DECEMBER 8, 2015 — My last story about the continuing power struggle between the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission ended with a question: do the executive directors of these two agencies endorse the recommendations to expand regional planning authority at the expense of local control that are put forth in the Bay Area Council Economic Institute’s recently published Roadmap for Economic Resilience: The Bay Area Regional Economic Strategy?
The story was posted around 2 p.m. on Thursday, November 12.
Twenty-four hours later, the answer was clear, at least with respect to ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport. Speaking in Oakland at the annual conference of the Bay Area Planning Directors Association, Rapport said that “in my opinion” the Roadmap was one of three documents that would be “foundational” in the forthcoming discussions about merging ABAG and MTC—the other two are the HUD-funded, SPUR-directed Economic Prosperity Strategy and the ABAG staff report, People, Places, and Prosperity.
If Rapport’s opinion presages reality, it’s not just local control of land use and transportation planning that’s going to take a big hit. The BACEI white paper targets publicly accountable governance and government at large. It denounces impact development fees, asserting that “[e]xisting landowners are not paying their fair share to solve the regional housing problem.” It praises Lfyt, Uber and Sidecar for “not…accommodat[ing] the strictures of decades-old government planning,” that is, for ignoring existing laws. It calls the California Environmental Quality Act “a threat to the
These extreme positions should not be a surprise. They simply flesh out the market-guided, supply-side, privatizing, growth-to-the-max priorities that the BACEI and the Bay Area Council, the lobby for the region’s biggest businesses, have always embraced.
What’s a surprise—indeed, a shock—is that these priorities have been endorsed by the executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments, an organization that was founded to protect municipal authority.
True, Rapport preceded his espousal of the “Roadmap” with a hymn to the power of the region’s city councils, calling them “the kernel of all regional planning.”
But it’s impossible to reconcile that tribute with the Roadmap’s list of penalties for cities that “[fail] to permit the required number of new housing units” specified by the Regional Housing Allocation [RHNA] Process:
loss of local approval authority, state-mandated “by right” approvals of housing projects (which removes some discretionary approvals from project review processes), the creation of more “by right” zoning districts, or the creation of a regional hearing body to approve housing developments.
For the record: state law does not require cities to permit a certain number of housing units. It requires the Housing Element in each city’s General Plan to zone for a certain number of units at a range of income levels in accordance with projected household growth. The RHNA numbers are determined by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
The recommendation to put “real teeth” in the RHNA process is not the Roadmap’s only assault on the local control of planning and on democratic government at large.
I’ve noted the swipe at development impact fees. Calling for “both existing and new residents” to share “the costs of promoting livable communities and affordable housing, the Roadmap opines that “[o]nly cities that agree to [a region-wide] fee cap, should be eligible for MTC discretionary funding.” The BACEI also wants to “creat[e] consistent business permitting guidelines across jurisdictions and [to] aggregat[e] zoning, tax incentive, and local developments.” It plugs Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts, whose financing plans can be adopted “by the act of a county or city legislative body, instead of requiring a vote by two-thirds of the electorate.” It contends that the way to lower housing prices is to eliminate or possibly to just disregard “local, regional, and state regulations”—call it the “no stinking badges” approach to development:
Build—not plan, or zone, or even permit—but build sufficient housing stock to meet the demands of a growing regional population and to fill historic deficits.
The Roadmap craves an “Economic Development Corporation” that would “provide a more flexible government model” than the federally Economic Development Districts (EDDs), “as [EDCs] are generally housed apart from their regional government partners.” Specifically, the Roadmap recommends the creation of a public-private entity to be known as the Bay Area Regional Economic Development Partnership, “dedicated to advancing the Bay Area’s national and global economic competitiveness” by marketing the region, “creating a platform for the ongoing engagement between business and government on regional economic priorities, and enabling the strategic development of public land.” The Roadmap is particularly interested in the potential of former military bases.
Governed by a 17-member commission, with each of nine members appointed by a different county Board of Supervisors and the other eight chosen by the Bay Area Business Coalition (comprising the BAC, Bay Planning Coalition, Building Industry Association, East Bay Economic Development Alliance, East Bay Leadership Council, Joint Venture Silicon Valley, North Bay Leadership Council, San Mateo Economic Development Association, and Solano Economic Development Corporation), the BAREDP would “collaborate directly with MTC, ABAG, BAC and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.”
Possible funding sources include “awards created by the state [of California],” an MTC-implemented gasoline tax, “ongoing revenues” received by MTC and ABAG from “federal, state, and local government,” “contributions from local governments, “vehicle registration fees, business licensing fees, bridge toll increases, or even a region-wide sales tax.”
In keeping with its aversion to public accountability—but not to public funding—the BACEI white paper states:
New taxes to find economic development are complicated by the need for voter approval and restrictions on allowed uses. However, a regional pool of money could be applied outside of state authority and would not be subject to state budget and appropriation cycles.
Predictably, the Roadmap disparages that longtime bane of the real estate industry, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). “CEQA litigation,” it huffs,
has become a significant barrier to infill development. A CEQA exemption for new home construction meeting transit-oriented development goals should be created to limit costly lawsuits.
In fact, recently passed California laws such as AB 744 and SB 743 exempt certain infill projects from the CEQA requirement of an Environmental Impact Report. The Roadmap wants more:
State law should be changed to create a new categorical CEQA exemption for new home construction that meets PDA [Priority Development Area—places in the Bay Area that are targeted for high-density, infill] requirements (or their equivalent in other SCS [Sustainable Community Strategy, a.k.a. Plan Bay Area] areas).
The implementation of this proposal would exempt virtually all new housing construction in San Francisco from CEQA, given that PDAs and Transit Priority Areas cover every residential neighborhood in the city:
The Roadmap also wants to lighten CEQA’s impact on infrastructure:
MTC should be empowered to produce regional transportation planning documents…which can expedite the environmental review process.
To justify these new rollbacks of CEQA, the BACEI white paper cites claims made in a 2012 study published by Holland & Knight: “36% of all CEQA-related litigation involved public works projects,” and “the clear majority of cases (62%) litigated under CEQA involved urban infill development.”
Because Holland & Knight’s attacks on the California Environmental Quality Act are frequently cited by CEQA opponents, it’s worth noting that the firm’s latest report, issued in August 2015, has provoked a serious rebuttal. This September, in an article headlined “Anti-CEQA Lobbyists Turn to Empirical Analysis, But Are Their Conclusions Sound?” Sean Hecht, the executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center at UCLA School of Law, wrote that the Holland & Knight assertion that
“CEQA litigation overwhelmingly targets ‘infill’ development that accommodates population and economic growth that would otherwise spill into undeveloped exurban areas”….is the product of an absurdly overinclusive definition of “infill”—to wit, “private and public sector projects located entirely within one of California’s 428 cities, or located immediately adjacent to existing developed areas in an unincorporated county.”
Yes, you read that correctly: this report considers any project, of any type, located within the boundaries of any California city, or next to development outside a city, to be an “infill project.” Under this definition, it is unsurprising that most CEQA cases would involve “infill.” In fact, it would be surprising if any significant number did not. [emphasis in original]
Hecht concluded: “The report’s analysis of CEQA’s impact on infill development is thus so flawed as to be useless.”
Though Hecht didn’t address the report’s claims about public works projects in general, he did dispute its assertions that “[t]he most commonly targeted type of public infrastructure project was transit systems,” and that “[t]ransit projects attracted the highest number of CEQA lawsuits during the study period” (2010-2012). Noting that the report cites challenges to “just twelve transit project approvals,” he wrote:
Legal challenges to three or four transit projects per year in a state the size of California does [sic] not constitute a crisis in litigation.
It’s instructive to compare the Roadmap with another of the three documents that Rapport thinks should be “foundational” in the coming discussions about merging MTC and ABAG: the HUD-funded Economic Prosperity Strategy, published in October 2014.
First glances at these two documents may be misleading. It might appear, for example, that the Roadmap casts the wider net. The BACEI white paper equates its umbrella goal of “resilience” with “sustaining economic growth, weathering business cycles, and supporting shared prosperity across the region.” By contrast, the Economic Prosperity Strategy wants to “improv[e] economic opportunity for the BA’s low-and moderate-wage workers….by creating middle-income jobs and developing and preserving affordable housing in transit-served communities.”
But in seeking greater equity, the EPS addresses many of the same factors as the Roadmap: transportation, “middle-wage” work, workforce development, housing costs, regulation, local control vs. regional governance, and infrastructure.
The BACEI document may also seem to be the lightweight of the two. The Roadmap is replete with buzzwords: sustainable growth, innovation, best-in-class, early adopters, sharing platforms, collaborative (as a noun), feedback loops, artisanal makers, volatility, early warning signs, resilience, and of course disruption. While it calls for “[d]ecisions based on reliable evidence and metrics for tracking progress,” the Roadmap scants on such evidence.
The Economic Prosperity Strategy uses some of the same buzzwords as the Roadmap. But it’s packed with data, charts, and specific examples of all sorts.
This difference turns out to be somewhat illusory. The Roadmap builds on research contained in the 2012 BACEI publication The Bay Area: A Regional Economic Assessment, which is filled with data, charts and maps. Of course, the presence of such materials is one thing, and their quality and utilization is quite another. As we shall see, when it comes to facing the facts, especially facts that contravene its assumptions, EPS does a better, albeit still inadequate, job.
That explains the most important difference between the two papers: The Roadmap advances a coherent regional economic strategy, and the Economic Prosperity Strategy, with its greater respect for data, doesn’t. In this case, the EPS’s incoherence turns to be a virtue, insofar as it exposes the blinkering effects of the autocratic, market-oriented ideology that informs the Roadmap and deflects the EPS’s genuinely progressive impulses.
Consider, for example, how each report handles the related issues of economic polarization and the provision of middle-wage jobs. The Roadmap observes that in the Bay Area, as in the nation, “[o]ver the last 15 years, GDP growth has not translated into growth in middle incomes,” that is, incomes of $35,000 to $99,000 a year. The BACEI attributes the “widening income gap” to “the lack of skills in the workforce necessary for successful employment in the 21st century economy.” Accordingly, one of its major recommendations is to “[c]reate an adaptive regional system for workforce development” that “produc[es] world-class skills and expand[s] opportunity.”
The Roadmap’s supporting document, The Bay Area: A Regional Economic Assessment, accompanies a call to “increase education and workforce training” with a charge to expand the whole economy:
Policies aimed at improving opportunities for workers in LMI [low-to-moderate income] communities should optimally focus on the demand for their services and the skills they bring to the job. Increasing the demand for their services can best be accomplished by facilitating the growth of the broader economy rather than by narrowly encouraging the growth of sectors that need their services.
The Assessment identifies four such sectors: retail trade, health care and social assistance, accommodation and food services, and manufacturing. “Those sectors,” it says, ‘will grow in response to a higher level of overall economic activity in the region.”
Economic expansion aside, the Assessment also says that with
significant retirements coming and job replacement opportunities likely to become abundant, one effective strategy may be to prepare workers from LMI communities for the jobs that will become available due to retirements, rather than attempting to create more jobs in the categories in which they already find employment.
All will be well, if only the larger economy keeps expanding.
Not so, says the Economic Prosperity Strategy. The EPS takes a much closer look at income disparity, as you’d expect, given that its primary goal is to suggest policies that will enable lower-wage workers to move into “middle-wage” work. Its definition of such work—employment yielding at least $18 to $30 an hour or $36,000 to $60,000 a year—is more modest than the Roadmap’s range of $35,000 to $90,000. Nevertheless, even with that lower bar, the EPS thinks that despite the coming boomer retirement wave, the prospects of substantially increasing middle-wage employment in the region are poor.
Here are the numbers:
- 36% or 1,126,6080 of the Bay Area’s 3.2 million total jobs pay less than $18 an hour
- Between 2010 and 2020 only 310,000 middle-wage job openings—positions paying $18-$30 an hour—will occur
In other words, about two-thirds of the existing 1,126,680 low-wage workers are going to be stuck in jobs that pay less than $36,000 a year.
Now for the incoherence. Start with the designation of $36,000 a year as a middle-wage job. The EPS itself notes that
a household with two adults and two children in Alameda County would need to earn over $65,000 per year (or more than $30 per hour) just to meet the bare minimum required to cover basic expenses. Using this same self-sufficiency standard, a four-person household would have to earn close to $60,000 per year in Solano County and over $75,000 per year in San Francisco. a household with two adults and two children in Alameda County would need to earn over $65,000 per year (or more than $30 per hour) just to meet the bare minimum required to cover basic expenses. Using this same self-sufficiency standard, a four-person household would have to earn close to $60,000 per year in Solano County and over $75,000 per year in San Francisco.
As I wrote in April,
The authors’ rationale for designating $18 an hour as “the bottom end of the range of middle-wage jobs” is based on the fact that $18 an hour is equivalent to 80% of the median wage for the East Bay and approximately 80% of the median wage for the entire Bay Area.
That formalistic designation “ignores the reality of housing costs, palliates the dire state of the region’s poor, and exposes the report’s conservatism.”
Then there are the EPS’s recommendations. In light of the report’s findings, a program that was serious about economic equity would seek the fundamental changes in the region’s economy that would lead to a downward redistribution of wealth. The EPS pursues no such end. Instead, it reiterates its two original goals.
First: “Strengthen career pathways to middle-wage jobs”—the same advice dispensed by the Roadmap, and one that is at best innocuous and at worst misleading, given that the career pathways open to most low- and moderate-income workers are going to be dead-ends.
Second: “Grow the economy with a focus on middle-wage work,” a target whose severe limitations are revealed by the EPS’s own research.
The EPS doesn’t entirely disregard those limitations. Nodding at their data, its authors added a new goal: “Economic security: Improve conditions for workers in lower-wage jobs.” To achieve that goal, they put forth a long list of progressive measures, including minimum and living wage ordinances, lowered barriers to unionization and project labor and community benefit agreements.
Two cheers for this agenda. Why only two? Because it’s offered within a policy context that accepts the immiserating character of the Bay Area economy.
That said, unlike the Roadmap, the equivocal EPS invites a critical perspective on that economy. It also invites a critical perspective on the Roadmap’s approach to prosperity. In fact, the EPS—specifically, the addition of “Goal C: Economic security”—provoked an outcry from the Bay Area Business Coalition.
In October 2014 the BABC sent a letter to the group that funded the EPS, the Regional Prosperity Plan steering committee, asserting that Goal C, though “admirable,” was not “within the original scope of work” designated by the HUD grant.
The BABC’s deeper complaint involved the Goal C’s pro-regulatory position:
We feel strongly that the Bay Area is already the most heavily regulated place in the country, and it is not a coincidence that we are also home to the nation’s fastest growing levels of income disparity.
“[R]egulations and mandates imposed by the government” are driving “middle income jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors” out of the Bay Area and California,” the BABC asserted.
If our goal is to encourage middle income job growth, the very last thing we need right now is [to] introduce whole new rafts [sic] of new expensive mandates and burdens on employers as they struggle with ever rising costs.
The letter concluded:
We cannot…support the report as drafted and are opposed in principal [sic] to the inclusion of “Goal C” and the recommendations therein and feel they will hinder not help raise more people into the middle class in the Bay Area.
It would be a mistake to infer from the above statements that the members of the BABC are opposed to regulation per se. As the Roadmap demonstrates, the region’s big businesses are fine with, not to say enthusiastic about, regulation, as long as the rules aggrandize their prerogatives and profits.
From the other side, the BABC’s diatribe against providing economic security for workers in low-wage jobs illuminates the fatuousness of the Roadmap’s paean to
an inclusive and protean view of place, community, and the economy: “Change is constant, and we’re all in it together.” [emphasis in original]
The Roadmap approvingly quotes Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s vaguely social Darwinistic formulation:
“Some things benefit from shocks. They thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk and uncertainty.”
The BACEI report allows that “in an increasingly volatile environment, vulnerable populations (children, poor, elderly, mentally ill, and otherwise disabled) must be protected.” Apparently protection for anyone else would amount to coddling. In the BACEI’s view, if you’re not “disabled,” you need to roll with punches, or in the Roadmap’s corporatespeak, “take on a sustained adaptive approach to supporting the region’s economic success.”
It follows that the 754,876 workers in the region who, the EPS reports, will be stuck in low-wage jobs for their entire careers cannot be seen from the route traced by the Roadmap. Their invisibility is notable, given that the researcher who provided the EPS’s data on job creation, demographer Steve Levy, is a BACEI board member who participated in one of the “strategic engagement meetings” that informed the white paper’s content.
Turn from the Roadmap’s moralizing drivel to the white paper’s actual program, and it becomes obvious that the Bay Area’s big businesses aren’t looking to experience volatility, randomness, disorder, stressors, adventure, risk, or uncertainty. Insecurity is for other people. What the BACEI coterie wants is protection for themselves and their investments. To get it, they’re pursuing a regional economic order over which they can extend their already considerable sway.
The only kind of change the Roadmap seeks is more of what we have now—a lot more. Plan Bay Area 2013 forecast a whopping 33% growth in jobs and 24% increase in housing units between 2010 and 2040. For the BACEI crowd, that’s not enough. The Roadmap flaunts a “high-growth scenario” driven by a hypothetical 45% increase in jobs that in turn jacks up the percentage change in estimated new housing units to 34%. The white paper says that “to accommodate strong regional economic growth,” the region needs 972,500 more units by 2040.
Plan Bay Area Projections
BACEI Roadmap’s High Growth Scenario Estimates
The fantasied—and fantastical—scale of growth is staggering, but for the BACEI, it’s still not enough. Citing the “historic regional housing deficit” postulated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office in its March 2015 report on “California’s High Housing Costs,” the Roadmap says that the LAO estimated that to satisfy total demand for housing in the state between 1980 and 2010, “51,550 additional units of housing were needed each year…in over five of the Bay Area’s nine counties.”
These figures do not appear in the LAO report, which only indicates the estimated shortfalls in a bar chart (Figure 8). Brian Uhler, Senior Fiscal and Policy Analyst with the LAO, told me that his office “has provided specific estimates upon request to various groups,” including the Bay Area Council. The five counties referenced above are Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Clara. Uhler said that he and his colleagues only looked at counties in metro areas of 850,000 or more.
Affecting moderation, The Roadmap surmises that “addressing just 20% of this historic under building, or 390,3000 units, would help to alleviate upward pressure on housing prices.” The upshot: “[i]n total the region should have a goal to build 1,281,800 units by 2040”—a 46% increase over the 2010 base figure.
This audacious scheme rests on a dubious assumption: the traditional supply-and-demand model applies to the current Bay Area housing market. In the words of the BACEI’s Regional Economic Assessment: “It is the ongoing failure to construct new housing in line with demand that is primarily responsible for extraordinarily high housing prices.” No, it’s not.
What’s making home prices soar in our region is the simultaneous incursion of hundreds of thousands of highly-paid tech workers and a flood of foreign investment. In June the Contra Costa Times reported that “[h]igh-tech employees make a yearly average of $124,000 in Santa Clara County, $107,000 in the San Francisco-San Mateo area, and $101,000 in the East Bay.” By contrast, wrote George Avalos, tech workers nationwide average about $84,000 a year. “’This is a very, very hot area to live and work,” Steve Levy told Avalos, “’and the wage growth is pushing up housing prices.’”
In other words, the BACEI assertion that “the higher cost of housing…necessitates higher wages” gets things backwards.
As for foreign investment: on November 29, the New York Times ran a long article about the inflation of U.S. real estate values by Chinese cash. The hard copy version stated that “in Silicon Valley, a market awash in millionaires, Chinese buyers—if they pay cash—can edge out tech entrepreneurs whose wealth is tied up in stock options.”
To the BACEI, the prodigious growth of the tech industry and the flood of foreign capital and talent are unqualified boons. The Roadmap proper begins by saluting the Bay Area as
a global economic powerhouse….[,] the model high-tech innovation hub, spawning generations of the world’s most iconic brands—companies like Intel, Apple, Tesla and Google—and innovative products and technologies….Many of the region’s employers are deeply integrated into the global economy, giving them valuable insight into the quick pace of change taking place in global markets.
The white paper goes on to quote UC Berkeley professor Laura Tyson, who chaired the U.S President’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration, now chairs the BACEI board and sat with Rapport and others on the Roadmap Project Steering Committee:
The Bay Area’s economic strength lies in the diversity of its innovative companies and its ability to attract the brightest from around the world.
Indeed, the proposed regional economic development corporation would
focus on how to build and sustain the Bay Area’s global economic competitiveness, with a focus on facilitating strategic business growth and job creation….[G]lobal and national economic competition is increasing between major economic regions. In this environment, a city-by-city approach is no longer adequate to ensure that the region’s assets are effectively presented to potential external partners and…deployed to ensure the Bay Area’s competitive advantage.
In fact, the Roadmap’s perspective isn’t regional at all; it’s global, which goes a long way toward explaining its contempt for local control.
It follows that for the BACEI, the major threat to the Bay Area’s super-high-growth scenario comes from within the region in the form of a “reactive” attitude that won’t accept “that change is normal” and thus can’t “recognize the new opportunities that are emerging” or “adapt to a new context.”
Manifest in local opposition to new development, either project-by-project or through restrictive zoning and inordinate impact fees, this recalcitrance is rooted in “parochial” attachments to specific locales.
The Bay Area is both blessed and burdened by the diversity of its distinctive towns, neighborhoods and wider geographical areas. Its urban centers, wine country, and suburban areas offer different lifestyles and reflect a variety of economic circumstances.
This appealing diversity is a burden, because it fosters an insular mindset.
The regional character of the BA economy is sometimes lost on its residents. In a region made up of nine counties and 101 cities, perspectives are sometimes narrow, and political and institutional balkanization is evident in what is otherwise a highly interdependent regional economy.
To the BACEI, the region’s “high level of interdependency” is embodied in the trans-county commuter.
[N]early half of Bay Area workers cross at least one county line when going to and from work. As job tenure continues to decline, commutes shift around the region at a faster rate than people change homes. In many cases, wealthy suburbs are largely reliant on the high wages earned in the urban cores. Many suburban-based companies depend on young talent living in vibrant urban centers.
Expediting these commutes is one of the Roadmap’s top priorities. Bay Area roads are clogged, with “[v]ehicles in key highway corridors leading to job centers in San Francisco and Silicon Valley…at a near standstill during rush hour,” while “the region’s two major commuter railways—BART and Caltrain—are carrying ‘crush loads’ and confronting maintenance issues at a growing rate.” (Apparently the workforce that the BACEI has in mind doesn’t take the bus.)
It’s obvious that one source of the clogged roads and crush loads is overcrowding. But to the growth-obsessed BACEI, the challenge is to “increase access to jobs within a 45-minute commute.” The Roadmap lays out a host of recommendations, most of which involve auto-based travel. They include:
- Unite the region’s 26 separate transit agencies
- Invest in the most productive routes
- Use regional funds for adaptive ramp metering and advanced arterial signalization
- Expand Park and Ride
- Increase carpool lane enforcement and revoke permission for hybrids to use congested carpool lanes
- Increase occupancy requirement and transition to express lanes
- Embrace opportunities for the region’s pubic transit systems to collaborate with private “mobility services” such as Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar
Enjoining us to “[m]ove more people on highways,” the Roadmap merely glances at transit-oriented development, a staple of Plan Bay Area; the Economic Prosperity Strategy; and the agenda of the Greenbelt Alliance, whose executive director, Jeremy Madsen, sits on the BACEI Board and participated in the same strategic engagement meeting as Levy. The white paper does commend the BART Warm Springs extension and that boondoggle, Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART). To pay for “key transportation projects …such as the extension of BART to San Jose, Caltrain Corridor improvements, and a new transbay BART tube,” it calls for a regional gas tax and a road usage charge.
Mass transit also makes a cameo appearance on the Roadmap’s cover, where a map of the region is juxtaposed with a fragmentary blueprint and shadowy photos of a speeding train car and pedestrians dressed for success in an unidentifiable venue.
Its disconnect from the Roadmap’s autocentric initiatives notwithstanding, this imagery aptly represents the Bay Area of the BACEI’s dreams. Those troublesome sources of parochialism, the diverse “towns, neighborhoods, and wider geographical areas,” are nowhere to be seen. Except for the map, the scene could be set anywhere. The map has been stripped of place names, displaying only the county boundaries. If not for those lines, it could be virgin land, ripe for exploitation.
In like manner, the human figures are indistinct and faceless. Most of them are walking away from us, their backs turned to our gaze. They appear as mobile drones. The blueprint lies beneath their feet: the paths they take are delineated by the real estate industry. Their vulnerability vis-à-vis that industry is inherent in their detachment from a specific community and from each other. Perhaps two of the ten individuals are together; the rest are solitary. This is an atomized populace, incapable of concerted action and, above all, of effective opposition to development.
Indeed, the BACEI has little use for the public at large, as illustrated by its inventory of “Stakeholder Groups”:
The list brings to mind those problems in a verbal aptitude test that ask, which word doesn’t fit? Here the answer is obvious: it’s the one at the bottom.
Who are the “Others”? Presumably they are those who would bear the costs—financial, social, economic, political—of the BACEI’s high-growth scenario. They include:
The 750,000 low-income workers in the region who will never find work paying at least $36,000 a year
Bay Area residents who’ve been forced out of their homes if not out of the region by high rents and evictions
The UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project has found that more than half of the low-income households throughout the nine-county region “live in neighborhoods at risk of or already experiencing displacement and gentrification pressures.”
Eschewing the term displacement and drawing on the locally irrelevant supply-side model, the Roadmap says only that “[h]ousing supply constraints and the high prices they cause have…forced many Bay Area residents to look for housing outside of high-demand areas…”
The BACEI’s treatment of affordable housing is similarly oblique. The charge to “build sufficient housing stock to meet the demands of a growing regional population and to fill historic deficits” dodges the equity question.
Again, a comparison with the Economic Prosperity Strategy is instructive. To be sure, the EPS also invokes the supply-side faith, declaring that “the overall lack of housing production is one of the main drivers behind the region’s high housing costs.” But the EPS also recommends measures to protect tenants and to build housing that’s affordable to people who can’t get into the market:
- “Advocate…local policies that lead to the production of permanently affordable housing (such as inclusionary zoning policies and impact fees”
- “Reinvest in public housing stock”
- “Expand tenant protections to more communities in the region”—for example, relocation payments for no-fault evictions, tighter requirements prove cause in just-cause evictions, and more comprehensive rent stabilization ordinances
Needless to say, no such recommendations appear in the Roadmap.
Those who would pay the many exactions the BACEI would like to impose on the public, such as
- road usage charges and regional gas tax for infrastructure improvements
- an MTC-implemented gas tax, higher bridge tolls, vehicle registration and business licensing fees, and region-wide sales tax to support a regional economic development corporation
- the costs that would otherwise be covered by development impact fees
In the BACEI’s view, the public has a duty to subsidize the profits of the Bay Area’s big businesses, tacitly equated with “the good of the region.” The Roadmap sees the “impact fees, community benefits agreement payments, and other exactions” that cities are assessing on new housing construction as concessions to selfish taxpayers.
Existing landowners are not paying their fair share to solve the regional housing problem, and they are benefitting from scarcity through the skyrocketing values of their homes and land. Community benefits should be paid for by the entire community, not just by new development and particularly not by badly needed workforce housing.
The reference to “badly needed workforce housing” is a rhetorical feint. Which workforce are we talking about—techies pulling six-figure salaries or struggling freelancers, who, the BACEI thinks, should be classified as independent contractors, not employees? The Roadmap never says.
Nor, when it avows that “planning must take into account market-based housing demands and the economic considerations of developers,” does the white paper mention the inordinate 20-plus percent profits that developers consider their due. Apparently the BACEI believes taxpayers have a duty to guarantee such profits.
Here’s an alternative formulation: as Tim Redmond recently put it, “[g]rowth should pay for growth.”
You want to put up a new office tower or condo complex in San Francisco? That’s going to mean the city needs to buy more Muni buses and hire more drivers to move your new workers or residents around, and more firefighters and cops to protect your property, and more public works people to maintain the roads that suddenly have more cars on them, and more water and sewer infrastructure to handle what you take in and put out…and the list goes on.
Since developers in this city typically make gobs of money for themselves and their investors, it makes sense that they should pay for the costs of serving their projects. Otherwise, the rest of us have to pay—and that’s clearly unfair.
It’s not clear to the biggest businesses in the region, because they conflate “the community” with themselves. Now that’s parochial thinking.
Everyone who has a personal attachment to a specific place in the Bay Area, be it work or home, and who acts to defend that place from overdevelopment
These are the people whom the BACEI considers its real antagonists, the ones who reliably mount “legacy barriers to regional resilience.” That view is accurate. The most strenuous opposition to the plans of grasping corporate interests always comes from those whose communities and livelihoods will be degraded if not destroyed by those plans.
Seeking to discredit these opponents, the Roadmap resorts to the customary slur: it accuses them of elitism. One “means of preventing city bodies with approval authority from denying needed housing projects,” it advises, is to place “[s]pecial focus…on PDAs, where dense, affordable housing proposals often face significant opposition from within the community.”
This is a core issue that’s far more complicated than the Roadmap indicates.
The simple part: Every community needs to provide more affordable housing, especially to families. Period.
The complexity: when developers say they’re providing affordable housing, the crucial questions are always how much, and affordable to whom? The Roadmap doesn’t ask, much less answer, these questions. It goes on about building housing to meet—indeed to greatly surpass—the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocations but never indicates that the RHNA numbers are divvied up among affordability levels that correspond to the growing workforce in each city: low income, moderate income and above moderate, i.e. market-rate. Nor would you guess from the Roadmap that the low and moderate income housing must be “deed-restricted affordable”—permanently affordable to their occupants through time. Leaving aside the overall growth issue, the trouble is that most of the new housing that’s getting built is market-rate. That’s apparently fine, in the BACEI’s view, rendering moot the Roadmap’s call for affordability.
More complexity: how much parking is a project going to provide? The Roadmap wants to eliminate minimum parking requirements as a away of reducing new home construction. Yes, parking spaces are very expensive, and people should be encouraged—and actually enabled—to get on transit, bikes, and their own two feet.
But not everyone is going to take public transit to and from work, and commuting is only one of many sorts of trips that people need to take. Even people living in transit-oriented developments are going to own cars. If they can’t park them on the property where they live, they’re going to park them on the street. Why should neighborhoods, many of which are already parked to capacity, be further encumbered?
Which leads to another question: how well does a project respect the character of a neighborhood? Yes, this question can serve as a cover for elitist and racist motives. When it does, it needs to be dismissed out of hand. But whether it does can only be determined in the instance.
In principle, neighborhood character is a valid concern that could be partly addressed by expanding the stock of in-law or secondary units, officially known as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)—one of the few well-advised recommendations in the Roadmap. Of course, allowing more ADUs begs the issue of how high-density development affects the familiar look and feel of a cherished place. From the BACEI’s global perspective, such effects are imperceptible.
In any case, the Roadmap holds no brief for social equity or political democracy. It’s a mandate for oligarchical rule, an exemplar of what Wendell Berry calls “sentimental capitalism.” Berry explicates that pregnant term in his essay “The Idea of a Local Economy.”
Sentimental capitalism holds in effect that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good, and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the “free market” and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security [think “resilience à la the Roadmap] and happiness to “the many” [read: the region]—in, of course, the future.
The future orientation is critical, both to sentimental capitalism and its opposite number, sentimental communism, which, Berry notes, is less opposite than we’ve been led to think.
The fraudulence of these oligarchic forms of economy is in their principle of displacing whatever good they recognize (as well as their debts) from the present to the future. Their success depends upon persuading people, first that whatever they have now is no good, and second, that the promised good is certain to be achieved in the future.
Just so, the BACEI presents itself as hard-headed and realistic but never shows us how the distinctive places in the region will look after they’ve been built up to accommodate what the Roadmap calls “normal growth,” i.e., housing everyone who wants to live here, and who wanted to live here between 1980 and 2010. Like “change,” “normal” is an empty signifier, devoid of any intrinsic meaning. To accept the BACEI’s usage of these terms is to fall victim to sentimental capitalism’s futuristic hoax.
And what about the ecological costs of the massive increase in population, housing, and jobs that the BACEI craves? The Roadmap’s list of “[s]tresses” to the economy includes “[c]limate change resulting in rising sea levels, more frequent droughts, and disruption of agriculture.” It even concedes that “natural resources” are “limited,” adding that “some are renewable.”
But its proposed actions ignore the coming inundation of the region’s coastlines. They also proceed as if “recycling and desalination” can meet the “large-scale challenges” to the water supply “such as climate change and population growth”—in other words, as if, proper management can ensure an infinitely growing population an infinite supply of water. Worse yet, the Roadmap recommends the creation of another publicly unaccountable entity, a Joint Powers Authority formed by the Bay Area’s local water agencies and funded by “private financing or an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District to leverage existing revenue streams…to design, finance, and build new capital-intensive regional water assets.”
Downplaying the Roadmap’s aggressiveness, Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman assured San Francisco Chronicle reporter David Baker:
“The mission of the report isn’t to say, ‘It must be done this way’…It’s to start a region-wide conversation….We don’t, in any way, want to put local governments out of the business of deciding what goes in their neighborhoods.”
Likewise, Wunderman maintained that “the high-growth scenario is not meant to replace the projections made in Plan Bay Area, but it can inform the dialogue around future regional housing supply.” (This statement, which appeared in the hard copy version of Baker’s story, was cut when the Chronicle posted the article online.)
Oh, c’mon. We all know that how a conversation begins has a great deal to do with how it ends. When Wunderman says his outfit only wants to “inform the dialogue,” he means that they want to legitimate objectives that are outside the pale: a 46% increase in housing units and a 45% jump in jobs, transferring municipal control of development to an unelected regional body, eradicating local character.
Here’s the really bad news: the Roadmap has in effect been endorsed by the elected body that ostensibly governs the Association of Bay Area Governments. On September 17, three weeks before the document was published, the ABAG Executive Board unanimously approved the use of the Roadmap to “inform the next iterations of Plan Bay Area.”
I say “in effect,” because it’s a safe bet that the officials casting those votes had no idea they were endorsing the BACEI white paper. The vote proper was to approve the ABAG staff report “People, Places, and Prosperity,” the third document that Rapport designated as “foundational” to the dialogue around the merger of ABAG and MTC. The PPP’s reference to the white paper and its guidance for future editions of Plan Bay Area is buried in a sidebar that helpfully includes a link to the Roadmap website.
The Roadmap was published three weeks later, which means ABAG staff were in cahoots with BACEI way beforehand. As I reported on November 12, Rapport sat on the Roadmap’s nine-person Project Steering Committee. (So did MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger; MTC funded the BACEI project to the tune of $275,000.)
Like the ABAG Administrative Committee’s fateful endorsement of modified MTC Resolution 4210 on October 28, the Executive Board’s adoption of PPP was taken without a vetting of the document at hand. The staffer presenting the report said it was “fresh off the press.” It seemed as if board members only received hard copies at the meeting. ABAG staff said nothing about the Roadmap’s inclusion in the ABAG document. The entire consideration of the PPP took five minutes and included no substantive discussion.
To be sure, on September 17, the ABAG Executive Board was understandably distracted: on that day their proceedings were dominated by a discussion of their agency’s power struggle with MTC.
That’s no excuse. To repeat what I wrote about the Administrative Committee’s know-nothing action of October 28, it’s an axiom of legislative practice not to act on what you haven’t read. The board should have thanked staff for the “People, Places, and Prosperity” report and voted to act on it at a future meeting. Instead, ABAG is now officially committed to a major policy paper calling for the drastic shrinkage of local control of zoning, the erasure of the Bay Area’s special places, the evisceration of the California Environmental Quality Act, and a vision of ruinous growth.
At the December 2 meeting of the ABAG Regional Planning Committee, ABAG Planning Director Miriam Chion repeatedly stated that the Roadmap “is an independent document” that expresses the voice of the business community, not ABAG. It’s a strange kind of independence. “As a tangible economic policy platform,” burbles the ABAG staff report, “the Roadmap will guide the next iterations of Plan Bay Area.” Not might, may, could, or can guide those iterations, but will. And then: “For more information visit: www.bayareaeconomy.org.” Parroting the BACEI white paper’s prescriptions to centralize land use authority in the region, “People, Places, and Prosperity” contends that “[b]enefits [to “business retention and expansion”] are magnified when local tax policy, fees, permitting processes, and other regulations are aligned among neighboring jurisdictions.”
If the Executive Board wants to be taken seriously by the cities and towns whose interests it purports to represent, it needs to start asserting its legal authority over the agency’s staff. The board should formally dissociate itself from the Roadmap. It should hold a public dialogue with ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport, asking him how he could have gone along with the BACEI’s program; why he and his colleagues failed to note the Roadmap’s inclusion in their own report; why he’s saying that program should help guide the ABAG-MTC merger discussions; and why, given the BACEI’s open hostility to what it calls the region’s “city-centric regime,” ABAG should continue collaborating with and funding the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.
If the ABAG Executive Board does not take these steps, the cities and towns of the region should ask themselves why they should continue collaborating with and funding the Association of Bay Area Governments.