The Chronicle has a long, in-depth series on the California Voting Rights Act, which focuses—and not in a terribly positive way—on district elections of local government officials.
The stories are detailed, carefully written, and seek to represent all sides of the debate, except for sentences like this:
Housing becomes harder to build in many cities, because districts give NIMBYs more leverage to reject unpopular projects, potentially worsening the state’s dire housing crisis, according to research on home permitting.
The research in question:
In a 2023 paper, political scientist Asya Magazinnik, formerly a professor at MIT and now at the Hertie School in Germany, analyzed 10 years of housing data from 60 California cities that switched to district elections after the passage of the CVRA. These were all midsize cities, with populations above 50,000 and a history of minority underrepresentation. Along with co-author Michael Hankinson, Magazinnik counted the number of multifamily permits — the kind that NIMBYs often oppose — issued before the switch and after.
The researchers measured a 55% drop in such permits after the switch — a “huge” effect, Magazinnik said. Under at-large rules, cities approved an average of 44 more multifamily units per year than they approved under districts.
At the same time, the new units in districted cities were spread throughout many neighborhoods instead of just a few: The total housing supply went down, but it was distributed more equally. The reason, Magazinnik said, is that minority neighborhoods “get a seat at the table now” — and they’re using that newfound power to either reject new projects or put them in other neighborhoods.
White majorities have been doing this forever, of course, but now Latinos, Asians and Black people can, too. It’s one version of the California dream: Everyone, regardless of race, can be a NIMBY.
That’s part of what the paper says. I read it. Magazinnik also concludes:
District elections decrease the supply of new multifamily housing, particularly in segregated cities with sizable and systematically underrepresented minority groups. But district elections also end the disproportionate channeling of new housing into minority neighborhoods. Together, our findings highlight a fundamental trade-off: at-large representation may facilitate the production of goods with diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, but it does so by forcing less politically powerful constituencies to bear the brunt of those costs.
In reaching this conclusion, the study assumes that housing (all housing) is what the academic paper calls a “Locally Unwanted Land Use,” along with “energy facilities and drug addiction clinics.”
And Magazinnik, like the Chron article, makes no distinction at all between market-rate housing and affordable housing. There is no discussion of how many people in a place like the Mission believe, with good reason, that more luxury housing will lead to widespread displacement.
In most of San Francisco, affordable housing is not a Locally Unwanted Land Use. Many neighborhoods, particularly what the study calls “minority neighborhoods,” are constantly demanding more non-market housing. In some cases, luxury housing that will cause displacement is an unwanted use—but the distinction is completely missing in this entire discussion.
The question of whether market-rate housing helps the state’s crisis is a matter of considerable debate, which is not reflected here.
I emailed Magazinnik to ask about all of this, and so far I have not heard back.
The series also raises a disturbing point: Although I don’t think the writers intended it, the stories can be read to compare neighborhood activists, including presumably the folks (most of them Latinx) who fought The Monster in the Mission, with crazy white right-wing religious book burners who want to throw out school board members who they claim support “critical race theory.”
The stories note that the state Legislature passed the CVRA to encourage more diverse local government agencies. At-large elections tend to dilute the power of minority populations. Which is true and fair.
What’s missing, except for at the very end, is another key element of district elections, particularly in a city like San Francisco: The district system gives candidates who don’t have the backing of big money a chance to win.
You can win a district race, particularly with public campaign financing, even if the billionaires, Big Tech, and Big Real Estate want someone else.
I was here during at-large elections. The progressives rarely had more than two or three allies on the at-large boards. Incumbents were almost unbeatable. The mayor, who appointed every member of every important policy commission, and could appoint supervisors to fill vacancies, had immense power: At one point, a majority of the supes were appointed by, and loyal to, Mayor Willie Brown. The only way progressives could end that lockstep on power was returning to the district system.
At a time when the plutocrats are gearing up to try again to take over City Hall, the system of district elections of supes is more important than ever.
Districts also create accountability and give neighborhoods that used to be ignored a say at City Hall. Under at-large elections, huge parts of San Francisco, including the Mission, the Tenderloin, and the Southeast, were largely ignored by most supervisors. If you had a problem, there was nobody at City Hall to call. Now, district supes do a whole lot of constituent service work.
Oh, and in the past ten years, under a district board, more housing, including affordable housing, has been approved than in any ten-year period under an at-large board in modern history. The at-large board approved all of the redevelopment plans in the 1950s and 1960s that demolished tens of thousands of units of affordable housing.
I worry that the Chron’s story, which focuses mostly on smaller jurisdictions and school boards, where plutocratic money isn’t as big a deal, with drive some of our legislators, even some from San Francisco, to push for reforms that could make it easier for the Big Money folks to attack the district system here.
Here is the one paragraph in a massive series that discusses the issue:
District elections can give an edge to passionate activists on either side of the political spectrum. The shift makes it cheaper and simpler to campaign, because each district is a fraction of its surrounding city and usually contains one-fifth as many voters. Also, polarizing candidates who would struggle to win a citywide election can sometimes more easily succeed in districts, because a relatively small number of votes can make the difference. Districts may shatter old power structures, too, letting new forces bubble up through the cracks.
(“Polarizing candidates” is an interesting term. Harvey Milk won during the 1970s district era. He tried but couldn’t win citywide.)
Much of the series looks at much, much smaller cities and towns, where yes, a few lawyers are making money enforcing the CVRA in places where district elections might not be needed or make much of a difference.
One part of the series focuses on a school board election in Murrieta in Riverside County, population 110,000. The main protagonist is Dr. Takesha Cooper, who was appointed to a vacant seat on the board and had to run for re-election in a district.
But as Election Day approached, she grew uneasy. She kept seeing posters and flyers attacking her for supporting “divisive critical race theory.” Misinformation spread quickly in the district. When she knocked on doors, “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re the CRT person,” Cooper recalled. “Or, you’re the one teaching sex to 5-year-olds. Just lies.”
The literature came from a local evangelical church, the 412 Church, whose pastor, Tim Thompson, had described public schools as “Satan’s playground” and hosted a talk show on YouTube. Working with Riverside County GOP officials, Thompson had found and trained his own slate of seven candidates, including Pardue, to run for three local school boards. He even filmed a bombastic, NFL-style “Endorsement Draft” to introduce the candidates to voters.
The right-wing attack on school boards in California and around the country is a huge story. It started before Donald Trump got elected president, but in since then it’s expanding and spreading. It’s a terrifying national phenomenon.
I don’t see any evidence that the rise of the radical religious right in education is primary the result of district elections in California.
But the implications in the story are clear: District elections help right-wing nuts, so cities need to go back to at-large systems.
That might have some relevance in small areas where there aren’t enough people to run in micro-districts. It’s absolutely not the case in a place like San Francisco.
But the state Legislature is not known for nuance, and when district elections are tagged as a NIMBY thing, the potential impact is scary.