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News + PoliticsHousingFacebook's housing echo chamber

Facebook’s housing echo chamber

Zuckerberg money funds news outlets that repeat Zuckerberg group's supply-side position on the housing crisis.

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In 2019, I reported in 48 hills that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was using mega-grants to shape California housing law and policy. CZI gave Enterprise Community Partners $500,000 to draft and then lobby for Assemblymember David Chiu’s AB 1487, the law that authorized the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to become a one-stop regional planning agency overseeing transportation and housing and to levy taxes on the nine-county Bay Area; CZI formally endorsed that bill.

CZI also gave the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley nearly a million dollars: $440,000 for unspecified uses and $500,000 to start a Housing Lab—essentially, a development incubator under the aegis of the celebrated public university.

I didn’t realize that Chan Zuckerberg was also using its largesse to try to shape California housing news.

KQED’s housing series was funded with Facebook money.

For starters: In 2019, CZI gave KQED $750,000 to help launch what the NPR station called a “dedicated housing news desk to cover the Bay Area’s housing and affordability crisis.” A November 2019 announcement from KQED said that the desk would open the following month.

The CZI-funded housing news desk caught my attention in October 2020, when its SOLD OUT series turned to zoning, with a podcast entitled “Zoning Out” and an online print piece headlined “The Racist History of Single-Family Home Zoning” and credited to Erin Baldassari and Molly Solomon. My interest was further piqued by SOLD OUT’s subsequent treatments of zoning, all rehashes of the October show, though the segment broadcast by NPR’s Weekend Edition in March relocated the basic story to Sacramento:

February 16: “California Cities Rethink the Single-family Neighborhood,” 1662-word print piece by Baldassari

February 24: “You Had Questions, We’ve Got Answers” (also headlined as “The Big Updates You Need to Know About California’s Housing Crisis”); a conversation between Baldassari and Solomon

March 13, 2021: “Facing Housing Crunch, California Cities Rethink Single-Family Neighborhoods,” transcript of four-minute segment narrated by Baldassari and heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday

March 13, 2021: “Facing Housing Crunch, California Cities Rethink Single-Family Neighborhoods,” Baldassari’s online print version (not a transcript) of the NPR segment

March 15, 2021: “’A First Big Step’: Bay Area Cities are Rethinking Single-Family Zoning”;  a conversation between Baldassari and KQED Editor Alan Montecillo interspersed with short clips from prior SOLD OUT programs

KQED says SOLD OUT provides “in-depth reporting on the housing crisis.” Maybe so, but its coverage of zoning is credulous, misleading, and confused.

The KQED reporters cover a lot of ground, so this is a long piece.

I contacted Baldassari and asked her to call me to discuss her stories, but she never responded.

Missing Black home ownership

In October 2020, SOLD OUT opened its zoning series by indicting zoning for single-family homes as a major source of racial segregation and housing unaffordability.

The KQED reporters cited — accurately — the Berkeley notables who in 1916 invented such zoning as a way to keep Blacks, Asians, and immigrants out of the city’s then-new high-end neighborhoods: the Claremont, the Uplands, and the Elmwood.

Baldassari observed on March 15: “single-family zoning was sort of race-neutral in its language, and so it allowed the city to have the effect of racial exclusion without explicitly saying that people of color could not live there—using basically an economic segregation to exclude people of color. That’s because “single family homes were just more expensive than multi-family housing, where a lot of people of color, especially recent immigrants, were living.”

And any person of color who could have afforded a house in the Claremont would still have been unable to buy one, because in those days, such properties came with a racial covenant that prohibited such sales.

Berkeley also had a color line: Black people could not buy homes above Grove Street, now Martin Luther King, Jr., Way. Like the covenants, the color line was racist.

Color lines and covenants were not peculiar to Berkeley in the early to mid-twentieth century US. Moreover, they were just two of many daunting barriers to Black home ownership. Poverty caused by systemic racism in education and employment made it difficult to accumulate a down payment and to cover mortgage bills. Redlining by banks and the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration kept Black people out of the loan market. And redlining was just one instance of a racist marketplace that devalued—and still devalues—Black-owned property and Black neighborhoods.

But where Black people could buy, they did, including in places zoned for single-family homes. One such place was the area in South Berkeley around San Pablo Park. From Brown University historian Robert Self’s 2003 bookAmerican Babylon: race and the struggle for postwar Oakland:

African-American families sought the greater physical comfort, economic security, and class status that a move out of West Oakland afforded. People moved when they could. Until the mid-1950s, the paths out of West Oakland went north, along San Pablo Avenue, Market Street, and Telegraph Avenue into south Berkeley. “Half the Negroes in Berkeley in those days had just moved out of West Oakland,” C.L. Dellums recalled. “As soon as they got on their feet and got jobs, they moved out.” Berkeley’s 21,850 African Americans in 1960 lived overwhelmingly in the southern part of the city, in areas contiguous with West and North Oakland’s neighborhoods. Real estate interests and white homeowners maintained the color line at Telegraph Avenue. Neighborhoods northeast of Telegraph remained almost entirely white through the early 1960s, but African American homebuyers and renters faced significantly less opposition from west of there all the way to the industrial districts along the bayshore….In those neighborhoods, as many as 86 percent of African American families in some census tracts were homeowners. 

In the mid-twentieth century, the community around San Pablo Park was a hub of Black culture, social life, and politics.

As Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr note in A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area:

“Byron Rumford lived nearby at Acton and Russell. His Sacramento Street pharmacy became a neighborhood institution, and in 1948, Rumford became Northern California’s first Black elected official when he won a seat in the state Assembly.”

This record of Black people’s aspiration and achievement in the face of discrimination does not appear in SOLD OUT.

SB 9 is not a duplex bill

Baldassari and Solomon repeatedly applaud State Sen. Toni Adkins’ failed 2020 bill SB 1120 and its identical 2021 twin, SB 9, which, they say, would allow “up to two duplexes on lots where only one home had previously been permitted” and thereby eliminate single-family zoning in California.

Yes, Atkins’ press release said that SB 9 “allows more homeowners to create a duplex or subdivide an existing lot in residential areas.” But that description is deceptive.

In fact, the state has already eliminated single-family home zoning. Recent California laws allows the addition of an ADU (granny flat) plus a Junior ADU on a parcel currently zoned for single-family housing “by right”—no public hearing, no CEQA review. Add the new ADU permissiveness to the lot split authorized by SB 9, and you’re talking about a minimum of six, possibly eight, or, as one analysis has it, even ten dwelling units, where only one is currently legal.

The catch is that SB 9 says that if a landowner decides to split a lot zoned for single-family housing and build two residential units on each of the two new lots, a city is not required to permit an ADU or JADU. In that case there would still be a public process and presumably CEQA review regarding the ADU and/or JADU. But a developer could still do a lot split, put one house on each lot and have an ADU and a JADU on each lot, for a total of six units—all by right.

Houses are not like widgets

There’s a bigger problem with Baldassari and Solomon’s account of SB 9 than their garbled description of the bill: its treatment of zoning and housing affordability.

In Baldassari’s February 24 chat with Solomon, the listener hears anti-single-family-home zoning zealot Berkeley Councilmember Lori Droste state that “we still have single-family zoning in certain parts of our city. So what that means, in essence, is that affordable housing is essentially banned in certain parts of our city.”

Baldassari comments: “The idea here is…opening up these neighborhoods to more housing and to housing that is inherently less expensive than a single family home….Because a duplex, triplex, is going to be less expensive than renting or buying a single family home,…you’re also going to open that [neighborhood] up to more affordable housing. And ultimately, by increasing the supply you’ll bring down the cost of housing, assuming that you also have strong tenant protections in place and you’re also funding affordable housing.”

When Droste and Baldassari say that more housing will lower housing costs, they’re reciting orthodox supply-side economics: Houses are like widgets. Want to make houses cheaper? Build more of them, and more types of them. Allow duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes in every neighborhood currently zoned for single-family homes, and prices will drop.

But houses are not like widgets. Greater density, a.k.a. upzoning, allows more profit to be squeezed out of the same space and thereby inflates the value of land—meaning that in hot markets, densification makes housing less affordable.

Consider recent events at Berkeley’s 1310 Haskell Street. In 2015 contractor Cristian Szilagy paid $650,000 for a decrepit bungalow at that address. He wanted to replace it with three new housing units. The Planning Commission said okay, but after neighbors objected to parking, congestion, and shadowing, the council reversed the decision.

Recent California laws make it very difficult for a city to reject a housing project that meets the municipality’s objective standards—which the proposed project did. Led by Sonja Trauss, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Foundation (SFBARF) sued Berkeley twice and in 2017 won the case. Szilagy tore down the old house and built three units in its place, each of which sold for $1.2 million or $1.3 million.

In other words: Densification yielded much more expensive housing than what had been there.

In SOLD OUT’s March 15 show, Baldassari calls Berkeley “a city where the city had to be sued twice to allow this kind of development, in a neighborhood where they had already allowed it,” but she never gives any specifics.

No evidence that upzoning/densification lowers rents

The case of 1310 Haskell is just one example; the evidence it offers is anecdotal. But SOLD OUT doesn’t present even anecdotal evidence to support its argument that upzoning entails greater affordability. The seven productions in the zoning series cite two officials in places where zoning for single-family housing has been eliminated—Portland and Minneapolis. Neither informant offers any data about rents or housing prices.

In Baldassari’s February 16 article, Morgan Tracy, a project manager for Portland, Oregon says that “[a] low-income renter who is displaced from a single-family home may not be able to afford one of the new units built in its stead….But they might be able to find affordable housing elsewhere within the city because there will be more homes overall.”

“Might,” says my dictionary, is “used to indicate a possibility or probability that is weaker than may.”

In the same article, Paul Mogush, manager of community planning in Minneapolis, tells Baldassari that in 2020, the city approved 42 applications to convert single-family homes into duplexes or triplexes. Again, nothing about rents or housing prices.

Also in the February 16 article, David Garcia, Policy Director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, says that SB 9 “ ‘signifies a significant shift from previous land use practices….But it’s not going to necessarily change the affordability issue overnight.’”

Indeed it’s not, at least not in the direction of greater affordability. That’s because, as neither Garcia nor Baldassari observe, the bill’s only provision for affordability is to prohibit “demolition or alteration of housing that is subject to a recorded covenant, ordinance, or law that restricts rents to levels affordable to persons and families of moderate, low, or very low income.” Most single-family homes in California are not subject to rent control.

Baldassari also quotes Garcia in the March 13 print piece that accompanied the Weekend Edition story: “By restricting what can be built on each lot, it drives up the cost of housing, says David Garcia.” He presents no data to support that assertion.

In the February 16 article, Stephen Menendian advances the supply-side position, contending that the preponderance of single-family home zoning has drastically limited the amount of housing in the Bay Area. As Baldassari reports, the Othering & Belonging researchers found that “82% of all residential land in the Bay Area is zoned for single-family homes, leaving just 18% available for duplexes, fourplexes or apartment buildings,…not only in sprawling suburbs, but in big cities as well. In San Francisco, nearly three-quarters of the land is restricted to single-family homes and duplexes.”

On February 16, Michael Barnes, a former science editor at UC Berkeley who was termed off the Albany City Council in 2020, sent Baldassari an email in which he suggested that Menendian’s analysis of Bay Area zoning is

a bit like weighing all the adults and babies in a town and concluding there is a dire shortage of babies because the total weight of adults is much greater than the total weight of babies. You can fit more apartments and babies in a given space because each unit is smaller.

This data from the American Community Survey on housing units in the Bay Area paints quite a different picture. San Francisco’s housing units are overwhelmingly multi-family:

Housing Units (single-family includes town houses)

64% single-family 36% multi-family–all nine counties, including the four rural counties (Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano) and unincorporated areas.

78% single-family 22% multi-family–four rural counties (Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano).

61% single-family 39% multi-family–five urban counties (San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa)

31% single-family 69% multi-family–San Francisco, which is a city and a county. 

UPDATE: IN the original version of this story, we said Baldassari had not responded.

In fact, in reply, Baldassari noted that she and Barnes were using different kinds of data.

“The statistic I used referred to land available. The statistic you’re presenting is number of units. Both are valid statistics, but they are not the same. The point I was making in using the former is that there is a lot land devoted to single-family homes, and more of that land could be devoted to multi-family housing. As the data you shared reveals, single-family housing is still the dominant housing form in most of the Bay Area.”

Barnes emailed back:

You say, “As the data you shared reveals, single-family housing is still the dominant housing form in most of the Bay Area.” You seem to be making the implicit assumption that something is wrong with that. If so, what do you think a better ratio would be? How would you reach that conclusion? You might find this conversation between an African-American community activist in Leimert Park, LA, and Sen. Scott Wiener interesting. Lynetta McElroy’s question begins at 27:50.


That was the end of their exchange.

A month later, in the NPR Weekend Edition piece “Facing Housing Crunch, California Cities Rethink Single-Family Neighborhoods,” she again identified the amount of residential land dedicated solely to single-family homes” as a key factor in high housing costs. This time she cited studies from Terner and The New York Times.

Supply skeptics cited, then slighted

As a presumable nod to balanced journalism, Baldassari’s February 16 article quotes two supply-side skeptics, San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston and Urban Habitat Program Director of Land Use and Housing Tony Rashon Samara.

Preston’s fellow supervisor Rafael Mandelman, writes Baldassari, “is working on legislation to allow fourplexes on corner lots and within a half-mile from train stations, as a way to increase affordability in the wildly expensive city” for the city’s service workers—in Mandelman’s words, people ‘who work in a school or a shop or who clean the floors of the hospital the folks who serve the food in the restaurant.’”

Asked to comment, Preston says, “Merely allowing developers to build more homes on each lot is no guarantee that the homes will actually be affordable to low-wage and blue-collar workers. I think that’s fantasy.’” He adds that what’s needed is government-subsidized affordable housing.

Urban Habitat Program Director of Land Use and Housing Tony Rashon Samara is similarly skeptical: “’The default in this country,” Rashon Samara says,

is to go to market solutions,…even though we have over 100 years of evidence that they don’t work…..The majority of those suffering from housing insecurity are renters….So you go there first and stabilize [renters]. That means renter protections: rent control, just cause for eviction protections, a right to organize, protection against landlord harassment. That will help renters in the short term…but those protections also have to be coupled with more funding from federal, state, and local governments to increase the amount of subsidized affordable housing.

Baldassari could have reported that upzoning’s effect on affordability is hotly debated and left it at that. Instead, she aligned her narrative with the supply side position, while throwing a sop to skeptics.

In the print version of her March 13 story, “Facing Housing Crunch, California Cities Rethink Single-Family Neighborhoods,” Baldassari cites Menendian: “‘No one thinks that [zoning reform] is going to solve racism by itself,’ he says.’ But it’s the predicate for many other interventions that will help produce more affordable housing and generate more housing overall.’ He describes it as a starting point.”

Menendian makes the same point in a clip included in Baldassari’s March 15 conversation with Montecillo: “‘I would say that zoning reform is the most important first step in solving most of the housing crisis problem. In the next ten to twenty years, zoning reform will help produce much more housing, and, at a lower cost per unit, than would otherwise would have been built without zoning reform.’”

Baldassari agrees:

We can’t have more affordable, more inclusive communities unless we take this step first. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be investing in affordable housing or protecting renters, or passing stronger r—tenant protections. All of those things need to happen in tandem. But in order to get to the end goal of inclusive, affordable communities we have to remove single-family zoning.

But if removing single-family zoning is the first step, then it can’t be “in tandem” with affordable housing investment or renter protections.

Rashon Samara had told Baldassari that renter protections need to take precedence: “ ‘go there first’.”

In her March 13 piece, Baldassari said that

“[Rashon Samara] says that there needs to be really strong tenant protections in place to ensure that people are not getting displaced from their homes as a result of policies like [upzoning] and really to guard against speculation from developers buying up single-family homes and maybe leaving them vacant until they can get the financing together to convert them into a duplex or a fourplex—or until they think that the market conditions are right for them to make the optimal amount of profit.”

Rashon Samara’s emphasis on the paramount importance of tenant protections has disappeared.

(I emailed Rashon Samara about his response to KQED’s coverage; he hasn’t replied. Urban Habitat retweeted the station’s March 13 story—twice. On March 26, it retweeted the Berkeleyside story about the Berkeley council’s March 25 decision to abolish single-family zoning proper. I asked Urban Habitat  Policy and Advocacy Campaign Director Bob Allen if the organization has a position on SB 9. In a March 31 email, Allen said: “We are working our way through our analysis of [SB] 9 and 10 [a companion bill from Scott Wiener].”)

The March 15 conversation between Baldassari and Montecillo ends with Baldassari touting “zoning reform.”

“It’s a really important first step,” she says. “By no means the only step or a panacea, but in order to get to that truly inclusive community that we want to see that allows low-income people to live side-by-side with upper-income people or even middle-income people, we have to begin somewhere.”

That’s not an explanation; it’s a dodge. SOLD OUT never explains why upzoning deserves top priority.

Why now?

In his March 15 conversation with Baldassari, Montecillo asks, “Why do you think this”—meaning the push to eliminate zoning for single-family housing—“is happening now?” Baldessari cites two reasons:

One, California is facing a big housing crisis—really building over the last decade, since before the foreclosure crisis, even before that—right? There’s been a huge undersupply of housing, and cities are looking for ways to allow more housing to be built, and means looking at single-family neighborhoods. Another reason we’re seeing these kinds of proposals is the George Floyd protests over the summer and this incredible outpouring of demanding racial justice.

California has indeed faced a housing crisis for a long time. That very longevity disqualifies the crisis as a factor in the current attack against single-family home zoning. More importantly, the upzoning movement is first and foremost a political operation, which is to say, a movement that above all seeks power. You wouldn’t know that from SOLD OUT’s coverage.

Yimby cover-up

KQED’s housing news desk cites politicians—most conspicuously, Toni Atkins and her SB 1120/SB 9, and Berkeley Councilmember Droste, whose pious denunciations of her town reverberate throughout much of the station’s reportage. It also references California cities where elected officials have either banned single-family zoning proper or are contemplating such a prohibition. In her March 15 conversation with Montecillo, Baldassari lists Berkeley, Sacramento, San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland and South San Francisco. (On March 10, after upset citizens virtually descended on a council meeting, South City tabled its upzoning project.)

What’s missing is the political context of these legislative initiatives: the state growth machine’s push to curtail local land use discretion. The preemption campaign’s most effective operatives include the millennial-led militants known as the Yimbys.

The Yimbys emerged as a political organization in 2014, when Trauss formed BARF. By 2017, they were a political force in Sacramento, as BARFer Brian Hanlon created California Yimby, and local Yimby cells proliferated around the state. The Yimbys’ ascendancy helps explain the timing of the current upzoning campaign.

In all of SOLD OUT’s zoning reports, the Yimbys get only one, passing mention. Chatting with Baldassari on February 24, Solomon says that many listeners who’ve heard their coverage of zoning “want to know, like, what can they do. What can one person do on an individual level to help, you know, move the needle on housing?”

Baldassari replies: “Well, you know, the first thing you can do is go to your city council meetings….[H]onestly, nothing is going to impact the look and feel of your street more than the decisions that happen at the city council level. So go there, make your voice heard.”

Echoing Baldassari, Solomon answers her own question: “That’s where the rubber meets the road….[G]etting involved is something that you can do if it’s, you know, your local Yimby group that want to know more about or there’s a tenant advocacy group. That’s your jam.”

Baldassari and Solomon apparently assume that their audience is familiar with the Yimbys; that’s all we hear about the movement.

SOLD OUT not only obscures California’s housing politics; it also distorts them. By lumping the Yimbys together with tenant advocates, Solomon implies that they’re allies trying “to move the needle on housing.” In fact, tenants advocates’ relationship to the Yimbys is, if anything, antagonistic. The Yimbys and their comrades suffered their most visible defeats—the deaths of Scott Wiener’s SB 827 and SB 50—at the hands of tenant advocates and communities of color.

Smearing single-family supporters

SOLD OUT’s treatment of supporters of single-family home zoning is even more skewed. “Zoning Out,” the inaugural, audio installment of KQED’s zoning series that aired last October, opens with a short intro from Baldassari and Solomon. Then, an unidentified woman says: “They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning.”

Baldassari or Solomon (I can’t distinguish their voices):

Yes, zoning! That was Patricia McCloskey at the Republican National Convention last summer. You might remember her. She and her husband were the two homeowners who drew their guns on Black Lives Matters protestors in St. Louis a few months ago. They were at the Republican National Convention, because President Trump has made protecting the suburbs and preserving single-family zoning part of his re-election campaign.

McCloskey: This forestry [sic] zoning would bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods.

McCloskey’s cameo appearance at the top of SOLD OUT’s first zoning story could only stigmatize single-family home zoning in the minds of KQED/NPR’s liberal audience. The podcast then reinforces the vilification by turning to the bigoted and elitist white men who invented single-family home zoning in 1916 Berkeley.

Concerns about flipping

Only one other live defender of single-family home zoning appears in SOLD OUT’s zoning reportage. Baldassari’s March 13 podcast and online print piece, “Facing Housing Crunch, California Cities Rethink Single-Family Neighborhoods,” includes Maggie Coulter, who, we’re told, lives in “a mostly single-family neighborhood in Sacramento.” The photograph of Coulter that accompanies the print piece indicates that she’s white.

Maggie Coulter and Chris Jones don’t fit the standard profile of the right-wing Nimby. Photo courtesy of Coulter.

In the podcast, which aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Coulter says: “A lot of houses in this neighborhood were built in the ’40s. They’re small. The lots are about 5,000 square feet.”

Baldassari: She moved to the neighborhood in the ‘80s. And Coulter is afraid that if Sacramento’s draft proposal [to eliminate single-family home zoning] becomes the rule, her neighborhood would soon become unrecognizable.

In the print piece, Baldassari writes:

[N]ot everyone is on board with the move to multi-unit zoning. Some residents fear the proposed plan could radically alter otherwise bucolic single-family neighborhoods. Or, that it won’t actually result in neighborhoods that are more affordable and inclusive.

Maggie Coulter bought her house in Sacramento’s Elmhurst neighborhood in the 1980s. She was drawn to the single-family neighborhood for its quiet streets and old-growth trees.

‘I and other people who live in this neighborhood want somewhat lower density and less intensity’ than the bustling urban neighborhoods near Sacramento’s downtown,’ Coulter says.

The houses in her neighborhood are mostly one and two-story buildings on 5,000-square-foot lots. Duplexes are allowed on corner lots, and some have small granny flats or in-law units.

In both the podcast and the print version, Coulter says, “There have been a lot of houses flipped in this neighborhood. But if this general plan was approved, they could be flipped to accommodate six units.”

No more from or about Coulter. She may seem unlikely to inspire the sort of animus that McCloskey would elicit in KQED/NPR listeners. But as depicted by Baldassari, Coulter fits the upzoners’ profile of their designated nemesis: a disgruntled, older, white homeowner who, impervious to the need for affordable housing, cares only about maintaining the look and comfort of her pleasant single-family neighborhood.

I wanted to learn more about Coulter, so I Googled her. Up came two recent, paywalled newspaper articles, both about the controversy over Sacramento’s move to allow apartments in single-family home neighborhoods: a January 10 piece by Theresa Clift in The Sacramento Bee and a February 2 piece by Liam Dillon in the Los Angeles Times. Both articles include information that’s not in SOLD OUT’s March 13 story: Coulter is president of the Elmhurst Neighborhood Association and a former employee of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, where she worked on affordable housing. Further Googling revealed that she’s a peace activist.

This last bit of intelligence might seem irrelevant in a story about housing politics, except that it widens the distinction between Coulter and the gun-toting McCloskey already created by Coulter’s work in affordable housing at HCD.

I wondered what Coulter thought of Baldassari’s reporting so I contacted her. Turns out she was so displeased, that on March 14, she sent Baldassari the following email:

This is your opinion, not my words: “Coulter fears that if Sacramento’s draft proposal becomes the rule her neighborhood would soon become unrecognizable.”

Basically you were trying to make me look like a nimby and did not include the substance of what I said.

Your article was very biased. Very disappointing.

A few hours later, Baldassari replied:

Hi Maggie,

Thanks for following up. I’m sorry you feel that way. But, respectfully, I disagree.

Here are some of the comments you made. It’s true that I paraphrased these comments, but I believe that any reasonable person would say my paraphrasing accurately represents your comments. I’m pulling these statements from a transcript of our recording.

Thanks,

Erin

The comments from the transcript jibe with the quotes from Coulter in the story.

Coulter emailed back:

I completely disagree. You made up that I was fearful and I never said the neighborhood would be unrecognizable. And of course you left out the substance of nearly all of what I said.

Yours was a very biased piece. It did not give anything near equal time to both sides nor did it fairly represent the concerns about the General Plan.

Again, very disappointing to see a young person like yourself engaging in this kind of manipulating-the-facts to tell the story you want instead of letting the narrative be told by those who are speaking.

This is what Trump did and it is no better when so-called Progressives do the same thing.

We need an objective media where all sides are fairly represented, even those we don’t agree with.

Unfortunately on this and other issues, the corporate media, NPR included, is not doing that.

This time Baldassari did not reply.

I haven’t seen the entire transcript of Baldassari’s interview of Coulter. But I have no reason to believe that what Coulter told her was different from what she told me about Sacramento’s General Plan 2040: It would make fourplexes “by right” on land currently zoned for single-family homes.  That’s because, as Coulter observed, “state law allows two ADUs on top of whatever the zoning allows, this means that six units could be built on a single-family lot.”

As for flipping: Coulter’s concerns are economic, not just or even primarily aesthetic. In her own neighborhood, she said, a duplex had been renting at $1,300 a month. Two years ago, it was flipped; the new tenants are paying more than $2,400 a month.

Sacramento city officials claim that the changes to the General Plan “are going to provide affordable housing.” That, said Coulter, is simply untrue. Moreover, the proposed amendments “absolutely will not right the wrongs of housing discrimination that was outlawed in the 1960s.” Instead, they’ll drive up housing prices, while driving out people who want to live in single-family neighborhoods. Eliminate such neighborhoods in the city, and “you create more pressure for urban sprawl development in Rancho Cordova, Folsom, and other towns in the foothills.”

Coulter finds it “very offensive” that the city is focused on upzoning what it calls “desirable neighborhoods.”

“What about the other neighborhoods,” places in which “the city hasn’t invested”? She mentioned Del Paso Heights and Oak Park, parts of Sacramento, she said, whose residents are predominantly people of color and lower-income. The housing there is “being gentrified,” threatening “mass displacement” of current residents. Coulter thinks the city should “make sure every neighborhood is desirable.”

She told me that she’s working with people in different neighborhoods, spreading the word about what the city is up to. The Bee, she said, “has not done one story where they covered the opposition. We’ve submitted op-eds to them” and never heard back. She’s urging Sacramentans to demand a say in the General Plan update. Last November, a strong mayor proposal was on the ballot; it lost. “That,” said Coulter, “had to be voted on.” She wants the future of single-family neighborhoods to be put to a vote, too. What’s going on now is “eclipsing democracy.”

Coulter encouraged me to talk to her fellow Sacramentan and community activist Chris Jones. Jones fits the upzoners’ image of their archenemy in one respect: he owns a single-family home in a single-family neighborhood.

In other ways, he diverges from that stereotype: he’s young (34), he’s Black, and he volunteers with a homeless advocacy group. The Los Angeles Times story includes a photograph of Coulter and Jones standing in the middle of a street lined with trees and single-family homes. Reporter Liam Dillon quotes Jones: “‘We want to see every neighborhood in Sacramento be a place where a young family would say, ‘That’s a nice place to live….By trying to cram people into existing single-family neighborhoods, it lets you off the hook for improving other neighborhoods.’”

I assumed that Baldassari hadn’t interviewed Jones, but when I spoke with him, he told me that she had. He said that he’d moved to Sacramento in 2015. The next year he bought a house in the Colonial Heights neighborhood. “It’s close to my office.” He works in IT. He described Colonial Heights as a “very established,” “quiet neighborhood” with “a lot of working-class families” and a current influx of young people.

“Prices are going up,” he said. “There’s a house that is nearby. It’s almost in an alley. Seven hundred square feet going for $300,000.” Laughing, Jones quipped that “in the Bay Area, you might be lucky to get a garage for that amount.” For Sacramento, it’s still a lot of money.

Like Coulter, Jones was drawn into land use activism by proposed changes in Sacramento’s 2040 General Plan. “The [official] line,” he said, is that the amendments are “just going to increase economic and racial diversity and help us with climate change.” All “good goals,…but what they’re trying to do doesn’t meet the criteria.”

He said he thinks “the scapegoated neighborhoods,” upscale single-family areas such as East Sacramento, Curtis Park, and Land Park, “will continue on as is, because of cost pressure.”

What “keeps people out of Land Park is a cost barrier, not a racial barrier; and that’s not going to go away….People who can plunk down $800,000 or $900,000 on a home want single-family, and that’s what they’re going to get.”

Meanwhile, “it’s not financially feasible in East Sacramento to buy a single-family home for a million dollars and convert it into a triplex or fourplex. You could take that same action in a lower-cost area and get two houses for the same investment,” which is precisely what Jones expects to happen if the proposed changes become law.

“Companies will buy homes that are relatively inexpensive and near an anchor development”—he mentioned Aggie Square, a new innovation hub on UC Davis’s Sacramento campus—“and convert them into market-rate rentals.” Land values will rise, which, he noted, would “be good for me as a homeowner.”

But “we’re not going to get more affordable housing, greater racial or economic diversity in Sacramento neighborhoods.”

Not that he’s against growth per se. In fact, Jones said he would like to see the city make it “easier for homeowners to build ADUs on their property.” Right now, he said, “it can cost upwards of $2,000 to have plans drawn up.” Plus, the city encourages the building of larger homes by imposing fees on new residential construction that are proportionately higher on smaller projects.  Jones thinks the city should reduce fees and exactions on smaller homes and maintain a library of pre-approved ADU plans.

I asked what he foresees with the proposed elimination of single-family home zoning in Sacramento. “It’s too early to really say whether the city will really go forward with the housing element as is,” he said. “If we can really educate people on the likely outcomes, there will be some public outcry. At the very least, we’re asking the council to slow things down.”

If Baldassari had agreed to talk with me, I would have asked her why she didn’t quote Jones. I also would have asked about SOLD OUT’s disparate treatment of land use activists. In the zoning series, Yimbys and tenant advocates form organizations and press their agendas in public forums. By contrast, Coulter appears as a lone homeowner. True, there’s also McCloskey holding forth at the Republican National Convention. But do Baldassari and her colleagues really think McCloskey typifies defenders of single-family zoning?

CZI World

The SOLD OUT story of zoning did not originate with the KQED housing news desk. Baldassari and her colleagues got that narrative from the agents of the upzoning/preemption movement, whose voices predominate not only in the March 13 reports about Sacramento, as Coulter observed, but throughout the entire zoning series.

To understand that predominance, you have to consider a factor that the KQED reporters ignored: money in politics. Real in-depth reporting would track financial contributions both to the elected officials who are sponsoring upzoning legislation and to the groups that are urging such measures, and tell how those beneficiaries used their funding.

In the category “Shaping the news,” the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s $750K grant to KQED would loom large. Less obvious but no less significant entries would be CZI’s gifts to entities who produced research cited in the SOLD OUT zoning series: the Terner Center for Housing Innovation and the Othering & Belonging Institute, both at UC Berkeley.

The CZI website lists a grant of $80,000 to the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, now called the Othering & Belonging Institute, to support “work to create and publish an evidence-based approach to identifying opportunity-rich, exclusive areas most appropriate for upzoning to allow for the creation of new homes for households at all income levels.”

In response to my emailed query, Stephen Menendian wrote that “CZI provided no funding or support whatsoever for our research series on racial residential segregation in the Bay Area.”

Part 5 of Menendian’s study cites five separate reports published by the Terner Center (fns. 5, 6, 7, 16, 92). None of those reports is associated with a CZI grant. But as with Othering & Belonging’s $80,000 grant, the Chan Zuckerberg gift of $440,000 to Terner supported the grantee’s broader programmatic goals.

As I was reading Menendian’s study, I noticed a sidebar on the Othering & Belonging website with links to media coverage. I clicked on the link and saw links to four of the reports in SOLD OUT’s zoning series. I also saw a link to a story posted on CalMatters on February 2. Based in Sacramento, CalMatters describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics. The linked piece turned out to be a guest commentary with the following lede:

The city of Sacramento recently took a giant leap toward becoming a more affordable, equitable, and sustainable city. By making it legal to build up to fourplex homes throughout Sacramento, city leaders put an end to unjust and discriminatory policies, established throughout the state decades ago , that were designed to keep our cities segregated and unaffordable.

The authors, Brian Hanlon, co-founder and CEO of California Yimby, and Steve Hansen, a former Sacramento councilmember and self-described Yimby policy champion, cite Menendian’s study; a January 2021 paper by Terner’s David Garcia, “Sacramento Leapfrogs State Capitol in Zoning Reform Race,” that touts among other things SB 1120/SB 9; and a paywalled paper, “It’s Time to End Single-Family Zoning,” authored by three scholars at UCLA, Michael Manville, Michael Lens, and Paavo Monkkonen, and published in the Journal of the American Planning Association in December 2019.

By now, I was reflexively checking CZI’s grants listings. Sure enough, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has given $100,000 to California Yimby and $300,000 to CalMatters. I already knew that Terner had paid the three UCLA scholars $8,500 to write a paper, “Built-Out Cities,” published last February. (Earlier this year, in the pages of 48 hills, I sparred with those professors over that paper.) UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said that the Terner grant included CZI money. There’s no record of CZI funding in this grant).

A new term popped into my mind: CZI World. Facebook money is funding an echo chamber whose occupants who, by citing each other’s work, expand the audience for and legitimacy of their agenda. At bottom, that’s a political agenda. This is not what academics call an “epistemic community,” a group that is merely seeking knowledge about a common field of interest. This is a political coalition that aims to pass legislation in Sacramento, and CZI is part of it. The endorsers of SB 9 include CZI, California Yimby, the Terner Center, and Facebook.

CZI’s most direct attempt to shape California housing news is the $750,000 grant to what in February 2020 NPR called “one of the most listened-to public radio stations in the nation,” “a trusted news source” that “serves the people of Northern California with a public-supported alternative to commercial media.” As we’ve seen, on occasion, the station reaches a national audience. KQED’s 2020 “Local Content and Service Report to the Community” says that in 2020, KQED Public Radio had a cumulative weekly average of 720,000 listeners and a weekly average of 90,000 podcast listeners.

The KQED Board Gift Acceptance Policy states that the station

will not accept any gift offered with the expectation of, or that raises the perception of, donor editorial influence. We maintain a firewall between our sponsorship activities and editorial functions….KQED staff that work with our funders may not approach a reporter to ask about coverage of a funder.

Let’s assume that these admirable policies have been honored by the station and by its housing desk in particular. The problem is that KQED’s protocols are based on a formalistic model of media integrity that founders on reality. As Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky point out in Manufacturing Consent, powerful interests don’t need direct influence to discipline the media; covert means are just effective—perhaps even more so—in ensuring that journalists stay within the boundaries of the dominant paradigm that serves those interests.

One common expedient is to underwrite a corps of experts who enunciate the hegemonic position and discredit its challengers. Just so, in SOLD OUT’s March 13 podcast, Coulter’s concerns about the proliferation of multi-unit housing are bookended by authoritative expounders of the orthodoxy. Before Coulter’s clip, Terner’s Garcia avers that “ ‘[t]here’s a real need in high cost cities to explore where we can build new homes…And that includes looking at single family homes, which for decades have been sacrosanct’.” After we hear from Coulter, “housing researcher Garcia” says that “change won’t happen overnight,” and that “restricting development” has “driv[en] up the cost of housing” and “led to racial segregation.” So much for Coulter.

Next time

In her February 24 conversation with Baldessari, Solomon says that “a season two of SOLD OUT…is in the works.” If KQED’s housing news desk wants to demonstrate its independence of its powerful patron, it could start by reporting the tech industry’s pivotal role in the Bay Area’s housing affordability crisis. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think the word “tech” appears in the zoning series. The source of the crisis, we’re repeatedly told, is an inadequate housing supply that reflects the desires of selfish, affluent homeowners and the undue constraints of the local ordinances they demand as protection of their “exclusionary” neighborhoods.

In his 2018 book, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and The Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area, UC Berkeley Professor of Geography Emeritus Richard Walker offers a different analysis. Walker attributes the region’s soaring land values to the “demented demand” generated by the tech boom. Writing in Urban Studies in 2019, UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Michael Storper and Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, challenged the dominant, supply-side position head-on. “The key factor in the housing affordability crisis,” they maintained, is not a lack of supply entailed by onerous local regulations, but rather the demand arising from ‘the current geography of employment, wages and skills’—specifically, the migration of highly-compensated, highly-skilled workers into ‘prosperous’ regions; and in the US, the absence of the ‘kind of delicate and complex policy mix’ required to ameliorate the housing affordability crisis. Storper and Rodriguez-Pose argued that instead of lowering prices, “[b]lanket changes in zoning’ for greater density, i.e., upzoning, would ‘increase gentrification within metropolitan areas and would not appreciably decrease income inequality.” Last August, they reiterated that argument in a second Urban Studies piece.

Instead of focusing on property capitalists of 1916 Berkeley, how about spotlighting contemporary elites, starting with the leaders of Big Tech, whose better-compensated employees have bid up the price of Bay Area real estate to astronomical heights? California Yimby got its start with $2 million in donations from tech executives, not including Zuckerberg. How about following that money trail?

If Baldassari and her colleagues want to make an even stronger demonstration of autonomy, they could examine Facebook’s impact on the city that hosts it headquarters, Menlo Park, whose population is only slightly smaller than the 35,000 employees that the company has said it ultimately intends to accommodate in town.

The strongest statement of all would be an in-depth look at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative itself. The grants I’ve noted are a tiny fraction of the 91 gifts totaling $77,534,122 that the CZI website lists under “Housing.” Where has all that money gone and to what effect? Assuming it doesn’t follow what Herman and Chomsky call the propaganda model of journalism, that would be brave reporting.

Note: On April 5, Atkins amended SB 9. As described in the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, the amended bill would among other things, would require a proposed housing development containing no more than 2 residential units within a single-family residential zone to be considered ministerially, without discretionary review or hearing, if the proposed housing development meets certain requirements…” The amended bill also states that “a local agency shall not be required to permit more than two units on a parcel created through the exercise of the authority contained within section” and specifies that the definition of a “unit” includes both an ADU and a JADU.

It may sound as if SB 9 is now, as SOLD OUT and Atkins claim, a “duplex bill”—but it’s not. That’s because it still allows some combination of ADUs, plus “2 residential units” on each of the two new lots.

Atkins apparently amended SB 9 in response to objections voiced by Livable California and cited in a March 24 column by San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Michael Smolens. Livable California is a statewide organization that supports local land use authority, environmental protection, and affordable housing. Absent from SOLD OUT’s zoning coverage, the group merits attention in season two.

Editor’s note: We’re sorry Baldassari hasn’t responded to us, and we encourage anyone else involved in this debate to respond.

UPDATE:

An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship between Stephen Menendian’s 2020 study, “Racial Segregation in the Bay Area,” and CZI.  

Part 5 of his 2020 study “Racial Segregation in the Bay Area” does not cite the project for which the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society (now the Othering & Belonging Institute) received an $80,000 grant from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. That project, says a March 2019 press release from the Haas Institute, produced the California Neighborhood Opportunity Maps, an “interactive mapping resource for zoning reform.”

The map cited by his segregation study (fn. 125) is the Opportunity Area Map sponsored by the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC), which administers the state’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. “When Droste and Baldassari say that more housing will lower housing costs, they’re reciting orthodox supply-side economics: Houses are like widgets. Want to make houses cheaper? Build more of them, and more types of them.”

    The supply demand curve doesn’t work well in a city like SF because land costs vary, and construction costs vary. No matter the demand, the supply of land is fixed. If you add more units, it increases the demand for the land and prices go up. In addition, as you go up more than a few stories construction costs go way up.

    In housing, you can’t get economies of scale you can get in a widget factory. The fixed costs of the factory in the supply-demand model is not matched by the fixed cost of land for housing. The cost of land is variable while the factory costs are relatively stable regardless of the number of widgets produced and the demand for the widgets.

    Also, if you could increase the supply of units until prices drop, financing and construction stops.

  2. As always, great research and context from Zelda. I wish more folks would follow the money and take a skeptical outlook on the so-called housing crisis. What gets built stays built, after all.

Comments are closed.

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