Time’s path dependency

October 30, 2017 | Cities, Engineering, England, Infrastructure, Patton, roads, Romans, Theory, Water | No comments 103 views


By: David A. Smith



Patton prepared himself [to command Third Army in France] by reading The Norman Conquest to determine what roads William the Conqueror had utilized centuries earlier during his campaigns in Normandy and Brittany. 


If an army marches on its stomach, a mechanized army rolls on its roads


When it comes to cities as a concept and real estate as a physical thing, desirability is a nested hierarchy of attributes from most fixed to least fixed, going roughly as follows:


  1. Location.  It never changes but its utility is affected by technology and urban evolution.  Rivers are no longer critical power sources. 
  2. Infrastructure.  Both its physical manifestations (e.g. roads) and its enduring intangible networks. 
  3. Building structures. Because shell and systems admit of multiple uses and users.


Everyone in real estate knows about location and about building structure, but here in the developed world we take infrastructure entirely too much for granted, starting with roads. 


The reason, Patton noted, was uncomplicated and invariably accurate: Roads in William’s time had to be situated on passable terrain, and to determine the roads Third Army might take, the great Norman became his guide to bypassing the enemy on roads the Germans would not have thought to demolish.



Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by maps, so it was with particular pleasure that I trawled the publish-anything Daily Mail (July 26, 2017) with an article by Shivali Best on a subject dear to both Patton and me:


Think of a legion as a London Transport train and it all makes sense


From 43 – 410 AD, the Romans built around 2,000 miles of roads across the UK, designed to allow troops to move quickly, and providing vital routes for commerce, trade and the transportation of goods.  An ambitious student has now reimagined the UK’s Roman-era roads as a modern subway system.


The underground-style map was created by Sasha Trubetskoy, a student studying statistics at the University of Chicago.


A fellow who likes making statistics visual


Aside from being a middling poet and reincarnated southern cavalier, George S. Patton was a tremendous student and amateur scholar of military history, whose writings (as in Letter of Instruction 1, 6 March 1944) crackle with crisp wisdom and authority:


Maps are necessary in order to see the whole panorama of battle and to permit intelligent planning.  Further, and this is very important, a study of the map will indicate where critical situations exist or are apt to develop, and so indicate where the commander should be.  Letter of Instruction 1, March 6, 1944


Patton talking with Third Army engineers, March, 1945


In the lines of Mr. Trubetskoy’s transit-England map, we can hear the echoes of history:


Mr Trubetskoy spent days making the map.  “A huge help was the Pelagios Greco-Roman digital map,” he said. 


[Editorial note: I just spent a few minutes scrolling around the map: it is seriously cool. – Ed.]


“It’s very thorough and shows the locations of pretty much every known road.  In some areas it’s not as complete, but for Britain it was massively helpful.”


The map includes the Latin names for towns and cities across the UK, such as Londinium (London), Mamucium (Manchester) and Pons Aelius (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne).  While Latin names are given for the towns and cities, the lines themselves all have modern English names, such as Devil’s Highway and Military Way.  “Unfortunately, the original Latin names have been lost to history.”



Roads as an accelerator of transport speed have always been a strategic military infrastructure asset. 


The better to move troops, my fellow Germans


Roman thinking was later updated by Hitler and his generals in building Germany’s autobahn (which the Nazis adapted into an explicit military purpose), and in the 1950’s by Eisenhower’s endorsement of and support for the interstate highway system.


In this case, the roads followed the cities, whereas for the Romans, the cities followed the roads


Bandwidth was measured by the number of soldiers (or vehicles) that could travel abreast. 


Road width = column speed


Roman roads were large structures, typically measuring 16 to 23ft (five to seven metros) wide. 



As compasses were yet to be invented, Roman surveyors used a piece of equipment called a groma – a wooden cross with weights hanging down from it – to help make the roads straight.


The invention of surveying


The Romans engineered their roads for durability, with hard-packed paving stones over a graded base, and seasonal utility, with a conscious crown so that rain and snow would drain away, not pool and break up the road.



They reached a height of around one-and-a-half feet (half a meter) in the center.


The Romans also engineered for speed as measured by total transit time:


While the Romans were famous for building roads in straight lines, the discovery of a road between Ribchester and Lancaster shows they also took the natural geography of a place into account, to avoid steep hills, for example.


The Romans understood transit geodesics: if your legion is hauling men, horses, and carts up and down hills, you’ll slow down your rate of march. 


The roads were used to transport goods efficiently and for marching soldiers.


The Romans built their roads to be very straight to make journey times as short as possible.


In conquering and then civilizing Britain, the Romans, engineers par excellence, first chose the best locations for forts, then connected these with the best routes to move men and goods.


“’I pretty much included every known Roman settlement in Britain, as well as some locations that were only a fort/camp, or tribal settlement under Roman control.”

From Roman Deva to English Chester


In so doing, Mr. Trubetskoy mapped nearly all of England’s major cities, because where the Romans built forts, the English later developed medieval towns, and these became Britain’s modern cities.



As his map makes visible, the path dependencies followed one after the other:


  • Strategic locations became forts.
  • Forts were connected by efficient Roman roads.
  • Efficient Roman roads enabled the countryside around the forts to grow into towns.
  • The towns became centers of learning, commerce, law, and authority.

Ironically, even as the roads made it possible for the Romans to build an empire than spanned a continent, they also accelerated urbanization. 


Of his propensity to study maps, Patton said, “If the greatest study of mankind is man, surely the greatest study of war is the road net.” 


It also accelerated wealth accumulation, and a new kind of wealth: that of management and enterprise more than just power and land.


 “Speed of travel depends on the season, mode of travel, and how rich you are.  An expensive fast carriage could take you from London to York in about five days.  Most people couldn’t afford animals or carriages, and would have to go on foot – at that rate London to York would take nearly two weeks.”


Without the empire, the city of Rome would neve have grown as much as it did.  And without the Roman roads, Londinium may never have become Britain’s capital.

Engineered for British success from Roman decisions


Preservation of Roman roads in the UK varies, with some still protruding from the land and easily visible. 


Chariot ruts in the Via Domitia near Ambrussum.


Others are hidden under earth and have only been found thanks to Lidar.


On the right, a view of Via Applia Antica


Patton believed in reincarnation, always as a soldier, and in particular that he was a Roman legionary:


So as through a glass, and darkly

The age long strife I see

Where I fought in many guises,

Many names – but always me.


He also understood the path dependencies of history:


Years later, his son would call attention to the annotations on the map in a note addressed, To any biographer.

Half a century of housing policy failure: Part 10, “Should be the top priority as it relates to tech”

October 25, 2017 | California, Demographics, Economics, Elections, Homelessness, Housing, Incentives, Inclusionary zoning, Law, Local issues, NIMBY, Regulation, US News, Zoning | No comments 132 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9.]


If, as we’ve established, the housing element has got to go so that Proposition 13 can be likewise repealed or routed around, the new tool must be quite a crowbar – as indeed Massachusetts’’ Chapter 40B is.


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)


Key to Chapter 40B is not just the added value created when a property is upzoned, but that the added value will be first captured by a private party, who is pursuing the affordable housing not out of civic pride or altruism but out of good old fashioned rapacity – in short, a developer.


Spoken like a developer


Developers don’t mind saying outrageous things if doing so disorients or distracts their opponents.


Remember the ‘think big’ part


Developers expect to get bloody knuckles as part of the price of winning.


I know all about the good cop/ bad cop routine


So they learn how to shift from good cop to bad cop quickly – because bad cops are useful – especially to an elected official.


Hey, even bad cops have feelings


If a developer has the power to compel upzoning of a parcel, provided that a portion of the resulting development is affordable housing, then the developer now has a commercially viable proposition.  And all those La Canada Flintridge’s and Foster City’s will be dealing with a new kind of foe.


Just like in Massachusetts, with its Chapter 40B. 



It’s developer-activated, overrides local downzoning, and enables the developer to find and secure a desirable parcel and then present the locality with a new set of facts.  While it’s imperfect, I can tell readers from first-hand experience, it works – and it scares the exclusionary communities.  Chapter 40B is a power form of inclusionary zoning with two useful and self-reinforcing features:


·         Adds value to land (via the upzoning) which can outweigh the increased cost of adding the affordable housing.

·         Is externally activated by profit-motivated developers so it doesn’t require government to joust with government – instead it’s the private owner jousting.


When I mention Chapter 40B to my California housing friends, their reaction is wistful: Of course it would be great, they say, but it’ll never happen. 


When the only objection to a piece of legislation is the perception of its political impossibility, then you go looking for the next element: the rabble-rouser who’s actually right.


That’s entirely enough about your mesmerizing wand



F.6       Go on the attack by painting the status quo as purely self-interested


Popular opinion is often about positioning – even more so in this decade, where Twitter and the ubiquity of perpetually connected mobile users mean that the right meme goes viral overnight.


Not every meme that goes viral should


For this cause, the rabble-rouser needs to be someone from the rising generation, the housing own-nots, a voice of the Millennials who can say, It’s our future you are robbing. 


One might in fact say that, nearly thirty years ago, I was one such.


In 1988, at the age of 34, I sued the Federal government, challenging the Constitutionality of the market-conversion moratorium Congress had slapped on existing affordable housing in the Emergency Low Income Housing Preservation Act (ELIHPA). 


[Technical note: I wasn’t the actual plaintiff, but the organizer of the Assisted Housing Legal Rights Fund, which raised money (from developers), with that found a lawyer and a plaintiff owner, and spearheaded the lawsuit.  And I was the one whose office got picketed, sending several of my then-partners into a tizzy. – Ed.]


“Dear tenants, Merry Christmas, David Smith wants you evicted”


When I launched the lawsuit, I had no idea what would happen.  I thought it possible that the staff at HUD, whose Secretary was the named defendant in the suit, would take it personally out of organizational loyalty, or that they’d seek to paint me as a heartless evictor.  I took pains to talk with protesters or journalists, and to make absolutely clear that our objective wasn’t to kick anyone out, but rather to find a solution that preserved affordability of the housing but compensated the owners for the lost value resulting from Congress’s legislative eminent-domain-style taking of their property rights. 


To my surprise, I found the civil servants unruffled.  “HUD gets sued all the time.”  “We don’t agree with every policy we have to implement.”  “What else are you going to do but sue?” 


On the other hand, owners and their advisors admired what they saw as my courage.  (I didn’t see it that way.)  I was perceived as having integrity.  (Integrity I’d had all along, but it wasn’t perceptible.)


My visibility grew.  (My then-partners had calmed down, but made clear they wanted all this to be associated with me personally, not the firm.  As it turned out, that was a curious decision on their part.) 


And when Congress was looking around for a ‘permanent’ solution, whom did the committee staff seek out for insight into what might work?  A large roundtable of the usual Washington voices, and this young guy from Boston.


For several reasons I resigned from my then-firm in spring, 1989, and as the summer was ending I started what would become Recap Advisors.


Still pointing things out whether you like them or not


All it took was reframing the issue to put the spotlight where it belonged, being clear as to the message, and making the case.  California needs someone to do the same, starting now, because there’s a perishable opportunity upcoming.



F.7       Elect a governor with big cojones


At a statewide gathering of California’s affordable housing community a few months back, I was struck by the disappointment, spontaneously vocalized over and over again by individual delegates, that they had for Governor Brown, disappointment verging on contempt.  They had thought he would do so much for housing … and the little to nothing he had actually done for housing.  As I recall, several of them said they had heard the governor speak of housing as a problem it was not his job to tackle.


In a year, Californians will elect a new governor; for the second time in his unique political career, Governor Brown will be term-limited out.  Both of the Democratic front-runners, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, come from big cities (San Francisco and Los Angeles).  Their positions on housing are, as they say when straddling an issue, nuanced.  First Mr. Newsom’s (sierra green):



Honestly, those political contributions have no influence on my opinions


For Newsom, whose record usually wins praise from environmentalists, the court battle against the Sierra Club is awkward. 


Newsom [has a] long history of siding with developers in San Francisco’s perennial battles over the city’s prime real estate.  For Newsom, pro-development donors on all three ballot measures — mainly builders, real estate brokers and construction unions — have been a big source of donations, giving more than $160,000 to his campaigns for governor and lieutenant governor, records show.


At a time when he’s arguing in the campaign that economic inequality is California’s No. 1 problem, the commission that he leads is faulting San Francisco’s Proposition B.  “He’s suing his own city to take away the right of the citizens to vote on development of their public land on the waterfront,” said Art Agnos, San Francisco’s mayor from 1988 to 1992. “This is Mr. Citizenville, the man who says we’ve got to do government from the bottom up, except when it runs into his fat-cat contributors in the development world.”



“I just sit next to developers, I don’t necessarily endorse them”


Then Mr. Villaraigosa’s (Dodger blue):


Villaraigosa said he wants to implement a housing and transportation trust fund that would reward cities and counties for doing the right thing for affordable housing and housing for homeless people. “Focus on density bonus, parking variances that allow [cities] to build more housing along transportation corridors and downtown,” he said. “Reward them for expediting affordable housing.”


And spend more money on housing:


Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers eliminated a state redevelopment program in 2011 as a cost-cutting move aimed at saving nearly $2 billion during the state’s budget crisis. The program allowed cities to target run-down neighborhoods for investment and use a share of property tax dollars generated by development to fund improvements, including financing low-income housing. But doing so required the state to spend more to support public schools, and Brown derided the agencies as being rife with abuses of taxpayer dollars.


Villaraigosa, a former mayor of Los Angeles, said a revived program would allow for greater state assistance to address housing problems.


To upset the applecart, run a campaign around the issue.  Bring forward as supporters Millennials who can’t raise a family in California, who’ve moved to Texas or Arizona because they can’t afford to hire Golden Staters.  Make the story be about incumbent exclusion stealing these Californians’ birthright.  Put the Democratic nominee in the positioning of defending Proposition 13 or the housing element.  It’s an issue perfect for continuous attack where the Democratic candidate is continuously on defense. 


For the candidate, look beyond California’s permanent political class: find someone younger, laissez-faire on the economy, entrepreneurially successful, a jobs creator in California.  Someone smart, verbal, hard to pigeonhole so the message is its own clarity.


Someone like Peter Thiel:


Thiel, a libertarian, doesn’t support government subsidies for tech start-ups. But, asked what would help L.A.’s start-up economy to grow, he reiterated a point that he’s long made: Creating affordable housing should be the top political priority as it relates to tech because a lack of it hinders growth of the most creative start-ups, which typically compensate employees with stock more so than cash (leaving them in a tighter spot to pay for housing).


Too bad he’s all but issued a Sherman


“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”



A candidate with nothing to lose and visibility to achieve may not win the governorship, but can win the issue and force the governor who beats him or her to tack in that direction.  And sometimes, the rabble-rouser with a good message actually wins.


The candidate of the people?


Half a century of housing policy failure: Part 9, “Generational tide of anger”

October 23, 2017 | California, Demographics, Economics, Elections, Homelessness, Housing, Incentives, Inclusionary zoning, Law, Local issues, NIMBY, Regulation, US News, Zoning | No comments 114 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.]


As you are reading this post, and presuming that you got here having read the preceding eight parts, you know that California’s housing policy, whose foundation is the housing element:


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

2.     Provides nothing to address the problem: no money, no mandates, and 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.

4.     Is easily subverted.

5.     Emboldens exclusion by giving such an obvious and low-risk low-cost path to excluding.


Now comes the question you’ve been waiting for.


Eight parts?!?  It took you eight parts to get to this?



F. If the housing element is such a failure, what should California do?


You’re either going not to like the multi-element answer that follows, or you’ll say it’s impossible:


That’s what happens when you speak truth to blogger



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)

Los Angeles Times (July 19, 2017; California blue, really!)



F.1 Acknowledge the comprehensive failure and its urgency


Big decisions and big changes come only from recognizing that big changes are essential, and we do that only if we admit, however reluctantly, that what we’re currently doing is catastrophically bad:


Despite relatively low mortgage rates, exploding housing prices have caused California’s homeownership rate to dip significantly. Just over half of California households own their homes-the third lowest rate in the country, and the lowest rate within the state since World War II.


In fact, when excess housing costs are factored into the equation, California has the highest net poverty rate in the country:


Show this to a Californian and the first reaction is incredulity


Once one accepts the reality of housing poverty, confirmatory evidence of its damage abounds:

It’s not just housing prices that are affecting homeownership rates. Studies have found that student debt loads, rising income inequality and changing housing preferences among younger Californians are also at play.


That’s why the awkwardly named YIMBY movement has its roots in Cambridge and San Francisco: A Better Cambridge and BARF can see what their elders refuse to: the housing cartel is strangling its Millennials’ future.


Thirty stories’ worth of unhoused people


“This is no longer a coastal, elite housing problem,” said Scott Wiener, a Democratic senator from San Francisco. This is a problem in big swaths of the state. It is damaging the economy. It is damaging the environment, as people get pushed into longer commutes.”


Even if the ensconced oldsters are unaware of the pinch, the next generation is not just aware but positively angry:


[There is] a growing generational tide of anger and resentment, from younger people struggling to find an affordable place to live as well as from younger elected officials, such as Mayor Eric M. Garcetti of Los Angeles, who argue that communities have been failing in what they argue is a shared obligation.


Check the summit’s title: Housing, Transportation, and Jobs


A few years back, when he was a city councilman running for mayor, I heard Mr. Garcetti give a keynote speech to the California Housing Consortium, where he said, “Every time we create a job west of the 405, we have to create a housing unit east of the 405,” and I thought, there is a man who gets it.


After a while, this becomes ‘normal’


F.2       Admit that California’s problem is self-created … by the Boomer generation


Mr. Garcetti is the first California politician that I can remember who did get it, and perhaps it’s significant that he’s a second-generation Los Angeles politician (his father is Gil Garcetti, former LA County district attorney), one who has grown up inside the political system.  Perhaps that enabled him to see what his father’s generation, if not his father, was creating in Los Angeles:


I had the juice … and I lost him


The debate is forcing California to consider the forces that have long shaped this state. Many people were drawn here by its natural beauty and the prospect of low-density, open-sky living.


Holding the levers of power, they have been able to protect their enclaves by downzoning, by keeping their own property taxes absurdly low, by routing public transit away from their neighborhoods, and by gaming the housing element.


They have done what they could to protect that life.


No elected official better personifies the Boomers’ desire to stop time moving forward while heroically reimagining their past than California’s outgoing governor:


From sleeping with Linda Ronstadt …


… to channeling Mr. Burns


This lamest of ducks has finally arrived late to the party, professing his interest in doing something, now that he has conveniently run out of time to do anything meaningful:


Democratic lawmakers could be wary of voting for more measures that raise taxes and fees after increasing the gas tax this year and on Monday extending cap and trade, the state’s primary program to fight global warming.


You mean, Governor Brown’s primary programs. 


For those reasons, progressive Democrats in the Assembly pushed for a housing resolution during cap-and-trade discussions. They worried legislation to increase low-income housing subsidies might fall by the wayside without a firm commitment from the governor to support them, and wanted a decision at the same time as cap and trade.


A cynic would say that Governor Brown played his Democratic legislature for fools.



“It’s been a little bit hard to ‘wait our turn,’ ” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), one of the advocates for faster action on housing.


Bonta’s tired of waiting housing’s turn


Ray Pearl, executive director of the California Housing Consortium, said he is disappointed that lawmakers, after a recent history of failed housing legislation, again put off a decision.


At a news conference Monday night celebrating the cap-and-trade deal, Brown said he was confident a housing package was going to pass, too.


F.3       Don’t waste time tinkering around the edges


If a system is flawed at its base, a hundred fixes higher up will make no difference.  It’s taken me four decades to figure that out, in part because I’ve watched talented and dedicated people labor mightily to make tiny changes in laws, expending huge amounts of their political capital to move the needle barely a flicker.  It’s made me, if not a political radical, then a structural radical.  Sometimes you just have to junk the old paradigm and reform it comprehensively.


It is now the subject of negotiations between Mr. Brown and legislative leaders as part of a broader housing package intended to encourage the construction of housing for middle- and lower-income families that is also likely to include the more traditional remedy of direct spending to build more housing units.


That all sounds nice, and makes for good headlines – Los Angeles County is passing a $100 million bond issue! – but the arithmetic is chilling.  Say for instance that new affordable units cost $300,000 total development cost apiece, double what it should be because the NIMBY’s have salted the entitlements obstacle course with exploding CEQA requirements. 


How is the public comment process going?


A hundred million bond issue gets the County 333 new apartments, while the homeless population (for instance) has been growing 5,000 people a year.  (Los Angeles is a homeless magnet much like New York City.)


So the governor can say he supports affordable housing, and tout that number, and know it’s not even compensating for the system’s hidden surcharges.  Even more cynically, the governor can agree that he will endorse putting a $4 billion bond issue for housing on the 2018 ballot, confident that either the voters will reject it (“Hey,” says the governor, “I have clean hands”), or if they voters approve it, he’ll be out of office and won’t have any responsibility.


My hands are clean


This is not the first time this state has sought to prod recalcitrant local governments to build housing.  Around a year ago, Mr. Brown tried to push through a measure to force communities to build more affordable housing.


‘Tried’?  Call me a cynic, but how hard did he try? 


That effort, like most in recent years, faltered in the face of opposition.


Leadership doesn’t mean trying.  It means doing.  It also means telling people what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it – and they won’t want to hear the next point.


F.4 Repeal the whole housing element process – and Proposition 13 too


To write that sentence, I invested eight parts of this post, because I wanted to prove – not merely assert but demonstrably prove – that the housing element is foundational.  As long as it exists, the dear public can keep its illusions that the worsening crisis will somehow reverse itself, and that they are blameless.  Instead, once it’s clear the housing element is just a charade, then one has to go after the real culprit — Proposition 13.


A quarter of a century ago, that would have been unthinkable, because the Boomers were benefit from Prop 13 were entrenched atop the political hierarchy.  Now Jerry Brown is perhaps the last of the Boomer generation who will ever hold the governor’s office, and the candidates to replace him are younger, more urban, less beholden to the suburbs. 


One of them must step forward, state the failure, diagnose the problem for what it is, and propose a solution that, if enacted, would in fact work.


And there is such a solution, if California would deign to look beyond its borders.


F.5 Take upzoning out of the hands of politicians: give developers the crowbar to pry zoning open


New housing in there somewhere


With CEQA and downzoning, the State of California unwittingly trapped itself: each upzoning, whether of a neighborhood, street, or even a single parcel, becomes a pitched battle. 


Perez believes state politicians should hold cities accountable for approving new housing projects by providing money to local governments that do, and penalizing those that don’t.


That’s too hard for a politician to sustain; it means stiffing his friends and colleagues, and in the backroom deals that inevitably occur late in the legislation session, the penalty is always either rescinded or, money being fungible, restored elsewhere.


Wiener’s legislation would require all cities and counties to turn in home-building data –


Sure they’ll report.  And still thumb their noses at the state requirements.


– and remove some of their ability to review and block new development if they fall behind their housing goals.


‘Some’.  They’ll just grow new procedural obstacles.


Otherwise, he said, cities will continue to act as he said Foster City did — signing off on plans to appease state regulators but blocking housing from being built.


If the rules are to change, upzoning of individual sites has to be fought not by the politicians but by their trial-by-combat champions.


Enter the developer.


I have to ask, ‘how much?


[Continued tomorrow in Part 10.]

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 | 140 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 | 136 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.]