Odd words from one of San Rafael’s council candidates

The campaign for San Rafael city council is starting to ramp up, with four candidates vying for two open seats. One of them, Randy Warren, has chosen to run on a platform of being a development conservative. Though not necessarily news on its own, his words on why he opposes affordable housing development shows that he doesn’t understand the politics and issues at hand. He still has a chance to catch up, but conservatives need a knowledgeable voice on the council, and right now he still has a way to go.

From his announcement press release:

[Randy Warren] believes the city’s Housing Element is gravely flawed.  The proposed affordable housing could end up not going to needy Marin residents but instead to people relocating from other areas around the Bay whose vast numbers could shut out San Rafael’s poor. “We need good quality jobs to support a growing population, and there is no viable plan at present to do that. Wishful thinking is not enough. We need to avoid related increases to unemployment and homelessness, and the risk they present in wage deflation.”

Affordable housing

The purpose of affordable housing is to do what he says it will: help those who work in Marin but can’t afford to live here find a home. I’m not a fan of the methods used by the state to promote affordable housing, namely the regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) process, but my problem with it has to do with its viability, not that it will do what it’s advertised to do. Warren implies there will be a bait-and-switch, where we build housing for Marinites only to find them filled by folks from elsewhere.

There is a huge amount of demand to live in Marin. This is seen not only in recent price spikes in housing and rent costs, but in our massive in-commuting population. Marin gets 45,000 in-commuters every day, mostly from Contra Costa and Sonoma but also from San Francisco and Alameda. Studies have shown that they typically take lower-paying jobs, either as service workers (housekeepers, shop clerks) or other professions (teachers, low-level office workers). They simply can’t afford a home in the county, especially if they’re trying to move here now, and so they in-commute.

Affordable housing is designed to reduce that amount of in-commuting, decreasing their cost of commuting and reducing the pressure on our roadways, not just to support Marin’s existing low-income residents who presumably already have homes.

Jobs

Even stranger, however, is that Warren, while insisting we don’t build affordable housing for non-Marinites, expresses concern that we aren’t creating enough jobs for a “growing population.” If we don’t, he warns, we’ll get increasing unemployment, homelessness, and wage deflation. I’m curious where this population growth would come from if not from beyond Marin, and why they’d come here if they didn’t have a job. Perhaps he’s talking about Marin’s children, but surely he understands that Marin’s demographics are such that it won’t grow without immigration. But let’s set this statement aside for a moment and focus on the jobs themselves.

First of all, Marin already has more jobs than it has workers. While 45,000 people commute to Marin every day, only 42,000 commute from Marin. In San Rafael itself, which is where Warren should concern himself, nearly 70 percent of jobs are held by out-of-towners. Marin, and especially his city, have more than enough jobs to support their own.

The problem, at least in the county at large, is that a great many of these jobs are not ones that many Marinites want or can afford to take. If we wanted to grow our jobs base, we would need to boost the number of high-paying professional jobs. That would mean drawing on the economic strength of San Francisco, developing places that are conducive to start-ups and innovation. Better transit connections for the predominantly car-free San Franciscans, as well as small housing units to keep Marin’s young singles in-county, are needed to attract those high-paying businesses to San Rafael.

Alas, Warren, according to the IJ, wants to remove the Downtown San Rafael Planned Development Area (PDA), the place that would be most conducive to creating such an urban job center. By removing the PDA he would put at risk the targeted transportation investments the area desperately needs: a new bus terminal, better bike lanes, better connectivity from the rest of Marin, San Francisco, and the East Bay. At the same stroke, he would make the area less attractive to new businesses that may want to come.

But Marin doesn’t have an unemployment problem. In fact, it has one of the strongest job markets in the state. Homelessness, while a problem, is not due to a lack of jobs. It’s due to a complicated web of issues ranging from a lack of mental health services to the inherent instability of homelessness itself. A strong progressive shift in the zoning code in larger cities to allow more single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) as well as for-profit, sanitary bunking situations (think something like a more permanent hostel) would go a long way to fighting the “homeless” aspect of homelessness, while better investments in city services would help alleviate the underlying instability and poverty.

As for his last statement, that a lack of jobs in a single city of 56,000 would result in wage deflation, it is such a leap that it is beyond me. San Rafael is part of a much broader region and county, and its job market is deeply integrated with theirs. As we already established, it is so integrated that barely more than 30 percent of its jobs are held by locals. It would take forces far beyond the scope of the San Rafael City Council to depress the city’s wages.

Not a promising start

These are odd and troubling statements from a serious candidate for city council. Development conservatives deserve a strong and articulate voice to represent their interests, someone who knows how cities operate in the region’s context. Warren misunderstands the purpose of affordable housing, does not grasp the connection between land use and transportation, and does not understand San Rafael’s job market.

Though I disagree with the development conservative position on a number of fronts, a knowledgeable councilmember could provide a needed skeptical eye to staff reports. He or she would be a valuable force and help shift the power of San Rafael from its departments to the council. I’m concerned, however, that Warren would be less of a check and more of a contrarian and populist, asking questions for their own sake and grandstanding instead of leading. At worst, he would isolate himself and bring discord to what is currently a collegial and effective body. I’d hate to see the problems of Sausalito replicated in Marin’s largest city.

But the race is still young, and perhaps Warren is just getting his campaign legs. Over time, I’m sure he’ll release more statements and say other things that will help refine our understanding of his views. But this is not a promising start.

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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.

29 Responses to Odd words from one of San Rafael’s council candidates

  1. Richard Hall says:

    Dave states: “The purpose of affordable housing is to do what he says it will: help those who work in Marin but can’t afford to live here find a home.”

    Dave – can you point me to the eligibility requirement or preference given to low income and affordable housing applicants who currently work in Marin? If these requirements or preferences do not exist then affordable housing will not address the in-commuting, in fact they may exacerbate congestion by bringing in people with jobs in Contra Costa or Alameda.

    On the jobs front please can you point me to evidence of the substantial jobs growth in Marin – this seems to be an artificial prophecy based on a desired, yet unlikely outcome to justify urbanization of our beautiful, low rise suburban/rural county. The City of San Rafael said this in their Plan Bay Area Comment letter:

    http://www.tam.ca.gov/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=6120

    “The 2040 jobs projection (growth of 7,340 jobs citywide) in this scenario has been reduced by 50% from the previous alternatives that have been studied. We also acknowledge that the jobs
    projection has been adjusted to account for recession recovery and some increase in home-based jobs. However, we believe that this lower jobs growth projection is still inflated for San Rafael and would equate to several million square feet in new commercial building area (even considering recession recovery). This building area equivalent is more than the amount of commercial development planned in our San Rafael General Plan 2020 (approx. 400,000 sf). This development equivalent would require major transportation and utility service infrastructure that exceeds current and planned capacity. ”

    I would say your attack is a promising start for Randy, unless you Dave can produce evidence countering the strong evidence above your arguments fail.

    • You forget: I dislike affordable housing as currently structured. But I criticize it for what it tries and fails to do, not for what I imagine it tries to do. Warren criticizes it for the latter reason, which is problematic in the extreme.

      Randy wants to grow more jobs in the city without adding housing to “serve a growing population.” I simply state we don’t have a jobs problem because we already have more jobs than workers. It’s Warren, not me, who says we need to add more jobs.

      My concern here is twofold: one, we don’t need new jobs, unlike what he says, and, two, he undercuts his own policy platform of job growth with his proposals. So not only is he misguided in his desired outcome but he’s misguided in how to achieve that outcome while also undercutting the reason he gives to achieve that outcome in the first place.

      • Richard Hall says:

        Don’t forget the city’s own housing element highlights we already have an imbalance already before you attempt to bring in more people without increasing jobs:

        “About one-half of the households currently residing in San Rafael are considered lower income.These households earn less than 80 percent of median income ($95,000 per year for a family of four based on 2008 Marin County income limits). Almost one-third of the households currently residing in San Rafael are either very low or extremely low income.”

        So will all these new people:
        – compete for jobs with the existing population
        – be subsidized by the existing population (who in many cases are on lower incomes than the new arrivals)

        If we already have more jobs than workers just why are so many San Rafael residents lower income? What about the jobless canal district residents – seems like the influx of new residents will only make their situation worse.

        Bringing in residents without there being an increase in jobs seems like a recipe to cause a further lowering of incomes and quality of life.

        • Why are so many San Rafael residents low income? Because they have low income jobs. Most of the in-commuting population to Marin is low income, and the folks in the Canal are just lucky enough to live and work in the same county. Low income does not mean jobless.

  2. Stephen Nestel says:

    Dave, It is unfortunate that you are drifting off into local politics. While transit oriented development does involve politics, it really is a divisive area that I hope can be avoided and a central point of discussion.

    First, the use of the term “development conservatives” really cheapens the argument and dismisses those who want an improved planning agenda as following a political agenda. You might as well join Jimmy Fishbob et al. who wants to label everyone who disagrees with him as Koch Brothers, Tea Party, Republican, Racist, NIMBYs, etc. Labels do not help us understand each other and get in the way of thoughtful dialog. After all, in Marin, where we voted 80% for President Obama, the discussion of “liberals vs. conservatives” is largely irrelevant.

    I know you define the term “development conservative” as someone who wants no changes. This is also a false label. As someone who is active in Citizen Marin, I can tell you that political ideologies run the spectrum and that virtually everyone supports some level of growth and affordable housing.

    I think the proper split is “smart growth” advocates who favor top down planning vs. “good growth” advocates that favor growth that faces development/fiscal realities of the community.

    Randy Warren favors more jobs. You say they are not needed. I find this incredible. Do you think the minimum wage worker simply wants a “cheap apartment” over a decent job? I believe Randy will offer that he favors opportunity over unsustainable urbanization.

    Don’t we all want opportunity?

    • On local politics and development politics: If it’s an issue in a city council race, then the city council race is an issue for this blog. Given that it’s at the core of Warren’s reason for running, examining his platform is important.

      Regarding “development conservative,” I really don’t want to denigrate with that label, but it seems as though that’s just not going to happen, so I’ll drop it from here on. The purpose was to say that there is a split between those who are in favor of development and those who aren’t. It’s also wrong to say that smart growth is in favor of top-down planning. It’s a catch-all term that applies equally to those who dislike zoning and wish it were abolished entirely to those who want to master-plan everything.

      I’d be fine if Warren said he’s in favor of different jobs, or poverty reduction, or a higher minimum wage, or reducing the cost of living, but he said he’s in favor of more jobs for a growing population. That does not comport with poverty reduction. It’s a jobs policy to meet a growth policy he opposes.

      • Richard Hall says:

        I would call it “sensible growth” vs smart growth. (not development conservative).

      • Stephen Nestel says:

        Speaking for myself, I am in favor of “walkable, bikeable” communities. In my community of Marinwood-Lucas Valley, we are highly dependent on the car. There are virtually no private employers and all shopping must be done elsewhere. This is my prime reason against the residential development of Marinwood Plaza. It is our ONLY commercially viable property that resides along the 101 Transit corridor. To crowd housing next to our only market and put it behind a 16 sound barrier wall, is to kill off the commercially viability of the site. This is a GREAT location for a regional Food Market and tourist hub as it sits at the gateway to West Marin. It could be developed, jobs could be created, taxes collected and family housing could be located elsewhere in the community with the support of the increase tax base. This is a true “win-win”. Families will have a better living environment, our Dixie schools will be supported, residents get jobs and a place to shop. BUT NO, the myopic vision of the planners is that Marinwood Plaza is perfect because it is next to a bus stop. That is the entire depth of their argument. So, am I a “development conservative” because I prefer more thoughtful planning that recognizes the needs of the community and residents or am a “smart growth advocate”?

  3. John Parnell says:

    David – you state that Marin has more jobs than workers. I think you may be forgetting all the people that live in Marin and work in other counties. Do you have those numbers? I’d bet that more Marinites commute to SF than workers who commute to Marin. Doesn’t that mess up your argument?

    I’d have to agree that I’m not crazy about being called a conservative anything, but I wouldn’t lump it into the Fishbob race-baiting. There’s a big difference between “development conservative” and the inaccurate lies of “Tea Party racist NIMBY.”

  4. [Removed for violating comment policy.]

  5. Neil says:

    I don’t think “development conservative” is at all accurate for the strain of thinking you’re describing. I think “reactionary” would be a lot closer, because it would encompass all sides of the political spectrum who don’t want any kind of change. I don’t think there is anything “conservative” about wanting to micro-manage people’s lives, where they can live and in what type of housing, what they can do with their own properties, etc…

    • Richard Hall says:

      @Neil – “reactionary” isn’t accurate.

      Most of the opposition to smart growth welcomes change, some more gradual than others. It’s the concentrations, the heights, the numbers… its an unproven (in many cases disproven) ideology.

      I see it clearly as “sensible growth”. So-called smart growth (I personally find the term condescending marketing-spin) is built on a lot of “sounds right” sentiments that fall apart when logic, real life and facts are applied. We need to move beyond this to “sensible planning”.

      If we can embrace second units, building conversions – neither of which cause sprawl – we should have no issues attaining RHNA numbers. Something got out of hand where the need to build has been massively amplified.

  6. Franz Listen says:

    If by “growing population” Randy Warren means the region’s population, then perhaps the comment makes a little bit more sense.

    We get a steady mantra here in the Bay Area from the State and ABAG that that more housing is the solution to all ills – poverty, traffic congestion, global warming, ennui – everything! It gets old and it also gets intellectually shallow.

    For example: Trying to defeat “in-commuting” is a poor rationale for affordable housing or for any housing. We simply cannot reliably reduce trip-making in a free society by trying to achieve equal ratios of housing and jobs within some arbitrary geographic space. This idea is even disputed in urban planning academic circles.

    Making an issue of job growth does seem like something that could fracture development skeptics, whose organizing principle to date has been opposition to housing (mainly affordable) in specific places. Here in this comments section, for example, you have Hall who is wary of calls for commercial development in Marin, while Nestel equates commercial development with “opportunity” and not urbanization.

    I suspect that Warren is talking about jobs because it sounds better to be in favor of something that just being against new housing. Also, maybe its a play to try to gain business community support. I agree that his comment was not all that coherent, though. Trying to clarify it may hurt more than help.

    Lastly, I must concur with Dave that its completely unfair to paint advocates of smart growth with the pejorative of being “top down” or mandating some sort of process. If Nestel wants people to see the diversity of planning critics in Marin then he needs to reciprocate by recognizing the diversity of people who are broadly in favor of smart growth principles.

    • Richard Hall says:

      Franz – do you have more facts / references against the in-commuting argument? I think you are right and appreciate any more insight you may have on this.

      • Franz Listen says:

        The best paper that I’ve seen on the subject is by Genevieve Giuliano, USC School of Planning http://www.uctc.net/papers/133.pdf

        People who put stock in a jobs/housing balance to reduce traffic congestion believe it whether development is spread out or compact, low-density or high density, and auto-oriented or ped/transit-oriented.

        So…the discrediting of jobs-housing balance idea is not necessarily a strike against new urbanism or smart growth. However, I do think that its a strike against the idea of trying to achieve certain transportation outcomes through regional land use planning done at 30,000 feet.

        • Richard Hall says:

          Franz – thanks – genuinely appreciated. I’ll start to review this. Dave – feel free to chime in with any commentary on this report.

          Call me a “sensible planning advocate”, I won’t go with “smart growth advocate” like Stephen (did he really say that?).

          • Richard Hall says:

            Also found this study that challenges the link between higher density and higher transit usage.

            http://www.nbnnews.com/NBN/issues/2010-06-28/Regulation/index.html

            Here in Marin some of the factors they bring up run especially against the linkage logic:
            – we don’t have monocentric employment centers like in the NE
            – many households have people working multiple jobs (to pay the rent/maintain a quality of life). I count our own here.
            – the available transit is not great; SMART when finally built doesn’t go directly to employment centers. Maxx is Portland serves a similar rural/suburban community and has the added advantage of running directly through downtown Portland, yet it has failed to increase transit ridership and 85%+ of the new TOD residents continue to use their cars to commute and shop.

            Stephen nails it – the TOD “ideology” along with the jobs-housing balance sound great in theory, and really sweep uninformed folks along who don’t probe, but it doesn’t work when you apply reality and understand the facts.

          • Stephen Nestel says:

            yes I am a smart growth advocate if you mean by “walkable, bikeable, communities”, I am all for that. I think market forces can achieve that, just as it has done with many Marin cities. The crazy schemes of “streetcar suburbs” to emulate the 1900s is a crazy waste of money and not realistic in today’s economy. Instead, I look to the cities of Davis and Lincoln, that have bike paths woven into to the town infrastructure. I also like bike paths along the coast and tourist destinations. I am realistic though, these routes will never be a significant transportation solution for commerce. They are merely embellishments for our overall quality of life.

          • Richard Hall says:

            Great article. This piece on page 7 is really telling:
            “compared to housing costs, commuting costs are small. Because housing costs generally decline with distance from major employment centers, additional commuting costs can be traded off for cheaper housing. Thus, many households choose to live in outlying areas, consume more housing, and commute further to work. Notable here is the strong preference among U.S. households for single-family housing. “

          • Franz Listen says:

            Richard,

            The NAHB report that you linked to “strongly supports higher density, mixed-use and TOD” . It’s just that they don’t believe that its a panacea for global warming. It also calls out policy makers for trying to use indirect tools like land use planning to address global warming rather than direct tools that require more political will. I agree, which is why I do not like SB 375.

            I think that there is good empirical evidence that people who live in walkable communities/TOD are generating fewer car trips. However, it’s ultimately beside the point. The viability of these types of developments don’t hinge on their ability to meet every goal attributed to them by advocates and enthusiasts. All that really matters is whether people want to live in them and whether jurisdictions are willing to allow them.

            As a corollary, consider low-density landscapes. Early 20th century proponents argued that they would lead to reductions in infectious diseases. We could do a study today that would show that people living in higher density areas in the US are no more likely to get tuberculosis than those in low density areas. Does this destroy the rationale for low density? I don’t think so. Ultimately, it’s people’s preferences that matter.

            Stephen,

            Davis is a good model. Note that it has a rail station on the Capitol Corridor line right in its core. The Station gets lots of bikes parked there which shows the utility of a combination of a commuter rail service and a bike friendly environment. I think that bikes can be much more than an embellishment. They are not useful for goods movement but they can definitely aid commerce, by creating another way for some people to get around. Bike tourism is also no joke around here.

            I don’t think that walkable or bike friendly communities are going to simply emerge via market forces. Within a sub-division yes, but most of our transportation infrastructure is governed by public agencies who have resources, eminent domain powers, etc. As a result, there’s really no getting around wrestling over transportation priorities and trade offs.

            As for the Marin trolley concept, I agree that this is not the best place to put our transportation dollars. Dave E. wrote a piece basically agreeing with you on that.

    • Stephen Nestel says:

      See my comments above Franz. When I say “top down” planning, this is not a pejorative (okay it is for me) it is simply describing the comprehensive process of micro-managing lives. The One Bay Area planners have a god complex, believing in their questionable job growth assumptions, and 25 year plans. Even the most dynamic international businesses would not hazard a bet on 25 year plans in this crazy dynamic world. Planning has it’s limitations and should be extremely local to be receptive to local conditions.

      I use the word “opportunity” as a GOOD thing. So people want to help people with food stamps, others want a vibrant economy to help people get jobs. Businesses create jobs and opportunity. Government merely redistributes wealth. Creation is where it is at.

      I am a smart growth advocate, Franz but I want it done “smart and sustainable”, not through policies that do not take reality into account.

      • Franz Listen says:

        Stephen,

        I agree that businesses create jobs. It is difficult to create those jobs, however, when businesses are prohibited from being physically established.

        You made a good argument (actually, a smart-growth argument) for locating retail development rather than housing at Marinwood Plaza.

        Assuming that such a development were economically viable and a formal proposal were submitted by a developer, however, I have no doubt that people would crawl out of the woodwork to oppose it.

        They would say that it was urbanizing Marin, creating traffic, subjecting innocent workers to freeway fumes. They would question whether the tax revenues were actually a net positive, they would pick at the EIR. The would research the business and question all of its practices. They would get support from incumbent retailers who don’t want competition. They would say that they didn’t need Stephen Nestel’s food market that was based on smart growth and his questionable walkable communities ideology.

        I short, while I agree that there are some irritating things about the state and regional planning super-structure, the local planning process ain’t always peaches and cream. It can be highly anti-competitive.

        • Stephen Nestel says:

          Franz, you are correct. A successful retail development will generate controversy and problems. But we have an advantage now to look at the alternative. If Bridge is allowed to build Marinwood Village, it is very likely that the market will not survive. In it’s place, a 7-11 or convenience mart will take its place or possibly a government office. The development will pay almost now taxes and cost the community millions.

          The current site should be cleaned up but even if it were made a park, it would be far better for the community.

          I am willing to bet that the majority of the residents want a prosperous retail center where they can shop and socialize over any other option.

  7. Randy Warren says:

    David – Some writers contact their subject for comment before publishing. I would have been pleased to speak with you, even though we apparently have at least some areas of differing views. But calling me “conservative?” Me, a former ACLU regional board member? Me, a former delegate to a state Democratic convention? Me, who at age 7 stood outside my house to hold up a sign encouraging passing motorists to vote for JFK? Well, I suppose “conservative” is still better than being called a Dodger fan.

    • Glad to see I’ve been passed on to you. I’m dropping the “development conservative” from here on as it seems to have been dramatically misinterpreted. I meant it in this specific policy context, not in the broader national or regional context. The issues of development cut across traditional political lines, with everyone from European-style socialists to libertarians to centrist Democrats sitting on both sides of these issues. I have no doubt of your Democratic credentials. Would “development skeptic” be a better term?

      Regarding the topic at hand, if you would like to clarify your comments on affordable housing, PDAs, and so on, I’d be happy to publish it.

    • By the way, if you want to post a response, send me an email at thegreatermarin [at] gmail.com.

  8. Pingback: Point of agreement: Second units are a good way to add new housing | The Greater Marin

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