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How shortsighted neighborhood activism fuels the city's housing crisis, and pushes the best of San Francisco deeper and deeper into the suburbs

Quaint, Berkeley. But far from unique. That city's approach to new housing construction -- don't let it approach -- has been repeated in communities around the Bay Area for two decades. Where once communities in Marin County, San Mateo County, Alameda County, and Contra Costa County welcomed housing development, one by one they have passed ordinances limiting density, and pushing housing construction to the next community beyond. Former deep-suburb "bedroom" cities like Walnut Creek, San Ramon, and Pleasanton are now considered job sources that people commute to rather than from.

This trend has gained speed since the 1970s, when the anti-property tax initiative, Proposition 13, served to stop local governments from raising property tax rates, making it hard to fund infrastructure for new residents.

The change in the economics of the Bay Area's suburbs was little noticed, but dramatic. As if to mock developers who built office and industrial parks near where their potential employees presumably lived, anti-housing ordinances typically gained momentum just as groundbreaking began on jobs-oriented projects. In Pleasanton, for example, jobs grew by 365 percent during the 1980s. The city had begun passing growth-moratoria starting in the 1970s, so that during the next decade, housing grew by only 66 percent. During this period, the federal government cut funding for local civic infrastructure, making increased housing more expensive for communities. And the Environmental Quality Act made it much easier for neighbors to complain about individual projects, slowing housing growth further.

In the late 1980s, Pleasanton residents halted the developers of the 860-acre Hacienda Business Park from building over 2,000 housing units, including moderately dense apartments, that had been penciled into the park's master plan.

By the 1990s, most people who worked in Pleasanton lived elsewhere, and most people who lived there drove elsewhere to their jobs. By the time the Bay Area economic explosion of the late 1990s dawned, people filling the hundreds of thousands of new jobs being created found refuge wherever they could find it, driving up housing costs from Vacaville to San Benito.

This trend of suburban anti-growth sentiment is about to enter a new, more aggressive phase, one that economists say will make new employees even more desperate for housing, further inflating prices, and commutes.

In San Ramon, Dublin, and Pleasanton, voters will consider "anti-sprawl" ballot initiatives in November that would require the approval of any housing development over 10 units to be put to a vote of the citizenry. Livermore is considering such a measure next year, while petitions are circulating in Antioch that would require any development of 20 or more housing units to, likewise, be put to a citywide vote.

In San Ramon, some 900,000 square feet of office space has been built at the mammoth Bishop Ranch office park entirely on spec, in anticipation of new jobs coming to the area. Economic forecasters say the offices are sure to sell, and each office cubicle will be occupied by a new employee. And if the sprawl initiative passes, each new employee will have to find somewhere else to live.

"Most of these cities like San Francisco and Berkeley are proud of their diversity, but their solution to this issue is in not providing opportunities. If you want different people, you have to provide opportunities for people, including opportunities for places to live. San Francisco tries to do that, but there is a disconnect between what it says it wants and what it does," says Landis, the UC Berkeley professor. "A living city needs economic diversity in the long term. The people who move out of the cities for schools need to be replaced by other young people. You need a recharge of young people, and other ethnic groups. Without them, the city is the poorer for it."

John Hirten, John Jacobs, and Bob Passmore -- two old-time planning professionals and a just-retired zoning administrator, order fish plates at Sam's Grill & Seafood Restaurant, and talk about old times.

They've all lived and relived San Francisco's housing wars, and come out crusty yet congenial, fanciful yet practical, erudite raconteurs. Jacobs ran the redevelopment agency in Stockton during the 1960s, directed a San Francisco housing think tank during the 1970s, and was president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce until he retired in 1989. Hirten, a warm, gracious, insistent man, was U.S. deputy director of urban mass transit during the Nixon administration, was subsequently director of the American Planning Association, and director of transportation for the City and County of Honolulu. As the man long responsible for applying San Francisco's zoning laws, Passmore is the group's sagely Solomon.

The three talk of neighborhood housing battles past. They talk about how San Francisco, if it wanted to, just might be able to provide enough housing so that people who wanted to live here, could.

"Abolishing the Board of Permit Appeals, that would do it," Jacobs jests.
"The city does have a plan to build housing," Passmore protests.
"But we don't have politicians who would actually build it," Jacobs says. "You'd have to have a mayor who didn't want to get elected, and you'd have to have a Board of Supervisors that was complacent."

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Cynthia McGarvie
Cynthia McGarvie

I left SF in January of that year with a deeply heavy heart. I knew I would never be able to afford to live there for the rest of my life. If things stay the same, it's going to end up as a ghost town.

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