Demographically-mixed housing plans still draw opposition

Monday’s post on sister blog Vibrant Bay Area addressed the politics of affordable housing, especially in Marin. Author Dave Alden’s thesis, in short, was that the wealthy are happy to welcome those of lower incomes into their neighborhood as long as they only work there. To actually allow them to live there raises the heckles of the wealthy whether it’s in Marin, or Portland, or LA.

Pundits and activists in Marin have struggled to come up with reasons why that aren’t inherently offensive. Development liberals often blame their opponents of racism or classism. While there may be some strains of this in the debate (a recent comment about how Strawberry “already looks like the UN” implied, perhaps inadvertently, that more affordable housing would mean more minorities, for example), prejudice is too simplistic to be an adequate explanation for Marin’s opposition. Development conservatives claim they are the vanguard against rapacious developers and out-of-touch bureaucrats, who will end up destroying Marin’s small-town character in pursuit of profit, social experimentation, or political power. This, too, is overly simplistic, again painting opponents as devils, though with a different set of horns.

Marin’s debate has suffered from this mutual vilification. Our shields and swords are out when we should be learning and listening. It’s tough, even for me, to swallow my pride and listen to those who have called me a utopian fascist (right) or naive (left). But I need to listen if I’m going to fulfill the role I set out to do in this blog: to educate people on best practices found elsewhere and advocate for their implementation. There is always common ground, provided I am more interested in finding it than kicking my opponent in the teeth.

Alden’s point, in this light, is that wealthy areas don’t know how to have this debate and never have. He’s worth reading.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

8 Responses to Demographically-mixed housing plans still draw opposition

  1. Stephen Nestel says:

    The arguments of “Racism, Classism and Nimbyism” were introduced by the pro affordable housing advocates as a way to steer the arguments against the urbanization of Marin away from the practical concerns of most about schools, financial and social impacts of rapid growth on a largely suburban county. I don’t know this David Alden, but I suspect he is very much the classist from the tone of his article and assumes his readers share his concerns. The core arguments against affordable housing in my neighborhood is that these “tax-exempt” developments pay virtually no taxes to support the schools, government services and public safety, thereby degrading the quality services for everyone. The number one topic of concern is the effect of a massive increase in school children without a supporting tax base. We are a cosmopolitan people and I can defend Strawberry’s remark, “we are a virtual United Nations” as we live in racially and ethnically diverse communities. For those of us that do business and travel internationally, diversity is not to be avoided but embraced. It is HUD that is mandating quotas through its policies based on race and ethnicity that bring it into the argument.

    The “tax-exempt” developer’s business model is a flawed, crony capitalist model that depends on huge government grants, tax breaks, and massive government aid. It is vampire capitalism that destroys the host communities by draining their financial resources.

    Affordable housing is generally supported in Marin as long as it is fair proportion, financial feasible and sensitive to surrounding land use. Why not concentrate on positive COMMUNITY focused planning?

    • Stephen, [removed for violating comment policy]

      But lets look at your main complaint that everyone has recently latched on to, schools.

      Dixie is a basic aid district, with a budget in the $17,000,000 range, with a student population of about 1750 which means we have about $9700 spending per student. Now lets use the higher projected increase of students, 150 and run the numbers. Per student funding drops to about $9000. Still very high comparatively, especially when compared to the small class size in the district.

      Then consider that many of those 150 students will go to private school or a high school outside the districts and the number of students dramatically decreases pushing per student funding back up.

      Then consider that the largest expense to a school district are the teachers and staff, I’d guess in the 85 – 90% range, the students really don’t lose much and in fact gain friendship opportunities, something I think we can all agree on.

      Of course this exercise is just about the Marinwood Plaza proposal as all other possible developments would most likely be market rate, paying a higher tax than most current Dixie District households.

      HUD is not mandating quotas, they are removing impediments to fair housing. I’m sure we can agree that housing opportunities should be fair. Can we agree on that simple condition?

  2. This is an extremely delicate subject. The most common commenters on this blog land on opposite sides of the issue, and often fight vociferously in other forums. I am very disappointed to see the same behavior here.

    I am traveling today and will be unable to monitor these comments as well as I would like, but it is clear that any slack on my part could lead to flame wars.

    I have already moderated one comment and removed another. I urge you all to refrain from the name-calling I so often see in the IJ, and to not respond if someone does that to you. They will be moderated as soon as I am able. I will not hesitate to suspend someone who instigates or encourages such a thread.

  3. Franz Listen says:

    It’s not surprising that residents can be resentful that some are able to live in a neighborhood through the luck of having a housing application accepted, while they have to pay (often through the nose) to do the same.

    This resentment, however, is not confined merely to the people who live in the neighborhood.
    There are others who are too poor to buy into certain places but too wealthy to qualify for housing programs. The result can be places with highly bifurcated income distributions.

    Compounding the angst is the fact that affordable housing is not chiefly provided through voluntary charitable gifts, but is financed largely through grants and tax credits, meaning that its often mainly supported by taxpayers. Thus, the resident who is not thrilled about accepting affordable housing must pay for it too.

    For these reasons, the insistence by some advocates and policymakers that smart growth MUST come along with subsidized housing ends up creating inevitable resistance – especially in affluent communities. It can also breed resistance to a whole suite of increasingly popular development ideas (new urbanism, walkability, infill, access to transit) that need not be ideological.

    It can then become very hard to separate a community’s attitudes about urban form from their attitudes about affordable housing. Are people who are upset in Marin willing to host large amounts of subsidized housing, so long as it physically resembles a conventional suburb with low slung buildings? OR inversely, are they willing to have that 4-story, mixed use building with the coffee shop on the ground floor, so long are the building is market-rate and of a high quality ?

    We don’t really know. The whole architecture of regional planning (especially in with our RHNA process) tends to fuse the discussion of density and housing subsidies together.

    • Right. A principal indirect problem with the RHNA process is that it mixes development politics, poverty politics, and localism together. (The principal direct problem, of course, is that this method of providing affordable housing can’t work.)

      Plan Bay Area’s survey on development attitudes, which I’m still trying to synthesize into a coherent piece, helped to parse that out with two questions. The first asked whether the respondent supported giving localities financial support for locating affordable housing near transit, while the second asked whether the respondent supported giving people who want to live near transit the option to do so. Marin’s respondents were much less supportive on the first question than on the second question. Though it’s tough to parse out whether it’s the financial incentives or the affordable housing itself that people oppose, it is clear that urbanism gets a bad name when tied to these policies.

    • marcel houtzager says:

      Franz, thank you, that was very insightful. We simply do not know what irks plan opponents, the density issues, the working hard and saving all of their lives to be able to live in Marin, and then on top of that being forced to pay to house people who did not do the same, or the undemocratic and patronizing way “planners” are cramming their schemes down homeowners’ throats. At the end of the day there is probably a baby being thrown out with the bathwater. I would love to see your comment published in the IJ (maybe beef it up just a tad and make it an editorial?).

      Personally, I can see the argument for better transit, for subsidizing certain types of housing (particularly for seniors and disabled people) and even for higher density. However, what really annoys me is that Leelee Thomas, our Marin County “planner” just told me she did not think it is important to consider the impact of proposed zoning changes on property values (i.e. homeowner life savings). I am considering raising a scholarship fund to send her back to school for remedial lessons in economics, political science, and especially ethics. If we are already passing laws and mandates with wild abandon, maybe we can also pass a law that mandates an economic, political and ethical literacy tests for planners.

      Btw, number of housing units x average price in Marin is $50 billion, so a 1% decrease = $500m of homeowner life savings. Messing with property values is very expensive in Marin – to the homeowners, not to the “planners”. This could also help explain why the planning process is screwed up.

      • Franz Listen says:

        Marcel,

        I think you are right that people get touchy about these development issues because so much of their financial position is tied to their home value. I know mine is, along with most middle-class Americans.

        I wouldn’t be too hard on the County planner, though. She probably works under a variety of legal and political constraints. Trying to quantify the impact of a zoning changes on nearby property values is a tricky and subjective business because its impossible to know what exactly will get built and how it will be perceived in the marketplace.

        I liked your line about throwing out the baby with the bath water. Not only do I worry about that, but I also worry about just throwing out the baby alone. Richard Hall just described himself in the IJ tonight as “pro-affordable housing” so long as that housing comes in the form of very, very short buildings. Apparently, keeping buildings very short is the most important thing that we can do to have great neighborhoods. This singular obsession with building height is totally misplaced.

        There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting of a town in the Berkshires at Christmas time. It’s a cozy scene of a New England village main street, the kind of thing that most people would very much welcome in their communities. The buildings are no shorter than 25 feet and look like they range up to 45 feet.

  4. Franz Listen says:

    Dave – Not only can this marriage reduce the local acceptance of urbanism, but It helps to reinforce the notion that infill development is something artificial that must be propped up by mandates and subsidies, rather than something that is emerging through changing consumer preferences and market forces. It gives fuel to the whole “social engineering” battle cry on the right.

    It can also diminish support for transit systems like SMART, when state, regional or local agencies push the logic that transit station areas are best suited for low income residents – based on the doctrine that poverty and transit go hand in hand regardless of the location or type of transit service involved.

    This can have perverse policy implications. Left to the market, housing in downtowns or near transit stations (where most PDA’s are located) might ultimately become both more dense and relatively more expensive on per sq. ft. basis. And, that would be a good thing!!! The high prices would send an important market signal – that people want more of this stuff.

    Unfortunately, folks at the CA HCD and at ABAG don’t care about market signals because they don’t think in terms of demand, supply and prices. For them are just “needs” to be met.

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