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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

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
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Today, the neighborhood agitation is over live-work lofts, which under current zoning could provide 20,000 housing units. A moratorium against further construction of this type of housing will likely pass soon, and the aftermath of such a measure is hard to predict.

What is predictable is the role neighborhood groups will continue to have in the planning process. "The political structure is overly sensitive to neighbors and people who don't want housing. We have to reorient the political structure to be more friendly to housing," says UC Berkeley Professor John Landis. "We have neighborhood groups that profess to have ownership of the approval process, and City Hall buys into that."

The area's housing crisis is not limited to San Francisco, of course, a fact illustrated by the maddeningly difficult task of calculating San Francisco's real housing demand. You can count the number of new jobs created in the city, the number of employees living in every household, and the number of new housing units built in a given year. And you can compare these numbers with 1990, a year when San Francisco's housing demand was more or less satisfied, with a 6.2 percent vacancy rate.

But those figures don't necessarily mean anything, because the Bay Area's housing market must be viewed as a whole. "Figuring demand is really a crazy game," says Allan Jacobs, a UC Berkeley planning professor who was San Francisco's director of planning during the 1960s. "There's really too much involved."

Demographics, economics, and culture pay no mind to political boundaries such as counties and towns. "The market is like water," says Paul Silvern, a partner with Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, a policy consulting firm in Los Angeles and New York. "It looks for the path of least resistance."

Events in the recent history of the Bay Area have created massive resistance everywhere.

Patrick Kennedy, an outspoken veteran of East Bay housing wars, is particularly familiar with this fact. Like anyone who's lived there, developer Kennedy enjoys a love-hate relationship with the city of Berkeley. He's won approval for a multistory apartment complex in downtown Berkeley. He's advocated for an environmentally friendly, European-style downtown with smaller apartment units, taller buildings, and reduced parking. He has been an outspoken proponent of a new general plan for Berkeley, which will allow taller apartments to be built in the downtown area. He's been the city's leading campaigner to "decriminalize housing," according to one local environmental group. In doing these things, he has earned the wrath of his fellow Berkeleyites. He's capitalist developer scum, they say, and he ought to be run out of town.

"Berkeley is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance," says Kennedy. "They talk and talk about affordable housing, then trash the general plan. Berkeley's the only city in the Bay Area that's lost housing in the last 20 years."

During the past 10 years, Berkeley has torn down 800 more housing units than it has built. And the remaining units accommodate fewer people: Since 1970, the city has lost 5,182 people, according to U.S. Census and California Department of Finance data.

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.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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