Thank you to the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods for presenting on April 28 SB 827 and Beyond. This excellent panel discussion included four long-time advocates of neighborhood activism: Art Agnos, former Mayor of San Francisco; Zelda Bronstein, former Berkeley Planning Commissioner; Calvin Welsh, educator and affordable housing advocate; and Sophie Maxwell, former San Francisco Supervisor. All spoke ardently of the need for neighborhoods to be aware of events occurring at the state level, decide what planning makes sense for their neighborhood, organize, and oppose what does not make sense.
The purpose of this panel discussion was to point out that the demise of Senate Bill 827 was only a blip in the barrage of bills emanating from Sacramento intended to remove control of land use from cities and counties. Therefore, neighborhoods need to organize and form coalitions far and wide to redefine the terms of the housing argument.
Defining the Argument is Winning the Argument
The current argument is that a certain number of housing units determined by an all-knowing entity must be built in each and all cities and counties. This argument depends on our accepting the definition of the state having absolute control over land use.
A redefinition of the current argument would state that an informed electorate has ultimate control. Voters not only have the basic rights of summarily kicking people out of office who perform against constituents’ best interests, but also have the power of referendums and initiatives.
Remember Washington 8?
Way back in 2012 developers were all set to build Washington 8, a luxury 12-story high-rise on The Embarcadero, San Francisco’s beloved waterfront. The project was labeled by opponents "Wall on the Waterfront."
Memories of views lost when Fontana East and West went up on the waterfront at the end of North Point surfaced in the minds of those around in the 1960s. Nob Hill residents who paid premium for their properties were not happy either with the Washington 8 developers or with the City’s Board of Supervisors who changed height limits to allow for the development of Washington 8. Neighborhoods across the City decried “Manhattanization” of the Waterfront.
So, coalitions were formed, and opposition to the Wall on the Waterfront grew.
Sensing resistance, Washington 8 developers placed an initiative, Proposition B, on the November 2013 ballot: Shall the City allow a development project at the 8 Washington Street Site that would include new housing, retail and recreational facilities, and open space, and would increase the legal building height limits on a portion of the site? Nobody was fooled, and Proposition B was soundly defeated.
Also down in flames went Proposition C, a referendum presented by opponents of Washington 8 in the form of this question: Shall the City ordinance increasing legal building height limits on an approximately half-acre portion of the 8 Washington Street Site along Drumm Street take effect? Voters just said NO.
Art Agnos and the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods signed fiery Opposition Arguments on Propositions B and C. Mr. Agnos firmly reminded the audience at SB 827 and Beyond that the Washington 8 saga can serve as a model when the majority of voters are not happy with legislation.
Where Are the Facts? Where is the Spirit?
Zelda Bronstein spoke about the avalanche of legislation whittling away city and county control of land use, and the dearth of journalists writing about it. As a journalists herself, Ms. Bronstein does write about such matters as the growth of unelected bureaucracies, unaccountable to voters, that carry out the details of state legislation. Information is a vital tool necessary to make informed choices at the ballot box.
Calvin Welch, educator and housing advocate, presented intriguing statistics showing how housing prices increased, not decreased, while supply increased in San Francisco. Mr. Welch noted that in order for the principles of supply and demand to work, markets need to be free, and populated by willing buyers and sellers possessing equal power to influence price. Therefore, a market like San Francisco’s, or any other not possessing the needed characteristics of a free market, must allow for intervention if housing at all levels is desired. Mr. Welch suggested interventions must include not demolishing viable existing housing and requiring large businesses to provide housing for their employees.
Sophie Maxwell made clear that neighborhood leaders must incentivize residents to be active participants in planning processes. Everyone should be welcomed in the dialogue, differences worked out, exclusion avoided. Ms. Maxwell noted that although arguments must be made clearly and forcefully, they must also avoid negative influences such as ageism and other divisive methods.
Reach out, organize, because SB 827 has not really gone away but is only waiting to return.