The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) today filed a lawsuit against the City of Sausalito, CA alleging that the city violated the state’s Housing Accountability Act with an unlawful denial of a housing project. In 2016, David Holub, the owner of the project at 77 Crescent Avenue, proposed a modest addition to his property that would add one new unit of housing to the Bay Area’s already scarce housing supply. On September 11, 2017, Sausalito City Council voted to deny David’s project.
The City of Sausalito denied the project on the grounds that the project is “out of scale with the village like quality of Sausalito”. CaRLA alleges that the city’s reason for denial of the project was based on subjective criteria, which is a violation of the Housing Accountability Act’s requirement that projects be denied for objective, well-defined criteria.
“One home may not seem like the solution to the state’s housing shortage,” says CaRLA Executive Director Victoria Fierce, “but every journey begins with a single step. The remedy for the housing shortage will be the sum of many individual new housing units.”
“We can’t let exclusive suburbs like Sausalito off the hook” added CaRLA co-founder Sonja Trauss. “We have to take the fight against gentrification to the place where it starts - in the high cost, highly desirable suburbs that have historically been very good at keeping new housing, and new people out. That demand doesn’t just disappear. … Housing must be built in every kind of neighborhood: high density apartment housing near transit and in big city downtowns, medium density multi-family on small town main streets, and also single family homes on underutilized lots in exclusive low density neighborhoods.”
“The Bay Area’s wealthy enclaves cannot break the law with impunity,” said attorney Ryan Patterson. “As we have done elsewhere, we will compel Sausalito to obey state housing mandates and approve code-compliant projects.”
CaRLA is a 501c3 non-profit organized in California for expanded access to all forms of housing for all income levels through enforcement of state housing law. Enacted in 1982, the Housing Accountability Act (Government Code Section 65589.5) requires that cities grant applications for housing development projects that comply with objective code requirements, except in rare cases where specific health and safety risks cannot be mitigated.
That CEQA abuse is rampant should surprise no one. As Holland & Knight confirmed in their 2015 study, most CEQA actions attempt to block infill development, mass transit, and renewable energy projects. Anti-housing advocates use CEQA to delay, kill, or reduce the density of housing projects, as recent actions in Redwood City illustrate. According to the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, Redwood City boasted 56,093 total jobs, but only 28,825 total housing units as of 2014 (Excel document). Home to long-time tech heavyweights Oracle and Electronic Arts, Redwood City needs to build more housing, especially in its downtown core served by Caltrain.
Geoff Carr, a criminal defense attorney in Redwood City, opposes the City’s plan to build tall housing downtown. Carr typifies a species of NIMBY who wields a law enacted to promote environmental sustainability to demand a reduction in housing density, which encourages sprawl. In November of 2016, Carr successfully compelled Redwood City and a developer to settle his CEQA suit, which resulted in downsizing a proposed 91-unit condo building to 68 units. Emboldened by his victory, Carr is now attempting to reduce the density of another proposed 8-story housing development in Redwood City. At a City Council meeting last year, Carr declared, “There is an end to this chitchat and it ends with me… Make this six stories and you won’t get sued.” Evidently, Carr has declared himself to be the Commissar of Housing, never mind the democratic decision-making process.
CaRLA is working with pro-housing advocates in Redwood City to prevent additional CEQA abuse. While state-level reform is necessary to align the effects of CEQA with the bill’s intent, we hope that by working with YIMBYs, the City, and the developer, CaRLA can prevent additional homes from being killed.
Boom California recently published an interview with Mike Davis, a “chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly,” and advocate for community planning. I’ve excerpted sections from Davis’ best-known work, “City of Quartz,” (PDF) on Twitter to highlight how Los Angeles homeowners demanded land use and tax policies that enriched themselves while furthering racial and class exclusion. Davis is a talented prose stylist with a knack for skewering profiteering and segregationist Angelenos, but his lack of understanding of real estate markets leads him to support perverse policies. Below, I discuss shortcomings in his “progressive” approach and propose four suggestions when thinking about land use policy.
Devise policy to limit home prices, not land prices.
Davis assumes that “the stabilization of land values is the precondition for long-term democratic planning.” Like Davis, I support a Georgist Land-Value Tax, but the real problem for low- and middle-income people isn’t high land prices, it’s high home prices. Few people live on unimproved land. High land prices are a market signal to use land more intensely, i.e., to build dense housing instead of detached single-family homes. In hyper-expensive San Francisco, land acquisition costs are a small portion of the costs for new condo towers, but they are the majority of the costs for detached single-family homes. Urban policy that values class and racial inclusion will limit home-price appreciation by permitting more homes to be built.
Most poor people live in market-rate housing. Don’t abandon them.
Aside from a Land-Value Tax, Davis’ other big “nonrevolutionary” solution is to more strictly regulate land use. He wants to “municipalize strategic parts of the land inventory for affordable housing, parks and form-giving greenbelts.” Those are fine ideas IF the city either a) builds massive amounts of social housing on restricted land (politically & fiscally impossible) or b) permits private developers to meet the need for housing on unrestricted land (politically hard, fiscally easy, but not what Davis supports). Otherwise, home prices will climb and the poor will be displaced. Rent control helps incumbent residents, but does little for low-income migrants. If local policymakers seek to prevent displacement and permit in-migration of low-income people, they need to think more about the real estate market and less about publicly subsidized housing.
Value a diversity of uses and urban play over rigid long-term planning.
On the one hand, Davis supports “long-term democratic planning” and thinks developers ruin social democracy by engaging in the political process to secure variances for their projects. On the other hand, Davis wants to allow a “democratic variety” in urban space and encourage “unprogrammed fun and discovery.” These desires are incompatible. Limiting development and prescribing permissible land use activities restricts in-migration to wealthy residents and proscribes the creative adaptation of disused space. Weirdo 22 year-old artists aren’t going to apply for a below-market-rate housing waiting list, they’re going to move where rent and studio space are cheap.
Economic dynamism militates against long-term planning. Support flexible land use policies.
Davis believes “if you don’t intervene in the operation of land markets, you’ll usually end up producing the opposite result from what you intended.” As housing scholarship (PDF) makes clear, the reality is the opposite – if cities intervene in the operation of land markets via restrictive zoning, they may lower the price of land, but will increase the price of homes and worsen segregation. That’s not to say there is no need for infrastructure planning and encouraging home building along transit corridors, but councils of local residents are unlikely to concern themselves with the interests of nonresidents and therefore shouldn’t direct policy. What’s more, would-be planners face many unknown unknowns. As a former manager of the Communist Party’s bookstore, Mike Davis should take Marx’s analysis of capitalism in the “The Communist Manifesto” seriously:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Not only do localities further exclusion when given the opportunity, they attempt to preserve existing built form and use when changed economic and social conditions demand alternatives. Marx could have been writing about California land use and tax policy when he declared, “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Let’s embrace the future by surrendering our futile desires for stability. Achieving inclusive communities demands it.
In “The Experience of Racial and Ethnic Minorities with Zoning in the United States” (PDF), Andrew H. Whittemore of UNC Chapel Hill offers a good review of the environmental, planning, and legal literature. Whittemore describes how the practice and ideology of modern zoning – physical separation of “incompatible” uses like apartments, single-family homes, and industrial activities – maintained racial and class segregation after successive laws and court decisions forbade explicit exclusion. Planners upheld zoning as the cartographical embodiment of good government, while white homeowners and city officials supported facially race neutral policies to preserve racial and class segregation. White residents demanded restrictive zoning by virtue of their “positions as homeowners, consumers, and taxpayers concerned about property values, community services, and quality of life.” City officials likewise defended the exclusionary status quo by strengthening environmental protection, traffic mitigation efforts, and city finances. The result was “…an American brand of apartheid that saw wealthier and white households secluded from poorer and minority Americans in separate geographies.”
New to me was the concept of “expulsive zoning,” the practice of zoning residential areas for industrial uses, which often displaced the existing (typically Latino or black) residents. In cases where residents remained, they were often exposed to environmental toxins and noxious activities. While YIMBYs may cheer environmental justice campaigns, we often neglect the good work of public health and environmental policy researchers in this area.
Conversing with the economic literature and more recent planning scholarship would have strengthened Whittemore’s brief discussion of zoning reforms to integrate communities. His use of Charles H. Cheney, a planning consultant in the early 20th century, as a champion for the economic advancement for poor immigrants is especially bizarre. Cheney, the co-author of Berkeley’s first zoning ordinance, clarified the purpose of large lot single-family zoning in a letter to Frederick Law Olmstead. Cheney wrote, “The type of protective restrictions and the high class scheme of layout which we have provided tends to guide and automatically regulate the class of citizens who are settling here. The restrictions prohibit occupation of land by Negroes or Asiatics. The minimum cost of house restrictions tends to group the people of more or less like income together...” To achieve housing affordability and integration, we YIMBYs must make common cause with fair housing advocates to dismantle these “high class schemes” in the courts and at the ballot box.
To date, scholars have examined two common effects of zoning that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities in the United States: (1) exclusionary effects, resulting from zoning’s erection of direct, discriminatory barriers or indirect, economic barriers to geographic mobility; and (2) intensive and expulsive effects, resulting from zoning’s disproportionate targeting of minority residential neighborhoods for commercial and industrial development. In light of recent legal and federal policy developments, continued research is needed to better understand the scale of the gap between the treatment of white and minority communities and to better understand how zoning can reverse past injustices.