Tom Thurston: Policy is made by those who show up. Those who show up want something.

The hearing on the Housing Element was not as bad as I anticipated. Eric Angstadt, Deputy Director of CEDA and Jeff Levin, CEDA’s housing policy coordinator presented the draft statement. They noted that the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) would like to see most of the new housing in the central cities, namely San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. This is environmentally sound and consistent with a megatrend in housing preferences. These three cities got the lion’s share of the next round of housing allocation.

Furthermore, the City of Oakland prevailed on ABAG to consider the various cities’ previous low income housing development in allocation this round of low income housing allocation. Historically Oakland had responded to the mandate and built its share of low income housing. Other cities have simply ignored this aspect of the Housing Element. ABAG continued to ask Oakland to build these, because other cities weren’t. With this round, ABAG reduced in relative terms the Oakland’s low income housing allocation (PDF), assigning higher percentages to San Francisco and San Jose.

The chart below illustrates the percentage of units in select area cities that ABAG has assigned to each affordability level.

However, city staff heard plenty of pleading for low income housing at the hearing. About thirty community members attended the hearing. One of the attendees sits on the West Oakland Redevelopment PAC. I sit on the Central City East Redevelopment PAC. Every other person at the meeting either lived in low income housing or represented an agency that developed low income housing. The two PAC members were the only two at the meeting who did not have a direct economic interest in low income housing.

Staff encouraged these people and told them how important it was that they show up for hearings and meetings, that their voices are certainly powerful. They also contended that private (for profit) developers always showed up where their interests were concerned and made their voices heard. Staff made no note of the fact this meeting had no developers, and aside from the two PAC representatives, nobody who spoke for homeowners or market rate renters. They can record that their hearing showed strong, nearly unanimous, support for low income housing from this (unrepresentative) group.

If private developers always show up where their interests are involved, why were none at the Housing Element hearing? Could it be that their interests are not really involved here? Staff noted that the entire allocation of market rate housing for the upcoming period is either under construction, through the permit process or through planning. If the economy allows, it will all be built. Whether more will be built depends on political and economic factors beyond the Housing Element. On the other hand, deed-restricted affordable housing takes huge subsidies. If housing money from Redevelopment is restricted by declining property taxes, the City will be limited in the amount of low income housing it can build.

Does the Housing Element matter at all? It may have been a factor in Oakland developing a disproportionate share of low income housing in the past. Other cities ignored it with impunity. I suspect that Oakland’s enthusiasm for low income housing stems more from liberal politicians than from ABAG mandates. Carlos Plazola of the Oakland Builders Alliance contends that in Oakland, like most other cities, housing decisions are based on politics, not policies. In his 6 years of working with the City of Oakland, he never saw the Housing Element invoked by any policy maker, though sometimes it would be used by advocates to further their agenda. I also suspect that if needed, some low income housing advocate will trot out the policy to support their point. So there may be a value in trying to keep the policy balanced. As Our Obama says, words should mean something.

5 thoughts on “Tom Thurston: Policy is made by those who show up. Those who show up want something.

  1. len raphael

    T, are ABAG goals mere jawboning or does ABAG have a stick or carrot to back up it’s policy making?

    please explain how and when the mandate for spending Redevelopment money was/is set? Its been mentioned here that lower income goals were mandatory and (i thought) set at the state level. or are there different goals set for Redevelopment funded projects and private development?

    Assumedly the Redevelopment funded projects have to be positioned within the R district that provides the money? or is that subject to city policy decisions?

    -len raphael

  2. Steve

    I think challenging the mantra of affordable housing is pretty damn near politically impossible in Oakland, regardless of how phony a solution it appears to be for confronting the causes that put people in low or no income circumstances. How about putting that money and effort into improving k-12 schools instead? That said, I say do as the Romans do, right? Myself, I’m launching the People’s Movement for Affordable Porches because, well, even if I have to eat spaghetti every other night, I shouldn’t have to ride a bike with a wobbly front tire and rusty sprockets to get about damnit. Groceries? The rain? I’m tired of it. From now on, 20% of all Porches for sale in Oakland must have pricetags of no more than my spring semester’s student stipend. Take it or face the revolution!

  3. Carlos Plazola

    After graduate school, I spent a few months at the California Department of Housing and Community Development auditing Housing Elements from jurisdictions throughout California. As an eager and idealistic progressive, I couldn’t wait to find those wealthy jurisdictions that were not doing their part to provide affordable housing, and were not meeting their affordable housing goals. So, I lined ‘em up in a nice spreadsheet, and showed my boss a list of the guilty parties.

    The response: “That’s nice, but we don’t have the resources to go after them”.
    My response: “huh?!”
    His response: “If we go after them, they lawyer-up, and we don’t have the resources to fight every jurisdiction in California.”

    Government lesson #1: Path of least resistance prevails.

    Then I came to the city of Oakland to work for city government and saw the other side of the arrangement: the Affordable-Housing Industrial Complex. Where rich jurisdictions bring out their lawyers to keep out affordable housing, poor jurisdictions like Oakland get slammed by bleeding hearts (I was once a bleeding heart so I can use this phrase) who mostly grew up in the rich jurisdictions saying “bring all the affordable housing here.”

    They team-up with city leaders who represent mostly the richer areas of Oakland that aren’t all that impacted by the inundation of affordable housing in their voter rich neighborhoods, and the complex is complete. Housing Element be damned. It isn’t about policies. It’s about politics. The politics of feel-good.

    The real solution, for a bleeding place like Oakland, is NOT to keep bringing in more poor people so we can trap them in permanent poverty programs and then under-serve them.

    It’s to figure out how to help our existing low income populations become empowered to participate in the middle class, by getting good jobs, training in financial management, owning a home or learning to save and invest in something other than a home. In this way, we can begin to create a strong, multi-racial middle class, with strong business districts with mom and pop shops, where the kids have strong homes and get encouraged to go to college. It’s about empowering the poor, not institutionalizing the poor. Or as one person said it: it’s about teaching people to fish, not making them dependent on the fish we dole out to them.

    It sure beats the hell out of creating a growing poverty population under-served by a city that can’t afford to pay for the basics, who have to live in dangerous communities because they city can’t afford enough cops. But this is exactly what will continue to happen as long as Oakland remains the path of least resistance for affordable housing in the bay area.

    (Disclosure: I grew up poor, with a single mom. Son of immigrants. So, I speak from a place of experience on this one)

    Government Lesson #2: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  4. John Klein

    Housing policy isn’t really my area of interest. It is surprising, though, to see an apparent lack of interest in it since the location and height of new housing in the CBD is a main area of disagreement in the CBD rezoning, i.e., should it be at the Lake, or, should new housing replace old, historic buildings? I have a couple of random thoughts about this. First, no matter how “politicized” low income housing may be in Oakland, I believe it still falls on the fortunate in society to help those who are less fortunate. In other words, I believe we are our brother/sister’s keeper and compassion must always remain a part of the equation. We just need to be better at it.

    Second, I’d like to see a discussion in Oakland about how we are going to avoid making the same mistake that San Francisco made when it failed, in policy and practice, to provide middle-class family housing. The failure to provide this type of housing lead to housing dislocation and the loss of low and middle income families in SF directly caused by an increase in the cost of housing by more than 113% between 2002-2008.

    Maybe San Francisco can plead it wasn’t aware of the problem until too late, but this can’t be the same excuse in Oakland. You can see a discussion on this point here: As Mr. O’donoghue points out, developers and policy makers are now well aware of the problem and the solution.

    With so much emphasis on bringing new housing downtown, I’d like to hear how Oakland plans to avoid the mistakes of San Francisco, which have made it so unaffordable for middle-income families. Frankly, I’m not sure Oakland is going to avoid those mistakes. A quick look at rents at the Uptown indicates that a one bedroom rents for $2,140 and three bedroom units go for $3,600 a month. Where is Oakland’s middle-class family advocate?

  5. Steve

    John Klein, I think your intentions are good here, but I’m seeing sort of a framing issue here. Unless one still upholds the belief in Manifest Destiny, I see no reason why anyone can claim to have the right to, or deserves to, live on any specific patch of land they demand to. We live in a mostly market-based economy, agreed? This means you do the best you can with the money you’ve got. If my means are pretty limited (which they are), do I have the right to live in Manhattan or San Francisco or even a nice/safer part of Oakland (I am a 3rd generation Oaklander afterall damnit!)? Let’s say you still respond with “yes!” What happens if I manage to find some dumpy shoebox to live in? Now I’m in the middle of Manhattan, for example, how am I going to afford to buy food at local prices or afford to send my kids to good schools? What kind of existence is that? Kind of sounds like poverty to me. Wouldn’t I be better off moving somewhere where I can afford to feed my kids well, send them to good schools and maybe buy a house? Humans have been mobile ever since walking away from wherever it was we all came from in Africa. Why should that stop now?

    I’m not trying to be crass in my previous comment by comparing demands for affordable housing to demands for affordable Porches, but they both work on the same logic as far as I can see. Patronizing does not mean empowering. I’m also not interested in saying “OK, that’s it, no more (artificially) affordable housing, goodbye.” I think we need to quit being distracted by creating affordable housing and instead focus on growth and increasing people’s capacity to be socially mobile.