California came within days of adopting a law that would have taken away the right of the public to have a hearing about major real estate developments.

The measure would have not only threatened neighborhoods suffering from displacement linked to luxury housing; it would also have prevented planners and community activists to negotiate and demand higher level of affordable housing.

Jerry Brown wants to let the Chamber of Commerce and the yealtors set state housing police
Jerry Brown wants to let the Chamber of Commerce and the yealtors set state housing police

Those negotiations are common in SF, and have often convinced developers to add more affordability and change their plans.

Initially, objections by environmental, labor organizations, and local governments were disregarded by Governor Brown and the legislators. But last night the proposal was stopped (at least temporarily) by a last minute mobilization of grassroots activists from across the state.

The proposal, known as “by right” development, was introduced less than a month ago by Brown. It was on a fast track for approval because it was attached to the state budget, which must be approved by June 15.

Governor Brown described the proposal as an “affordable housing” plan because it required qualifying projects to offer some inclusionary housing – but as little as five to ten percent for sites within a half mile of a transit stop (housing further away from transit would be need to provide ten to 20 percent inclusionary housing – steering more luxury housing nearest to transit).

The proposal was called “by right” development because if a projects includes the minimum affordable housing requirements, developers would have the “right” to build whatever the zoning allowed. No environmental impact analysis. No public hearings. No opportunity to publicly raise concerns about demolitions of housing, lost jobs, or impacts on small businesses.

The proposal was backed by the usual major lobbyists and campaign contributors in the state including the Realtors, the Apartment Association, and other business interests. What was unusual was that it was also supported by most statewide and regional affordable housing organizations and builders including Housing California, Bridge Housing, and others. This provided cover for the governor to push forward his plan and it gained support in the Legislature and it moved toward final approvals.

John Eller, an organizer with ACCE, recalls, “just a week ago when I first asked legislative staff about the bill I was told ‘this is a done deal.’ They said this is supported by the Chamber of Commerce and affordable housing organizations.”   The budget with the “by right” attached, was moving towards final approval by a final legislative committee by today, June 10.

Generally, community based organizations rely upon statewide advocacy organizations to alert them about state legislation. But as local housing and community organizations on their own began reviewing the governor’s proposal, they became were alarmed by the removal of the public’s involvement in the development of large projects.

“The ability of a community to negotiate with a developer to get community serving development in their neighborhood has been one of the few leverage points we have,” said Laura Raymond of ACT-LA, a transit advocacy organization.  “This by-right proposal would strip that ability away in exchange for very little affordable housing and no job programs at all.”

ACT-LA is leading a very different strategy, a community and labor sponsored ballot initiative to promote affordable housing development that also provides local jobs in Los Angeles.

The governor is holding hostage some $400 million in affordable housing money and says he will release it only if his plan is approved.

San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations was one of the few regional affordable housing organizations to object to the governor’s plan. “Our coalition includes nonprofit developers that need that funding to do business,” said CCHO’s Peter Cohen. “But affordable housing development is not in a silo, we all understand it as part of our broader community development purpose. In principle we could not support a proposal that would put neighborhoods at the mercy of developers…  So we started to reach out with others to build an opposition.”

A week ago, community organizations held their first statewide conference call to talk about the ‘by right’ development bill. The call included representatives of ACCE, Tenants Together, Right to the City, Public Advocates, local PICO affiliates, ACT-LA, and others. By Monday, the group drafted a sign-on letter to oppose the legislation.  It read in part:

We believe it is profoundly unjust and undemocratic for the state to take away from our communities the ability to review and engage in the decisions about development proposals   …This puts disadvantaged neighborhoods at the mercy of real estate developers who already wield too much power at all levels of government.

In the meantime, organizers learned that the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee that finalizes the budget would meet this past Wednesday. The letter was quickly distributed and in two days more than 50 organizations from across the state had signed on. In the meantime, the organizations began alerting grassroots members about the governor’s plan. The response was immediate.

Eller reports that ACCE’s call to action resulted in more than 1,400 people emailing legislators in one day. “This was one of the strongest reactions we’ve ever had,” said Eller. “The idea that the public’s voice should not be taken away really resonated with people.” Tenants Together, PICO California and other organizations also mobilized their members.

On Thursday, the Joint Budget Committee announced that the “by right” proposal would not be included in the budget that will be approved by June 15.

The governor is still refusing to release the $400 million. But the proposal will have to be debated and vetted at a public hearing. And now there is a statewide coalition ready to take on this project of the real estate lobby.

Dawn Phillips of the national coalition Right to the City, said: “The situation continues to be that the governor is holding affordable housing funding hostage for approval of a deal with his developer allies.  But this is not a fair exchange.  A one-time allocation of funding cannot compensate for a permanent loss of democratic rights.  And next year we’ll have be begging for more funding and have to give up more rights.”

Local note:  Working with local activists, this past Tuesday, Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a resolution for the city to take a position against the ‘by right’ proposal in its present form. The resolution required unanimous support by the board in order to be voted on immediately. Supervisor Scott Wiener refused to support the resolution and effectively blocked its consideration.