Housing as Infrastructure, Or Tales of the New Colonizers

The Transformation of Housing

Housing is undergoing a relentless transformation from private property to infrastructure --  a phenomenon vigorously discussed and pursued by legislators, organizations, housing-rights advocates, and whoever else stands to benefit.  

Affordability and high home values are incompatible goals – therefore public policy should be based on viewing homes as places to live, not as investments.  Housing is infrastructure.  The primary community benefit of new housing is the housing.  East Bay for Everyone, Platform

Admittedly, housing isn’t what comes to mind when most people think about infrastructure, but it should be. By definition, infrastructure is the buildings, networks, and other physical structures that are necessary for the economy to function. At the most basic level, in order for America’s workers—our teachers, our nurses, our mechanics, our clerks—to stay productive, they need both a stable place to call home and a reliable way to get to their jobs.  The Hill, "The Key Economic Issue Missing from Trump's Infrastructure Plan"

Infrastructure is the physical structures and networks that are necessary for the economy to function. Too often federal infrastructure investments are limited to roads, bridges, trains, airports and waterways. Yet in order for America’s workers to stay productive, they need not just reliable ways to get to their jobs but also a stable place to call home. It is within that context that incorporating investment in much-needed housing infrastructure is warranted.  Enterprise Community, "Bang for the Buck: Investment in Housing Infrastructure is Smart"

Reasons why such transformation is necessary abound:

* Housing became infrastructure when federal programs of the 1930s-1940s populated suburbs.

* Owning a home where others cannot afford to live is unfair.

* A jurisdiction’s economic health depends on housing near jobs for modest-income workers.

* Climate change calls for preventing people from commuting long distances to jobs.

* Density, especially near transit corridors is a good thing.

* People who like dense urban living should be afforded that choice.

The "Unfair" Reason

 The mission of the Rockridge Council is to "Preserve and enhance the unique character of the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, California."  We wish them luck.

The mission of the Rockridge Council is to "Preserve and enhance the unique character of the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, California."  We wish them luck.

Perhaps the reason that drives all others is viewing ownership as inherently “unfair.”  Once declared unfair, ownership can be severely controlled or even totally eliminated in the name of equality, justice, or whatever other variable the aggrieved choose to cite.  

“When I first move out here,” she said, “I looked at Rockridge, and thought, ‘Wow, this is so great. … I wish I could afford to live here.’”… Yet while urbanists are cheering on the current housing construction boom in downtown and Uptown Oakland, they’re also sensitive to the impacts of gentrification. They say it’s unfair that nearly all the new housing is concentrated in certain areas of the city, while higher-income neighborhoods like Rockridge have effectively walled themselves off with special rules that ban large apartment buildings and condo complexes. Alameda Magazine, The Real Cause of Gentrification.

Obliging Legislation

So, as vocal constituencies demand, legislators oblige.  Senator Scott Wiener has been especially prolific in this regard.  On January 3, 2018, Senator Wiener introduced three more pieces of legislation that override local planning and zoning laws, as well as further the concept of houses for whoever wants them vs. whoever can afford them.

SB 827 – Declares that “transit-rich housing projects” within a one-half mile radius of a major transit stop or a one-quarter mile radius of a high-quality transit corridor shall receive a transit-rich housing bonus, exempting the project from maximum controls on residential density or floor area ratio, minimum automobile parking requirements, and any design standard that restricts the applicant’s ability to construct the maximum number of units consistent with any applicable building code.

SB 828 - Requires the Department of Housing and Community Development to address the historic underproduction of housing by completing a comprehensive assessment on unmet need for each region and including the results of the assessment in regional allocations for the next housing element cycle. Establishes a methodology for assessment of unmet need that includes alleviation of need by rapidly increasing housing supply 1) for moderate and above moderate income households in any area where median rent or home prices exceed median income, 2) for households at all income levels in communities with high rates of income growth.  Authorizes the Department of Housing and Community Development to challenge the methodology for local housing allocations made by a council of government or regional planning agency.  Requires a local jurisdiction to plan and accommodate for 200 percent of the local housing allocation for every income category in its housing element.

SB 829 - Expands the Employee Housing Act:  to further incentivize the creation of farmworker housing in agricultural communities, to authorize the Department of Housing and Community Development to partner private agricultural operators with independent nonprofits that will manage and operate residences, and to preserve and protects the civil rights of tenants living in employee housing.

These three bills are pretty open-ended!  Any neighborhood can be subject to the mandates of SB 827 if parties to benefit simply move bus routes and stops.  If the Department of Housing and Community Development can override plans provided by other agencies under SB 828, the department could do whatever it chose to do.  (By the way, are the Bay Area’s twin-planners ABAG and MTC included in agencies whose plan can be ignored by the state under SB 828?)  SB 829 gives no details whether partnering with non-profits to manage employees housing would be mandatory, or what protecting and preserving the civil rights of employee-residents means.

Aggrieved Parties on all Sides and End Results

Scott Wiener's contributors

The "housing crisis" has reached shouting-match proportions, with parties on all sides virtually calling one another names, like "unfair!" on one side and "colonizers!" on the other.   The latter term feels novel and applicable -- colonizers did succeed admirably in changing the character of neighborhoods.  Here is a quote from a scathing article on SB 827,

Like the Colonizers before them, YIMBYs claim the 'Hood as Theirs!

The bill is backed by group that calls themselves YIMBYs, which stands for "Yes in my backyard." Like the colonizers whose agenda they seek to replicate, it takes a certain entitlement/supremacist mindset to call a community they didn't grow up in, don't live in or are new to as "theirs." It's NOT their backyard - it's ours. And we're not about to give it up. WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED!  The Berkeley Planet, "SB 827 Will Destroy Local Land Use Control"

The chart accompanying The Berkeley Planet article is posted here without comment for your enjoyment.

Forcefully increasing the supply of housing to provide houses for whoever wants them entails a high degree of control of property.  It also entails subsidies from taxpayers and/or developers.  Once controls and subsidies are in place, private property loses its original meaning as envisioned by our Founding Fathers.