ULI San Francisco Blog

Local vs. State Control: Our First Housing the Bay Lead-Up Program

What do you get when you put leading political representatives and practitioners, each with varying opinions, in a room to discuss Bay Area housing policy? A passionate and informative discussion! The Housing Crisis: Local, Regional and State Perspectives, one of several lead-up programs for the Housing the Bay Summit, was a broad-ranging discussion covering the causes and potential solutions to the Bay Area’s long-standing regional housing crisis.

Eric Tao of AGI Avant opened up the breakfast panel by sharing his own experiences engaging the public process. Tao summarized his own personal experience navigating housing policy and working with municipalities on housing projects. He then introduced the moderator and panelists.

Robert Ogilvie, Director of SPUR Oakland, moderated the panel and started the conversation by asking a fundamental question: How did we get into a housing crisis in the first place?

California State Senator Scott Wiener gave a comprehensive overview of San Francisco’s development history by the providing policy context linking various historical events which led to a cultural suburban shift in the ‘60s-‘70s. According to Senator Weiner, the primary byproduct of trending postwar suburbanization was the empowerment of “NIMBYism”, CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) abuse and downzoning. By the time communities started to pivot back towards urbanism, the anti-housing policies were frozen in place.

John Rahaim, Director of the San Francisco Planning Department, added that since the ‘70s, San Francisco has consistently built less housing than previous decades. Denise Pinkston of TMG agreed that policies in place, such as Proposition 13, are so prohibitive that developers are forced to build high-end developments instead of the more modest homes needed by the general and moderate-income population: “We need to deliver Volkswagen housing that’s affordable to the middle. But we can only do Ferraris because that’s all we can build for.”

Seth Miller from League of California Cities agreed, though he pointed out the positive outcome over the years was that community members became more civically engaged, actively sharing their vision with city leaders.

Senator Wiener explained his motivation for crafting SB 35 by sharing the story of a 12-unit, zoning compliant project on Valencia St. that took over five years to be approved. His proposed legislation will motivate cities to deliver their Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) housing goals. Miller, however, expressed concern of an overly bureaucratic process with yet another layer of review, one without corresponding state level funding. The League is instead pushing for alternative legislation, SB 540, which addresses the housing shortage by encouraging cities to use district-wide and long-term planning.

Pinkston agreed that the 100+ housing bills on deck are good enhancements to a broken process. She observed that the cities that don’t want to change their approach to development find creative policy ways to NOT change.

Miller pushed back, asking if the State is the appropriate authority to enforce housing goals. He pointed out that “good” players, such as Mountain View and Redwood City, are reducing parking requirements and investing in transportation solutions.

Ogilvie shifted the conversation from state versus local control of land use decisions to the topic of impact fees. Here again arose opposing views among the panelists.

Pinkston explained how excessive fees that are not supported by nexus studies also stifle housing production, adding that cities often don’t take into account other burdensome agency or district fees, such as schools and utility fees. Rahaim disagreed with the notion that developer impact fees cause housing costs to increase significantly. Pinkston clarified San Francisco’s fees actually do make sense since they were based on a comprehensive study. Every other city in California also has extensive fees and demands of the developer, but not necessarily with the same amount of supporting financial analysis.

The panel explored several other topics that contributed to the housing crisis and potential solutions, such as by-right permitting, streamlining the approvals process, re-negotiating prevailing wage and providing infrastructure investment to catalyze entitled projects.  Before concluding, Miller extended his hope to address the housing crisis by finding a path forward even if decision makers disagree on specifics.

Onward, to solving the Housing Crisis!

By XiomaraCisneros  and Amit Price Patel

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