Half a century of housing policy failure: Part 8, “Then they say they’ve done something”

October 18, 2017 | California, Demographics, Economics, Homelessness, Housing, Incentives, Inclusionary zoning, Law, Local issues, NIMBY, Regulation, US News, Zoning | No comments 64 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.]


In the blissfully short last part of this post, we saw that the housing element can be either flouted or gamed, and either way, there are absolutely no adverse consequences of doing so, to the point where those who intend to sabotage it can announce their intentions even while enacting it.



Sources used in this post


Los Angeles Times (September 25, 2013; smog yellow font)

San Jose Mercury News (June 14, 2017; fog gray font)

Los Angeles Times (June 29, 2017)

New York Times (July 17, 2017; baby blue font)

Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2017; UCLA bruins’ blue font)



While the communities are furiously miming activity, they are secretly chortling at their good fortune.


Actually, we like living on Easy Street


It’s therefore possible that the housing element is making things worse because it emboldens exclusion.



“I think the most important part of this is that there’s complicity on the part of the state,” Herb Perez said of Foster City. “They created this fake thing that they know no one has any intention of doing, and then they say they’ve done something about housing.”


Mr. Perez has good cynical insight into political vaporware.



E. All the housing does is embolden exclusion


La Habra Heights, in Los Angeles County, asked that it be exempted from the law because the city was too hilly for apartment complexes.


Not too hilly for mansions though


After all, poor people don’t want to climb all those hills.


E.1 The housing element is a political sham, a charade


“What I’m seeing here is an elaborate shell game,” Perez said. “Because we’re kind of lying. It’s the only word I can come up with. We have no intention of actually building the units.”


Spot the new housing


Those who oppose new housing can rationalize themselves into believing that they are the ones being put upon, while others are being rapacious. 


Local officials, homeowners and environmentalists, often see these kinds of [inclusionary-development] measures as enriching developers while threatening the character of some of the most visually striking parts of this state, along the coast and in the mountains.


The parts of the state that they happen, by the merest good fortune, to live next to and to use parking restrictions and resident-only permits to keep predominantly for their exclusive use.



These and similar examples across California show that the housing law is a “complete farce,” Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said.


He’s right, it is a farce. 


Then why am I not laughing at it?


Alas, even energetic Senator Wiener knows the limits of the practical political, as indicated by the word I’ve highlighted in red:


His legislation would do away with some planning reviews that are often levied on projects in cities that haven’t kept pace with their housing goals.


Even as some are cut down, others will rise in their place.


For every review you kill, I can raise up a dozen more


Starting with soil reviews


Then we have the public comment period


E.2 Looked at dispassionately, the housing element is worse than worthless


[Lawmakers] have added dozens of new planning requirements to the process but have not provided any incentive, such as a greater share of tax dollars, for local governments to meet their housing goals.


Just as rules you don’t enforce are worse than nothing, rules you don’t fund are worse than nothing.


“The system is so broken,” said Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). “It gives the public a false sense that a step has been taken toward having more housing when in fact it’s just an illusion.”


We’re constantly moving forward


While housing isn’t being built, other forms of property are being built, jobs are being added, and the housing situation gets worse and worse:


The Bay Area has added half a million more jobs than houses since 2011, and other fast-growing parts of the country — around Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and Raleigh, N.C. — are building homes at more than twice the rate of the Bay Area.


They don’t have San Francisco’s sunset zoning or California’s anti-growth mania.


E.4 As a consolation prize, the law exposes prejudice


Collect eleven dollars, but no housing


The law has one consolation prize: it exposes prejudice.


“People like people of their own tribe,” said Herand Der Sarkissian, a former La Canada Flintridge planning commissioner.  “I think the attempt to change it is ludicrous. Be it black, be it white. People want to be with people who are like them. To force people through legislation to change in that way is impractical.”


And here I thought that had been declared Unconstitutional



Der Sarkissian said that any state efforts to integrate housing of all income levels into wealthy communities are doomed.


This is called ‘wish projection. – but Mr. Der Sarkissian has past (non)-performance on his side:


None of the multifamily housing called for in the La Canada Flintridge housing plan has been built.


Torrance Mayor Patrick Furey said he’s sympathetic to those who can’t afford to live in his city.


[He seems also sympathetic to his son and to his contributors. – Ed.]


Mayor Furey listening to a resident calling for him to resign, April, 2016


But, he added, Torrance shouldn’t have to make changes to the character of its neighborhoods to accommodate new housing.


I’m sympathetic but I won’t lift a finger to activate my sympathy.


Instead of Torrance, he said, nearby cities should take on the needed growth.


“You won’t have the zip code you want,” Furey said, “but it’s close enough.”


Says you.


Just remember, you’re not getting the zip code you want


[Continued tomorrow in Part 9.]


Half a century of housing policy failure: Part 7, “No intention of facing up”

October 16, 2017 | California, Demographics, Economics, Homelessness, Housing, Incentives, Inclusionary zoning, Law, Local issues, NIMBY, Regulation, US News, Zoning | No comments 57 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.]


Though this post on the completely bollixed California housing strategy has taken an absurdly long interval, both in words and even more in temporal elapse, at least we are getting somewhere. 


Yes, we’re picking up the pace now



Sources used in this post


Los Angeles Times (September 25, 2013; smog yellow font)

San Jose Mercury News (June 14, 2017; fog gray font)

Los Angeles Times (June 29, 2017)

New York Times (July 17, 2017; baby blue font)

Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2017; UCLA bruins’ blue font)


We’ve established that California’s housing element:


1.     Is an utter failure, and more, that the failure is crippling the state.

2.     Provides nothing to address the problem: no money, no mandates, no pro-housing tools.

3.     Is badly designed, even if judged by the modest standard of being an aspirational blueprint, in part because it elevates process at the expense of outcomes or accountability.


Now we get to the really fun stuff:



D. The housing element is easily subverted


Remarkably, the housing element incentivizes hypocrites and outright liars:


Mr. Ken Verybigliar: “There is a considerable financial advantage in using the services of El Mystico.  A block like Mystico Point here would normally cost in the region of one-and-a-half million pounds. This was put up for five pounds and thirty bob for Janet.”


Foster City has turned away other developers interested in building housing where the city’s plan said they could, Perez said.


We found them structurally unsafe


So Foster City can authorize land for housing development, entice developers to make proposals based on that expected zoning, and then simply deny that permit. 


A bill from Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) would, for the first time, force cities and counties that have fallen behind on their housing goals to take steps to eliminate some of the hurdles they put in front of development, such as multiple planning reviews for individual projects.


Even making allowances for the LA Times’ evident favorable impression of state Senator Wiener, he comes across as a good guy who’s thinking beyond the borders of his own San Francisco constituency.


State Senator Scott Wiener, who sponsored a bill restricting communities’ ability to quash housing projects. “We’re at a breaking point in California,” he said.


D.1 There is no political accountability for flouting the housing element


This is my cynical face


Herb Perez’s prediction [that the City Council was wasting its time with the housing element] came true.  Despite soaring demand for housing in the Bay Area, Foster City hasn’t approved any new development projects in more than five years. 


And here I thought the British were the world champions of hypocritically killing every attempt at development, no matter its merits.  Clearly delegations from Britain need to visit California to see how it’s really perfected.


Foster City’s experience is shared by governments across California: The law requires cities and counties to produce prodigious reports to plan for housing — but it doesn’t hold them accountable for any resulting home building.


Even a four-year-old child can figure out that if you’re not punished for going back on your promises, you can promise anything at any time.  Heck, four-year-olds are grizzled veterans at it, passing on their knowledge to the aspiring three-year-olds new to the game. 


State lawmakers have known about the law’s weaknesses for decades but haven’t fixed them.


It’s only taken California four decades to catch up with the mentality of a three-year-old.


Come back here!


Perhaps not irrelevantly, over the same period California has been practically a one-party state, the occasional populist Republican governor notwithstanding. 


In 1967, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the law, which had a simple goal: Cities and counties would have to plan “for the housing needs of all economic segments of the community.”


Housing ought to be a bipartisan issue drawing from both sides of the aisle, and over the decades housing programs have endured only if they are perceived as benefiting many constituencies regardless of the way they voted.  In California, as in many other one-party states (Massachusetts comes to mind), affordable housing has become the political preserve of only one party. 


Just five months after the first plans were due in July 1969, state officials realized local governments were ignoring the law, with a report warning about “discouraging indications” that a number of communities had “no intention of facing up to housing responsibilities.”


Even with any state’s Democratic party are many districts whose constituents, for all they profess love of their fellow humans, are as NIMBYite as many – and they are better able to camouflage themselves in the elven cloak of environmental righteousness.  Loss of even a handful of Democrats to their NIMBY voters dooms a partisan housing initiative to political defeat.  As a result:


The state doesn’t hold cities accountable for the goals they set, and the plans are often ignored.


In view of this, did the lawmakers act rapidly to correct the law’s defects?



Of course not.  Did they fix the law? 


Nope.  They just piled more mandates on it, and instead of making the law harder to subvert, these new mandates made it easier.


Here are all the rules, complete with loopholes


D.2 The housing element is trivially easy to game


Gaming the system starts with communities seeking to count anything and everything:


To avoid complying, local governments have over the years asked state lawmakers to, among other things:


·         Count prison beds as low-income housing

·         Count student dormitories as low-income housing.

·         Allow cities that place foster children in their communities to reduce the number of low-income homes they need to plan for.


Gaming then moves on


As an example of what a community can do when it’s trying to game the system, consider the tolerant, inclusive people of La Canada Flintridge:



At the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, the affluent bedroom community of La Canada Flintridge has few apartment or condominium complexes — and many of the city’s 20,000 residents and public officials want to keep it that way.


Four years ago, city leaders wrote a plan to make room for multifamily housing in several sections of the city.  But, to discourage developers, they chose areas already occupied by single-family homes and, in one case, a big-box retailer.


It takes a special kind of cynicism to create a plan for more housing that requires destroying existing housing.


As a result, developers would have needed to buy up the homes one by one or, in the case of the retailer, purchase the commercial real estate and force the store out.


So confident are the good people of La Canada Flintridge of their invulnerability that they announced proudly their plan was impossible to fulfill.


In devising the plan, city officials assured concerned residents that it would be prohibitively expensive for developers.


That’s plain and simple subversion.  Create a book and throw it at them.



Everybody on this dais and that’s here is on the same page,” Planning Commission [volunteer] Chairman Rick Gunter told the audience at a November 2013 hearing on the housing plan. “We like living here. We like the way it is now.”


In other words, keep the eff out of our town.


Don’t try to build housing here


Nor is La Canada Flintridge unusual:


We like building vacation condos that pay high taxes with few people … but nothing affordable, never affordable


In Redondo Beach, officials told the state in 2014 they would work toward the city’s housing goal by supporting a proposed commercial and residential development with 180 apartments — nine of them reserved for very poor families — to replace a run-down strip mall and parking lot along the Pacific Coast Highway. The city zoned the land for that amount of housing.


Translation: We’ll pretend to comply, but later we’ll un-comply. 


But in numerous hearings over the next two years, planning commissioners and council members argued the development was too big, and the city ultimately approved 115 apartments with none set aside for low-income residents.


The locals have also become adept at tag team obstruction: one group tortuously adopts a housing element, then later others who were not part of the adoption group challenge its individual components – and of course, those being challenged readily submit rather than resisting.


Stay – outta – our — town


The developer has since sued Redondo Beach and the project remains in limbo.


Which, of course, is where Redondo Beach is happy to have it remain.


Your permits are here, you just have to pick them up


La Canada Flintridge and Redondo Beach did not report housing construction data to the state from 2006 to 2014. Some new homes were built in both cities, according to permit information, but far fewer than were outlined in the cities’ plans over that period.


[Continued tomorrow in Part 8.]

Half a century of housing policy failure: Part 6, “A consensus that there is a crisis”

October 10, 2017 | California, Demographics, Economics, Homelessness, Housing, Incentives, Inclusionary zoning, Law, Local issues, NIMBY, Regulation, US News, Zoning | No comments 64 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]


Unlike many one-day posts, where I can just take a story and insert explanation, commentary, or pure snark into the journalist’s run of show, multi-part and multi-source posts take structural rearrangement.  Journalists are frequently interested in hooking you with a lede, then reporting what they learned in their quick survey, using he-said she-said quotes to give the illusion of balance, then closing the story and getting on to the next one. 


Sources used in this post


Los Angeles Times (September 25, 2013; smog yellow font)

San Jose Mercury News (June 14, 2017; fog gray font)

Los Angeles Times (June 29, 2017)

New York Times (July 17, 2017; baby blue font)

Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2017; UCLA bruins’ blue font)

San Jose Mercury-News (August 28, 2017; burnt red font)


Both their deadline pressure and their article lists militate against working backwards from the current to the past, and then rearranging the present so that it can be understood as a structure instead of as snippets. 


Will the internet be invented by three o’clock?


I, on the other hand, have no deadline [We noticed! – Readers] and no editor to satisfy other than myself, and having written the blog for more than a decade, I’m not reporting the news or repeating things written before; instead I find a topic and then, to do it justice, wind up becoming absorbed by curiosity.  How did the situation become so thoroughly bollixed up?


We took in ideas and we put out legislation


Doing that that with this piece – chopping up the articles into idea components, clustering them by topic, then reorganizing into an educational if not as headline-grabbing essay, I was struck by the next point, which I reframe as an axiom:


The law of Politics Without Policy


A law written to satisfy political pressure but without a policy consensus is guaranteed to be a progressively worse nightmare.


[For your American history lesson, consider the U. S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9, first clause: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight …”, which punted the question of slavery for twenty years.


I think we have a consensus here


In the British Army, we have forbidden silliness


Those who wrote the housing element into the law four-plus decades ago thought they were expressed a political and policy consensus … but it certainly doesn’t exist now, and I seriously doubt that it existed back then.


There are times when all the world’s asleep
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man


C.4 The housing element is based on a presumed consensus about affordable housing that simply doesn’t exist in California


“There is a consensus that there is a crisis –“


Consensus?  You think we have consensus?


I wish there were such a consensus, and Mr. Chiu wishes there were, but there isn’t, so the rest of his predicate is wishful thinking.


“– and we have to address it,” said David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who leads the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee.


Mr. Wiener compared the political atmosphere now to how Californians embraced mandatory water-rationing in response to the five-year drought here.


Whether he realized it or not, Mr. Weiner has neatly encapsulated why affordable housing isn’t the same political atmosphere.  Water shortages hurt everyone in California, including the middle class, whereas a shortage of affordable housing doesn’t directly hurt everyone.


There’s nothing about housing that being a lot richer couldn’t solve … could it?


“We’re at a breaking point in California,” Mr. Wiener said.  “The drought created opportunities to push forward water policy that would have been impossible before.”


Actually, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, for those with parochial perspectives or short time horizons, the shortage just makes them richer and more insulated.


“Given the breadth and depth of the housing crisis in many parts of California, it creates opportunities in the Legislature that didn’t exist before.”


Mr. Weiner’s correct that lack of affordable housing is a problem that occurs everywhere in the state, but it does not occur uniformly within everywhere. 


A rare occurrence: Mr. Weiner at the opening of new affordable housing in San Francisco


Researchers at UC Berkeley found that more than half of low-income households in the Bay Area are at risk of, or already experiencing, gentrification.


Households, remember, not towns or cities.


It’s not just lower-income communities bleeding households-higher-income neighborhoods are losing their lower-income members as well.  In places like the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, gentrification protests have exposed escalating tensions between longtime Latino residents and new, predominantly white arrivals.


While every California county may have a shortage, large parts of every California county are quite happy with their neighborhoods and their personal housing situations, thank you very much. 


A question few homeowners ask themselves


In fact, some people quite like their isolation:


Herand Der Sarkissian, a former La Canada Flintridge planning commissioner [and tax preparer] who approved the city’s housing plan, said in an interview it didn’t make sense for the state to try to force low-income housing into La Canada Flintridge because the city’s high land costs made it fiscally irresponsible.


In 2013, La Canada Flintridge considered and rejected a ‘view ordinance’, something I’d never heard of before, and one that would go San Francisco’s ‘sunset zoning’ one better:


[View preservation regulation] would protect hillside properties that offer views of the mountains from obstructions like trees and vegetation.


Beyond merely pruning the hedges, a view preservation law would completely prohibit any increase in building verticality, such as might be necessary if one wanted to add more housing and (gasp) affordable housing to La Canada Flintridge. 


The only affordable housing we’ll let anyone build will have to be invisible


Members of the city’s Planning Commission decided Tuesday night not to move forward with the development of a view preservation regulation, although some said they would like to study the issue in the future.


Under the guise of ‘keeping the view of the mountains, La Canada Flintridge could downzone the whole city, and most of those voting for it would never realize they were being instant exclusionists.


“I think it’s a slippery slope,” said Commissioner Rick Gunter.  Gunter and other commissioners agreed that the “view” in the city would be hard to define.  “There’s a point in which you can’t regulate everything.”


Gunter keep the grass?


You don’t call it a slippery slope when you’ve already reached the bottom – a view preservation ordinance would require no further legislation, as San Francisco has discovered.


I don’t care if you think it’s true love, this is fishy


Ali Ghaneh, who lives on Sugar Loaf Drive [And who is among other things part-time faculty to Cal Poly Pomona – Ed.] , first presented the issue before the commission in August. He contended that his view was being compromised by a neighbor’s tall trees and vegetation. Attempts to convince the neighbor to trim the greenery were fruitless, he said, even after he offered to pay for the service.


I have every reason to presume Mr. Ghaneh’s resolution is motivated only by civic interest and neighborliness, but his proposal is of the type that anti-development folks love to have brought forward by someone who’s oblivious to development considerations.


“Without an ordinance, people can abuse their rights,” said Mr. Ghaneh, adding that one of the reasons he chose a home in the hills was for the view.


And with an ordinance, people abuse their neighbors’ rights, and the rights of those who aren’t yet their neighbors.


“My right to swing my fist ends when your nose begins.”  — Oliver Wendell Holmes


[Continued in Part 7.]

Half a century of housing policy failure: Part 5, “Few elected officials are eager”

October 4, 2017 | California, Demographics, Economics, Homelessness, Housing, Incentives, Inclusionary zoning, Law, Local issues, NIMBY, Regulation, US News, Zoning | No comments 68 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.]


As the preceding parts of this slow-moving post have demonstrated, the housing element is a maze that no one likes but from which no one can escape. 


Oh but my boy, the point of our maze is precisely to keep jumped-up hairdressers like you out



Sources used in this post


San Jose Mercury News (June 14, 2017; fog gray font)

Los Angeles Times (June 29, 2017)

New York Times (July 17, 2017; baby blue)

Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2017; UCLA bruins’ blue font)

San Jose Mercury-News (August 28, 2017; burnt red font)


Among the many reasons this law is so perverse is this next one: it doesn’t tackle the underlying problem.


You missed the problem



C.3 Even at its best, the housing element does not tackle the real problem of supply: anti-growth local laws.


Housing is expensive in California for the simplest of reasons:


1.     People can increase.

2.     Jobs can increase, and are in fact incentivized to increase.

3.     Housing can’t increase or is severely dis-incentivized to increase.


Of these, I want to highlight the second, because jobs exist in commercial buildings: office buildings, bio or tech, manufacturing, or retail.  And that can lead to some curious consequences:


As dusk settled over a mostly industrial landscape of warehouses covered with graffiti murals, Fernando Ramirez stood in front of the lone art gallery late Saturday afternoon and urged fashionably dressed visitors not to go inside.


“Don’t contribute to the displacement of the people in the community right here in Boyle Heights. Our rents are going up because of the art galleries,” he said. “Please do not cross the picket line!”


Ramirez, 38, had come to this desolate stretch of Boyle Heights with other protesters to once again declare war against a growing number of neighborhood art galleries and what he and other activists fear they foreshadow: a wave of gentrification.


Though this anger is understandable, it’s illogical nonsense.  Don’t bring jobs to our community.  Don’t spend money in our community.  Don’t make our community more attractive. 


Under no circumstances let this revenue into our community


Even worse, it leads to stupid acting out:


On Sunday, a few miles east, a smaller group of protesters gathered outside a white storefront on Cesar Chavez Avenue with the word “COFFEE” painted in black.


The next day, The day after his coffee shop was reported in the LA Times, it was vandalized:


John Schwartz of Weird Wave Coffee


A small coffee shop at the center of multiple anti-gentrification protests in Boyle Heights was vandalized Wednesday, according to its owners.


Footage from surveillance video at Weird Wave Coffee showed a person — clad in black clothing and a black mask — stepping out of an alley, then quickly using what may be a slingshot to shoot an object at the shop’s logo. The object cracked the coffee shop’s glass door.


The vandalism both saddens and upsets me; there’s no call for it under any circumstances.  In this case, it proves the vandal an idiot in addition to being a thug.  But it illustrates, in however bad a fashion, that when there is scarcity, jealousy and envy rise.


Coastal cities — which tend to have the worst housing problems — have the most scarce land. Still, economists say, the high cost of all housing is first and foremost the result of a failure to build.


Cities that add square footage for these uses but then simultaneously deny corresponding square footage for housing are both creating a housing shortage and assuring that they won’t bear it:


The situation has been aggravated by places such as Brisbane, just south of San Francisco, which has encouraged extensive office development while failing to build housing.


David Chiu’s got no blind eyes


“We have cities around California that are happy to welcome thousands of workers in gleaming new tech and innovation campuses, and are turning a blind eye to their housing need,” said David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who leads the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee.


Instead, some other community will have to absorb the people, possibly in informal or overcrowded housing.


The state has added about 311,000 housing units over the past decade, far short of what economists say is needed.


The economists’ projections are based on nothing more than projected job and population growth, coupled with obvious statistics on the slow loss of stock to obsolescence.


More than two-thirds of California’s coastal communities have adopted measures — such as caps on population or housing growth, or building height limits — aimed at limiting residential development, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. A UC Berkeley study of California’s local land-use regulations found that every growth-control policy a city puts in place raises housing costs by as much as 5% there.


Gee, if it gets too expensive for you to live in our town, you’ll just have to commute farther, won’t you?


To those who oppose affordable housing, rising prices aren’t a bug (something to correct), nor even a feature (something random that you can adapt to), they’re a program design specification.  Higher prices benefit us in the incumbents’ club: ‘those people’ will live in some other community. 


That has turned California into a state of isolated and arguably self-interested islands.


Truth be told, about our neighbors we are all self-interested and short-sighted.  Living alongside people different from us is something we have to learn.


[California’s 19 regional agencies, including the Southern California Assn. of Governments in the Los Angeles area] outline how many new homes are needed across four income levels: very low, low, moderate and above-moderate. So, in theory, all cities and counties would receive their fair share of growth. Local governments must show they’ve zoned enough land for the new housing — and the state must sign off on those plans.


And zoning is only the first hurdle:


Even if you got through zoning, the next hurdle is upcoming


[Even if a property is zoned for development], few elected officials are eager to risk community anger by forcing through construction that would, say, put a ten-story apartment building at the edge of a neighborhood of single-family homes.


Neighbors vote today.  Newcomers who might move in don’t vote today.  Hence the power of the freeze-time-in-its-tracks party.


Even so, city and county officials resent the law, arguing it unfairly takes away their power over development in their communities.


It does take away their power, but only their power to be unfair.



[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]



Half a century of housing policy failure: Part 4, “Never going to approve all the housing”

October 2, 2017 | California, Demographics, Economics, Homelessness, Housing, Incentives, Inclusionary zoning, Law, Local issues, NIMBY, Regulation, US News, Zoning | No comments 83 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]


A normal reader of this or any other blog might presume that, after establishing that California’s housing element has done nothing to improve California’s housing affordability; has in fact coincided with California’s housing un-affordability and shortage becoming progressively worse; and has no money, no tools, and no data aggregation, after establishing all that a normal blogger might be expected to move on to the conclusion – but I am no normal blogger.



The housing element is so bad, such a rotten  useless foundation, that California has no chance to escape its worsening housing crisis until the law is eradicated and something entirely different is created in its stead. 


Sources used in this post


San Jose Mercury News (June 14, 2017; fog gray font)

Los Angeles Times (June 29, 2017)

New York Times (July 17, 2017; baby blue)

San Jose Mercury-News (August 28, 2017; burnt red font)



As this is an important finding, one that provides necessary context to evaluate (and often to dismiss) current efforts, I’m going to invest my time (*) in demolishing it root and branch.


I’ll merely be snarky


(*) Readers, of course, are under no duty to stay with me through all these parts – but then, reading is easier and faster than writing. 


[We notice you’ve been slowing down the pace, what’s up with that? – Ed.  Too busy with AHI housing work, sorry – Auth.]



C. Even as an aspirational mandate, the housing element is badly designed


Twelve years ago when I started this blog, I thought Proposition 13 was a ridiculous law; then, five years ago, in a lengthy post about California’s progressively more self-tying knots against development, I dated original sin to the Serrano decision:


Proposition 13, the sweeping voter initiative passed in 1978 that capped property taxes, has made things worse: It had the effect of shrinking the housing stock by encouraging homeowners to hold on to properties to take advantage of the low taxes.


Proposition 13 was objectively (in the Orwellian sense) anti-development, in that it discouraged property transfer, which consequentially discouraged development.  Serrano was distortive. 


But the housing element is not only the oldest of these, the effort before which as far as I know there were no prior efforts – it’s also the most feckless, and even setting aside that it has no money, no tools, and no information, it’s also spectacularly badly designed.



C.1 The housing element elevates procedures rather than pursuing outcomes


It requires cities and counties to develop plans every eight years for new home building in their communities. After more than a year of work and spending nearly $50,000, Foster City had an 87-page housing plan that proposed hundreds of new homes, mapped where they would go and detailed the many ways the city could help make the construction happen.


I spent some time going through the document – and you should too, as it’s got almost all the data you could possibly want. 


Here are spots where housing could go … if someone wanted to develop there and if we let them develop there


But a crucial element was missing: Foster City was never going to approve all the building called for in the voluminous proposal, Perez said.


As there is no accountability in the housing element, nothing prevents a locality from assuming a voluminous document giving the impression that housing production will occur but in fact demonstrating only that housing production might possibly occur.


Over an eight-year period, state officials send estimates of housing needed to meet projected population growth to 19 regional agencies, including the Southern California Assn. of Governments in the Los Angeles area.


If I’m understanding the housing element’s mechanics correctly, between the pro-housing folks and the anti-housing folks there’s actually been a two-step of dysfunction:


·         The pro-housing coalition adds requirements as to what words have to be put into a housing element.

·         The anti-housing coalition adds obstacles to actually building housing.


Between the two, the process grows and grows:


Over the years, legislators passed numerous bills adding detailed rules to local government housing plans.


If I’m right about this, the pro-housing folks’ actions are actually thwarting their own objectives:


I think you’re overcompensating


Adding procedural requirements to a law without outcome teeth simply gives the anti’s more things they can do to stretch out the process without actually creating any new housing. 


Brilliantly not-done-anything-to!


But things only got worse.


With no production, the outcomes shrink and shrink.


By 1993, the law’s increased paperwork requirements turned it into “an energy- and money-guzzling bureaucratic maze,” said Timothy Coyle, then-director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, at a legislative oversight hearing that year. He called the law “broken” because it did nothing to encourage cities to permit more homes.


Mind you, that was 24 years ago, and the law hasn’t improved since then.


Coyle said in a recent interview that the law “was destined to fail.”


The housing element was destined to fail because for housing’s opponents, failing is the better option, because there are no penalties for failing.



C.2 The housing element has no penalties for non-compliance


As many a parent has found who has a post-graduate child living at home, if the status quo is low-cost and low-demands, why change it?


Great coffee, Mom


In Los Gatos, about 60 miles south of San Francisco, for instance, a long-running dispute over a proposed development for 320 homes that the city rejected led to a lawsuit by the developer, which resulted in a judge directing the city to reconsider the plans.


Unfortunately, as the article makes clear, at this point that’s all the judge can do: force the town to say what it found non-compliant.  Of course the town will find a handful of nitpicks, as so eloquently obfuscated by town attorney Rob Schultz:


The town council rejected the proposed North 40 development after receiving comments and emails from hundreds of residents who complained the development was too big, did not fit with the “look and feel” of Los Gatos and did not comply with the North 40 Specific Plan.


Translation of ‘look and feel’ – “We won’t like any design you submit, so don’t bother trying another one.”


Schultz wrote, “The decision and judgment states that the town must reconsider petitioners’ applications and the project under the provisions of Government Code section 65589.5 and if, during the course of reconsideration, the town determines to again deny the applications and project, the town shall specify the applicable, objective general plan, specific plan and zoning standards which the project failed to comply. If the town determines that the project does so comply, then the town shall make written findings, supported by substantial evidence on the record, that (1) the project would have a specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety unless the project is disapproved, and (2) there is no feasible method to satisfactorily mitigate or avoid that specifically identified adverse impact other than the disapproval of petitioners’ applications.”


Of course the developer will be able to refute whatever Los Gatos comes up with.  The town will then stall again before submitting the question back to the court.  The judge, who will know he’s being played for a fool, will fume and issue another order. 


Decisions made by California’s cities and counties are important, too, and many of those local governments have made it even more difficult to build new housing.


Many?  Try all of them.  In Los Gatos, likely a year will pass with no housing – unless and until the developer relents and offers a reduced-density plan:


Also, cities regularly make developments smaller than their zoning allows, something that gradually whittles away future housing production.



[Continued tomorrow in Part 5.]