No one can question the tenacity or determination of Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) to answer all questions from an often hostile audience at a recent Town Hall meeting in Walnut Creek.
The topic of discussion, Sustainable Communities, guaranteed a polarized group of spectators would be venting their opinions on how the State of California “housing element” would affect their individual communities.
With the passage of SB-375 and the approval of the controversial One Bay Area Plan from regional agencies The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), urban planning goals for the nex 30 years have been put in stone.
Coupled with this SB-1, co-written by DeSaulnier and Senate Majority leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the combination would likely resurrects the Redevelopment Program Governor Brown scrapped when he assumed office after the 2010 elections.
According to the terms of SB-375, it is the right of the State to mandate that local communities combat global warming-climate change by constructing housing projects in close proximity to mass transit; which for Contra Costa County means near a BART Station or Railroad or ferry. At the same time these projects, which critics refer to as “Stack and Pack,” must include affordable housing elements to accommodate families of low income levels.
At the Town Hall meeting DeSaulnier explained his perspective on different aspects of what is to occur if SB-1 is implemented.
According to DeSaulnier
SB-1 Preserves local control. Cities and Counties create authorities only if they want to retain full land use authority within the area and continue to decide what if anything gets built in the area. Elected officials will generally be the board members of the new investment authorities, so there will be accountability.
Reality Bites: There is little local control as the State is mandating that quotas be met for every community for their housing element. If cities decide not to participate in these project development areas (PDA’s) they will lose all the money the State is giving them for redevelopment. While wealthier places like Lafayette or Orinda may be able to afford to lose tax revenues, poorer locales such as Concord or Pittsburg have no choice but to play along with the program.
Opting out of the new redevelopment will not allow for spending these funds on different priorities such as sewer, road maintenance, or other critical local improvements. Whether this policy is friendly persuasion, coercion, or outright blackmail is a matter of interpretation.
According to DeSaulnier, SB-1 Authorizes a local government to establish a Sustainable Communities Investment Authority and direct its own tax increment revenues to that authority in order to address blight by supporting development in transit, priority project areas, small walkable communities and clean energy manufacturing sites.
Reality Bites: The theory that the new developments will result in higher property values that produce higher tax revenues that can be used for such uses as landscaping, bike trails, clean energy sites (solar) and other improvements which reduce green house gasses and global warming is questionable. Again, the lion share of revenues will be directed to purposes defined by the State, not local planning.
Any additional tax revenues should be for the entire community and not just one part. Additionally, the broadest definition possible of blight which, according to SB-1 includes single family homes which can be torn down to make way for so called sustainable developments, is eminent domain abuse and crony deal making waiting to happen.
DeSaulnier says Sustainable Communities Investment Authorities will have all the powers duties and obligations that former redevelopment agencies processed under the Community redevelopment law. Projects supported by Sustainable Communities Investment Areas will require the inclusion of a jobs plan describing the short and long term benefits of the program
Reality Bites: When did a governmental agency ever set up a program with the private sector that ever worked? Using words like “sustainable”, “walkable”, or “jobs plan” does not put bread on anyone’s tables. The State will put requirements on businesses that reside inside redevelopment areas that will make it difficult for retail enterprises to flourish.
These restrictions will surely create the inevitable unintended consequences like creating unfavorable conditions to attract commercial tenants, like the Potemkin Village aka Avalon complex at the Pleasant Hill Bart Station as a preview of coming attractions. Additionally, the “build it and they will come” philosophy of constructing new mass transit services by the MTC will not prove to be affordable, efficient, on time, and due to project labor agreements will cost at least 40-percent more than necessary not counting the bond interest that will triple the cost to the tax payers.
DeSaulnier believes schools may not contribute their property taxes to the authority under any circumstances. As a result, SB-1 will have no effect on schools, the state budget, or the services of a non participating entity.
Reality Bites: It may be true that property taxes from schools cannot be given to redevelopment areas but the question must be asked “Who is to pay for the infrastructure for providing additional facilities that school districts will need to provide for increased enrollment?” Where will local government, whose revenues have been reduced by the state in recent years, find the funds to finance even more police, fire, and other infrastructure costs associated with new demands brought on by these mandated “housing elements.”
These are just a few of the issues involved with the implementation of SB-1 should it be signed in its present form into law during the present legislative session. There are fears that in congested communities such as Lafayette, Orinda, Danville and elsewhere on the 680 corridor that by building additional housing, vehicle traffic along with congestion will only get worse.
On top of this, if mandated “density discounts” are given to builders to construct additional low income housing units, reducing parking space requirements will just add to more gridlock. There is also concern that the endangered rural environment of Contra Costa, which the residents so treasure, will be lost in DeSaulnier’s slap-dash urbanization process favored by central planners.
SB-1 overlooks legitimate claims that State and regional organizations such as ABAG and the MTC, that dictate urban planning, look at their own supposed can’t lose big picture and ignore the needs of smaller communities outside of the borders of metropolitan centers such as San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. Even though these agencies are nominally run by elected County Supervisors and City Council members, their agenda is directed by unelected admistrators who in most cases do not live where they are making policies.
Ever present with cynics of SB-1 is their contention that by over taxing, over regulating, and trying to exert more control over its citizens’ lives, creation of well paid jobs will diminish as corporations flee the State to more business friendly environments. If present trends continues, they ask, who will live in these projects, where will their residents work, and who will pay for all of this?
While stack and pack housing seems to embody everyone’s worst fears who are cynical about how the State of California plans for the Bay Area’s urban development, there is an elephant in the closet in the form of SB-1818, which will, when passed, consolidate and invest even more centralized powerin Sacramento to determine the futures of local municipalities.
Curiously enough, when asked about this new bill at the Walnut Creek Town Hall Meeting, Senator DeSaulnier said he was not aware of what it is or how it might affect things in the future. As SB-1818 is intended to make all communities who resist SB-1 to come on board, it is odd that his staff did not brief him about this controversial legislative proposal as the Senator’s priorities shift to filling his new post in Congress next year, where once again, another politician will not suffer the consequences of policy he is making for us now as he will live in D.C.!
Next week- How SB-1818 may take away virtually all local control left in urban planning