a non-profit developer can pay 1/20th of the property taxes of an equivalent market rate home owner. Residents of Below Market Rate units may have their property value suppressed by say 30% and consequently pay 70% of the property taxes of an equivalent market rate unit. In order for a municipality to maintain public services such as police, fire and other services, and the costs of infrastructure upkeep (roads, bridges, public utilities, etc.), existing residents must pay the additional costs through a combination of taxes, bond measure and fees – a subsidy (it is ironic to note that in most cases those addition costs are recaptured through the imposition of highly regressive sales and property taxes and development fees — which are passed on in the form of higher rents and housing costs impacting those on lower incomes the most).
At the other end of the spectrum is the opinion that people should live within their means, that life is inherently challenging and often unfair, and that it is an individual’s responsibility to adapt to and overcome that. Some parts of California can be expensive. This is not unique to California. In our new global investment economy, housing prices in similarly situated communities in proximity to growing urban centers has risen dramatically in the past 15 years.
If one is living or working in an expensive place but cannot afford it something has to change – and the logical choice many people would make is to move to a location that is more affordable. The outward migration from the SF Bay Area to Oregon, Washington, Texas, Colorado and beyond is well documented. This is not any different from the outward migration from major East Coast cities to the West Coast that occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the West Coast was comparatively inexpensive.
Personally, I don’t agree with the either extremes. I think I, like many others, land somewhere on a “spectrum” between the two. And, I want there to be a healthy debate to arrive at the right point on this spectrum as the solution.
What needs to happen is a healthy discussion about all the impacts and unintended consequences. How communities can grow in ways that are socially, environmentally and economically sustainable, so that the impositions made on public services, schools, fees and taxes don’t just bring about a vicious cycle that in the long run produces no actual gains for anyone. Unfortunately, it has been made taboo to even raise these concerns.
In a nextdoor.com discussion, posts suggesting that if one cannot afford to live in an expensive location then moving somewhere more affordable is an option, wereflagged as uncivil and offensive. Meanwhile, another poster, enraged by rents rising that they could now barely afford, accused people of being “vile” for “telling them what to do” by suggesting they have the option to move – seemingly not grasping that by implication they were telling others in the community to pay for them to stay. No one flagged that post despite its aggressive language and when I asked a moderator if they found it uncivil they responded “just let it go”.
Tactic #4 Subverting Language to Persuade and Manipulate
It’s been said that the most important aspect in any battle is the territory on which it is being fought. The fast growth special interests groups have been highly effective at changing the language to make what may have been unpalatable become innocuous, or raise the question “whoever would oppose that?”. When this happens in Washington D.C., it is called the “post facts” world. Yet, suggesting that in this case, is considered reactionary.
Consider these examples of the language that has been introduced:
- affordable housing: This presumes that a city has the obligation to provide subsidized housing, irrespective of the fact that cities do not actually have the capability or financial wherewithal to build and manage housing. This presumption also obfuscates and conceals the negative impacts that existing residents will have to contribute via subsidies, making it seem as if there is only upside. “Who could possibly oppose affordable housing?”
- workforce housing: This presumes that housing must be provided for workers in their employment location, and that workers always choose to live where they work, even though there is no evidence that in our highly mobile, 21st century society that this is the case. The concept is also flawed because there are many reasons people choose not to live near where they work and it is rare that multiple members of households work in the same places. Furthermore, subsidized housing cannot limit new residents to be only from the local workforce. There are very few legal exceptions to this and any development that receives any form of government assistance, even an FDIC backed loan, cannot discriminate in this manner.
- “sustainable communities”: This term has effectively become derogatory to single family home neighborhoods, implying that multi-family apartments are the only sustainable solution. This neglects that single family homes can often be self-sufficient in electricity by using solar panels, reducing or eliminating their carbon footprint – this electricity subsistence is harder for multifamily housing to achieve — and that recent studies conducted by government agencies have indicated that suburban communities are turning “green” and carbon neutral faster than our countries urban centers.
- “housing crisis” ;There are certainly serious challenges to providing housing to everyone who needs it and housing prices in desirable locations across the country are at nose-bleed levels. But what is actually the nature and cause of this crisis? What is overlooked here, however, is the fact that we have never built any significant amount of affordable housing in the U.S. without government subsidy, and that since 1980 the amount of federal and state housing subsidies available have decreased to almost nothing on an inflation adjusted basis. What is also overlooked is that the historically widening income inequality we are witnessing is a result of inequitable tax law, again, dating back to the early 1980’s and which has recently gotten even worse. Add to this mix that the new global investment economy has dramatically impacted the cost of housing across the country, particularly since the crash of 2008, which foreign investor and investment banks purchasing rental properties at historic rates.
- On top of all this or perhaps because of this, California is actually losing residents and it’s population is shrinking – between 2004 and 2013 it experienced a net loss of 1 million residents. Logically, within California people are moving away from expensive areas such as the Bay Area to Sacramento, Modesto and Stockton where there is a net increase in population. I don’t propose that this is a solution to the high costs of housing and its impacts, but ignoring the fundamental economic factors causing this crisis will not produce a sustainable solution.
Being obligated to use these terms only in politically correct ways, makes for an uneven playing field even before discussion begins..
Tactic #5: Leverage (Infiltrate) a Sympathetic Media to Frame the Conversation
The media is very sympathetic to emotion driven stories and sound bite solutions about the housing crisis. Organizations such as the YIMBYs have a paid, full time professional staff working to promote their agenda, with the financial backing of big real estate investment and development interests. Local homeowners, on the other hand, typically are just going about their business, working long hours, raising their families and contributing to their communities as best they can.
Journalists have also been highly sympathetic and attracted to the “controversy” surrounding YIMBYs causes, but they rarely take the side of taxpaying, single family homeowners – despite the fact they these are often the majority of residents in most SF Bay Area communities.
Most recently, there have been the rise of YIMBY journalists, the most notable of which is Liam Dillon at the LA Times. Here are some excerpts from his recent articles. Notice how he frames the conversation:
In an article about the county of Marin, he writes, “In this affluent enclave of high real estate and rental costs, decades-old patterns of neighborhood segregation remain intact.”
What Dillon fails to convey is that large numbers of Marin residents are older boomers on fixed incomes and financially strapped young couples raising families. There are also sizable enclaves of low income minorities in Marin City and the Canal District of San Rafael. Yet, the author consistently stereotypes the entire county’s population as affluent and elitist
He goes on to write, “In recent years, Marin residents have blocked housing of all kinds,” proceeding to call out the famous denial to George Lucas to build affordable housing at the isolated Grady Ranch location. What he fails to realize is the denial had nothing to do with residents blocking housing but the development. State agencies repeatedly advised Lucas that his plans to divert existing creeks and otherwise transgress environmental regulations would never be approvable. In fact, when one looks at the timeline for the Disney sale of Lucasfilm, one can see that Lucas was already looking to sell his empire as soon as his original plan to build a massive studio complex on the land was denied by the County. This was 18 months before the flare up about his “housing” proposal, and it brings into question if that proposal was ever really a serious possibility.
The entire slant of Dillon’s article, and many like it, is to demonize residents opposing rapid growth. It is hard to find any article by Dillon championing residents for opposing inappropriate development at all (should there be one please alert me).
Tactic #6: Leverage California’s One Party Government
Finally the fast growth brigade has been very effective at pushing radical legislation through the state government, which despite its far reaching implications, is little known to most of the population.
Normally, if a mid-rise development is proposed, every resident within a set distance with sight lines to the development is contacted and made aware by their local planning agency. Meanwhile, Scott Wiener has moved senate bills with far more radical impact and scale, through the state legislature, with barely any of California’s residents even aware of it.
Instead. These bills are presented to a state government with little publicity and the public comment is dominated by a single groups ideology. For one’s political career to advance party whips make it abundantly clear that legislators need to support certain politically correct bills, regardless of how counterproductive or ill conceived they may be.
Campaign finance rules do nothing to prevent donations from real estate and construction interests – interests that Smart Voter shows have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Scott Wiener’s campaign funds. While the author believes Wiener may be driven more by ideology than monetary gain, this certainly does nott extend to others in government.
Our State Has Been Hijacked
The reason I became politically engaged was because I witnessed an important committee that was meant to represent my community, arrive after 2 years of meetings at a plan that was almost the diametrically opposed to what the community wanted.
What I see happening is healthy debate based on facts, which is fundamental to an effective democracy, has been dangerously undermined by special interests groups that have finessed what can only be described as bullying and intimidation tactics that are unfortunately becoming the political norm in 2018, nationally and locally.
These techniques are succeeding in bringing about new laws and newly proposed legislation:
- The enacted Assembly Bill 2584 shifted the burden of proof for blocking inappropriate development away from the city to any reasonable person – which includes the developer making the proposal. Additionally it empowers developers’ surrogates such as trade groups or advocacy groups such as SF YIMBY to file suit. Where before developers were reluctant to sue as they would be constantly negotiating with cities this stigma is now removed. Furthermore when cities lose such suits they are obligated to pay the petitioner’s legal costs. SF YIMBY (formerly SF Bay Area Renters Foundation) has successfully won 2 suits in Berkeley and Sausalito blocking development of market rate housing.
- Senate Bill 827 “Planning and zoning: transit-rich housing bonus” proposed by Scott Wiener on January 3rd 2018 would automatically upzone areas within ½ mile of transit hubs and transit corridors to allow up to 85 feet apartment buildings (on a street with a 45 ft. right of way) with no limits on density or floor area ratio.
- Senate Bill 828 “Land use: housing element” also proposed by Scott Wiener on January 3rd 2018 would significantly increase housing quotas from regional governments such as the Association of Bay Area Governments. It would require that cities and counties plan not just to meet that quota but zone so that twice the quota given to them could be built. Prior legislation helps organizations such as Urban Habitat and YIMBY Action or any housing advocate to sue cities that resist – with the cities paying financial penalties and the petitioner’s legal fees.
Together State Senator Scott Wiener’s enacted and newly proposed bills present a perfect storm – shifting California from a largely single family home community to an urban mid or high rise community that supposedly will embrace transit that for all practical purposes in counties such as Marin does not and will not ever exist..
What Can You Do to Stop This?
If you are a resident who cares about the impact these laws will have on your community and you’re concerned (and you should be) that this legislation may pass and 5 or 8 story apartment blocks may spring up after your neighbors sell up, here’s what you can do:
Contact Your State Assembly Representative And State Senator
Ideally ask to speak to their senior staffer in Sacramento responsible for housing policy. Tell them to vote no on Senate Bills 827 and 828.
Use this Find Your Representative tool to obtain the phone number and email address of your senator and assembly representative.