Commentary: California with a Warning for ‘NIMBY Cities’

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

We have been warning all week – now the Los Angeles Times has come out with an editorial on it as well – “NIMBY cities, watch out. California is cracking down on jurisdictions that make it too hard to build much-needed housing, and the Newsom administration’s latest target is San Francisco — the liberal city that may be the NIMBYist of them all.”

The Times cites last week’s decision by HCD which announced for the first time it is launching a “housing policy and practice review” which aims to “analyze why it’s so hard to build homes in San Francisco.”

San Francisco is an interestingly high profile target.  A large, high profile city that has become a poster child for the high cost of housing, gentrification, and the impacts on vulnerable populations.

As the editorial notes, San Francisco “has the longest timeline in the state for approving housing projects. From application to permit, it takes an average of 974 days for a development to get approved, according to self-reported data from the city.”

They argue, “That cumbersome process is one reason why San Francisco has among the highest construction and housing costs, and why state housing regulators have received more complaints about the city than any other jurisdiction in the state.”

The review will examine among other things, “why San Francisco’s approval process takes so long, which projects get approved or denied and why, and what barriers are preventing the development of low- and moderate-income housing.”

If the review finds that San Francisco is breaking state law, “details about the violations will be sent to the state attorney general’s Housing Strike Force.”

The Times notes, “The result of all this work could be legally enforceable commitments to improve San Francisco’s processes and boost housing production, such as streamlined reviews and deadlines to approve projects.”

Why we are tracking this however is the next piece of this.

“It could also create a template for development reform that other cities can follow, and an example of what might happen if they don’t,” the Times writes.

While San Francisco is an easy target – “because of its astronomical housing costs due to pricey real estate and city building restrictions, and the bare-knuckle fights over housing that often result in elected leaders saying “no” to new developments on flimsy grounds” – as we have reported – it is not alone.

The Times argues, “there are plenty of cities that make it far too hard to build homes and could easily be in the crosshairs of the Housing Accountability Unit.”

The reality is that while California has had the RHNA process to attempt fair share growth policies, “For decades, there have been no significant penalties for cities that flouted their obligation to plan and build enough housing to meet population demands.”

The state instead “took a hands-off approach” and left it to local government.  But the result of that, “too many cities were allowed to ignore their housing responsibilities and bend to slow-growth, “not in my backyard” opposition.”

By now, regular readers have probably read between the lines here.  As we have reported, HCD rejected the city of Davis’ Housing Element.  We have heard from reliable sources that Davis is on the radar of HCD as one of those cities that has restrictive growth policies.

As we analyzed earlier this week, Davis is fine for now with respect to total units – 2000.  The problem is going to be getting to 930 low and very low income units required by the state.  As we analyzed earlier this week, the city has taken an optimistic view in reaching a 472 unit deficit.  That requires the city to somehow build 83 in the downtown core area in just the next few years – that doesn’t seem realistic.

Moreover, to get to that number of low income units the city will have to figure out a way to do what it hasn’t been able to do – build standalone units or find space to put thousands of market rate units.

Either way, Davis should be on alert.

As the Times points out, “The housing shortage is at the heart of the state’s biggest problems, including homelessness, poverty, income inequality, clogged freeways and pollution from long commutes. California needs to add between 1.8 million and 2.5 million homes by 2025 to ease the shortage that has driven up rents and home prices.”

While Davis isn’t likely to move that needle very far, symbolically it might be like San Francisco much more valuable in demonstrating the sincerity of the state’s efforts.

Writes the Times, “even now with the effects of the housing shortage glaringly obvious, some cities continue to put up barriers to housing construction, including market-rate, mixed-income and affordable projects. The obstinance is especially galling in wealthy communities, such as Atherton in the Bay Area, where residents may bemoan the lack of housing construction elsewhere or donate to charities to address the fallout from the housing shortage, but refuse to make room for more homes in their own cities.”

I agree with the Times, the crack down is long overdue, “the state cannot afford to let communities stop or slow-walk construction. San Francisco may be the target now, but other cities should be next.”

Sooner or later, Davis is likely to find its way into the crosshairs of the state as well.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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19 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    If the review finds that San Francisco is breaking state law, “details about the violations will be sent to the state attorney general’s Housing Strike Force.”

    The Times notes, “The result of all this work could be legally enforceable commitments to improve San Francisco’s processes and boost housing production, such as streamlined reviews and deadlines to approve projects.”

    Hopefully, one of the important issues that the HCD review will analyze is the impact on funding of low- and very low-income projects that the State’s termination of the RDA produced.  With RDA funding, the Sterling site could have been a (close to) 100% affordable project like New Harmony.

    In times where the State Budget surplus hovers around $100 Billion, reinvesting that surplus in the provision of affordable housing seems like a no-brainer decision. However, the State’s “process” for making that happen is just as questionable as San Francisco’s development approval process.

    Unlike San Francisco. recent history shows us that Davis does not have a process problem for the approval of projects.  Here is a partial list of projects that the Davis process has recently handled.

    1. Mark West

      A more honest approach to this list would only include those projects that have been built and to average the the increase over the past decade or two. While the City has been better in getting projects approved (and even built sometimes) quite recently, that comes on the heals of nearly two decades of little to no increase in the housing units in town (during which time the apartment vacancy rate averaged below 0.5%).

      The problem is not just in getting projects approved, but rather in actually creating new housing where people are able to live. An approved project that is never built doesn’t increase the housing opportunities in town.

       

      1. Matt Williams

        When you look at the projects that haven’t been built, are any of the delays due to process issues?

        Nishi’s delay is not due to process.

        Cannery’s delay was not due to process.

        Chiles Ranch’s delay was not due to process.

        Lincoln 40’s delay can arguably be attributed to fsilures to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” in the process, which opened the door to the filing of the lawsuit.

    2. Ron Glick

      Exactly Mark, Over 40% of the bedrooms Matt lists are at Nishi a project that is nowhere near breaking ground because to win at the polls they gave up access to Richards, As a result over 4 years after the election they still haven’t an approved plan for access. I’m doubtful the project will get built in the next decade if ever.

      1. Matt Williams

        Ron, that was a conscious discretionary decision by the developer in formulating the project.  It was not a process issue.  Staff and Council’s handling of the 2018 process for the Nishi application went very smoothly and was completed very quickly.

        1. Ron Glick

          A decision to get through the Measure J process. But here we are four years later with no movement on getting access under the rail tracks built. Including Nishi in any housing projections cannot be relied upon because there is no present visibility on gaining access.

    3. Bill Marshall

      Here is a partial list of projects that the Davis process has recently handled.

      Two squishy terms… ‘recently’ and ‘handled’…

      As far as ‘approvals’ :  some you’ve listed are over 20 years old, as to approvals, others 10-15 years… please consider defining “recent”.  For some, long in the tooth, most of Davis Manor, Wildhorse, Mace Ranch Park, are “recent”.  Depends on the length of the tooth…

      As far as ‘handled’ :  does that mean permits for individual lots, many of which were approved 10+ years ago?  Please define what you mean as “handled”… many factors in the lag between “approvals” and ‘units on the ground’…

      Disc 2022 eludes me, except if you mean “handled” = ‘thwarted”…

      Clarity is good… context is good… IMNSHO

       

  2. Ron Oertel

    While San Francisco is an easy target – “because of its astronomical housing costs due to pricey real estate and city building restrictions, and the bare-knuckle fights over housing that often result in elected leaders saying “no” to new developments on flimsy grounds” – as we have reported – it is not alone.

    Is it actually an “easy target”?  Considering that we’re talking about primarily low-to-moderate income housing in a city with a declining population, during a housing downturn?  In a city which (along with almost every large city along the coast) is not expanding outward?

    Has anyone told the construction industry about these plans?  And, has anyone from the state promised to subsidize this low-to-moderate housing in the most expensive city in which to build in the country?

    It might be “easy” to put something on paper, all right.

    It’s astonishing how you and others consistently overlook the underlying cause for what you describe as a “housing crisis”.  Again, the cause is high-tech industry moving into an area with limited space, adding thousands of new, high paying jobs.

    The reason this isn’t acknowledged is because those same interests helped elect politicians who support their interests in the first place. And unfortunately, there isn’t much difference between the two parties regarding their ties to development and other business interests, who benefit from never-ending growth. Most media support that goal, as well.

    We have been warning all week – now the Los Angeles Times has come out with an editorial on it as well – “NIMBY cities, watch out. California is cracking down on jurisdictions that make it too hard to build much-needed housing, and the Newsom administration’s latest target is San Francisco — the liberal city that may be the NIMBYist of them all.
    I agree with the Times, the crack down is long overdue,

    No “opinion” there, is there?  No good, rotten NIMBYs.

    California needs to add between 1.8 million and 2.5 million homes by 2025 to ease the shortage that has driven up rents and home prices.”

    In a state that’s been experiencing a a declining population, as well.  Who makes up these numbers, and why was the governor forced to downsize his other, projected claims regarding this?

    Really?  Within less than 2.5 years, the state is going to add “somewhere” between 1.8 to 2.5 million homes during a real estate downturn?  Has anyone told the construction industry about this? (And regardless, are they requiring a “fair wage” or whatever it’s called to go along with this?

    The obstinance is especially galling in wealthy communities, such as Atherton in the Bay Area,

    No good wealthy NIMBYs!

    (Actually, it’s THOSE communities which are going to ultimately undermine the state’s war on its own cities.  Especially when they’re pushed.  Unlike David’s view, I don’t think they’re intimidated easily, nor do I believe that the state has the kahunas to fully take them on.  Unless those politicians and the interests behind them are seeking to self-destruct.)

    Either way, Davis should be on alert.

    “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!”  (With robotic arms flailing.)

    Actually, can Silicon Valley now build something like that – without requiring an actor inside?  If so, maybe the housing shortage they created was worth it.

    By the way, none of this would have occurred (locally) had the council listened to the “warnings” regarding their attempt to count the megadorms, before they even approved them.

     

  3. Ron Oertel

    We have heard from reliable sources that Davis is on the radar of HCD as one of those cities that has restrictive growth policies.

    Pretty vague statement, but perhaps you should reveal your “sources”.  Are these the same people (outside of state government) who are “monitoring” what cities do in the first place?  I suspect I know who at least one of these local tattle-tales is – as he’s writes articles regarding this, constantly.  A UCD law professor, at that. (And here I thought that professors were there to provide an education for students – not engage in this type of advocacy on behalf of business interests.)

    Not to mention a whole cadre of paid individuals at “YIMBY” organizations. (Tell us why, again – these organizations should be classified as “non-profit” – when they’re advocating on behalf of business interests?)

    At least the so-called “NIMBYs” aren’t getting paid for what they do. It costs them time and money.

    What cities (and the groups fighting this) need are well-qualified attorneys, to challenge the state on multiple levels (not to mention continued political challenges).

    1. Keith Olson

      What I find so hypocritical Ron is the people who say we have to follow state dictates when it suits their agenda but not in cases of things they don’t agree with.  [edited]

    2. Bill Marshall

      What cities (and the groups fighting this) need are well-qualified attorneys, to challenge the state on multiple levels (not to mention continued political challenges).

      To what end?   A fight for ‘fights’ sake, challenges for ‘challenges’ sake?

      Or will you ‘fess up to wanting anything that resembles population growth (probably negative population growth, based on your older posts) to be fought tooth and nail for what you may perceive as your personal and/or economic benefit?  I wonder (one of your most used terms)…

      I opine that folk ought to act in their AND OTHERS best interests… and, if local folk don’t do so, it gets ‘bumped up’ to State or Federal levels… if racial discrimination, lynching, etc. is OK locally, would not State/Fed have a responsibility to act?  I wonder…

      1. Ron Oertel

        Regarding racial discrimination, it seems to me that there wasn’t a lot of concern regarding that possibility with the “Davis Buyer’s program” for WDAAC (now Bretton Woods).  At least, not from those who normally claim to be concerned about that issue.

        Same thing in regard to the housing shortage that would have been created by DiSC.

        There’s no economic benefit in regard to my thoughts shared on here.  (None that I can think of, anyway.)

        In regard to “others’ interests”, what we’re seeing with this effort is others’ business interests.

        I believe what you’re actually asking me is what would happen if every city in the country restricted the amount of growth and development that they’re willing to accommodate.  In which case it could presumably create challenges if the population kept growing, regardless (via births and immigration).  I’ll let you know my thoughts on that if we ever even get close to that situation.

        Regarding the purpose of the fight, it’s primarily about saving open space and farmland, for me.  Secondarily, it’s about ensuring that cities don’t become over-developed, to the point that infrastructure is overwhelmed and quality of life suffers.

        I will say that whenever I visit some place like Tiburon or Woodside, I both enjoy and envy it.  I also feel quite safe when doing so.  Although I also have feelings of exclusion (even as a “white male”), I fully support their own efforts to preserve what they paid for (and which I also appreciate – even as a visitor).

        It is, after all – their home.

        I have no problem with some communities remaining wealthier than others.  In fact, those are the very communities which do the most to preserve the land surrounding them, as well.

        Were it not for one of the Rockefellers, Grand Teton National Park would not exist (either at all, or not in the form it’s in.)  Nor would Jackson Hole be among the most expensive places in the country. However, Rockefeller did not do so to benefit himself. (Interesting to note that the government itself initially RESISTED his efforts.)

        Watch “Rebels With a Cause” on PBS, if you want to know what drives my interest.

         

      2. Matt Williams

        I don’t disagree with your observation Bill; however, the State has

        (1) relatively arbitrarily set the RHNA numbers for communities, and then

        (2) arbitrarily disallowed credit for the beds/units in projects that match community supply with community demand (e.g. Sterling), and

        (3) also not allowed communities to voluntarily transfer requirements (West Sac and Davis are logical transfer partners, and

        (4) seemingly ignored the impact of LAFCO’s annexation processes.

        So there are dirty fingerprints from all parties.

  4. Richard_McCann

    Matt

    I think the solution to the RDA problem that provides cities with a clear incentive again to allow more housing is to again allow them to keep the property tax increment. The difference would be to 1) not limit this provision to “blighted areas” which led to weird incentives and 2) not include condemnation powers which was the abuse at the core of the demise of RDAs in the first place. We should get our local legislators to introduce this change. The state budget is flush enough now to use this to transfer funds to local governments.

    Ron O

    If you truly believed in conserving open space and farmland you would be leading the fight in your hometown of Woodland which is much more expansive than Davis [edited]. The simple fact is that the compact developments that Davis builds uses less acreage than in other communities which means on net there’s a greater preservation of farm land by building in Davis instead. Simplistic rationales won’t get us to a better outcome.

    As to the housing shortage, I’ve already posted twice the statistics that show that the average household size has grown in California after dropping for decades, indicating that there is insufficient supply for demand. In addition, housing follows jobs and income (not the other way around) and the jobs are in places with constrained housing. Population growth isn’t a particularly useful measure of housing demand, especially when the change in growth is caused by the housing shortage that you claim doesn’t exist because the state’s population isn’t growing. You’re using circular reasoning.

    The Bay Area can accommodate much more with higher densities. SF’s population loss is a one year anomaly caused by a freak event. It’s population has grown significantly since 1980 after being stable for half a century.

    1. Ron Oertel

      If you truly believed in conserving open space and farmland you would be leading the fight in your hometown of Woodland which is much more expansive than Davis [edited]. The simple fact is that the compact developments that Davis builds uses less acreage than in other communities which means on net there’s a greater preservation of farm land by building in Davis instead. Simplistic rationales won’t get us to a better outcome.

      I don’t personally consider Woodland to be my “hometown”, nor do I consider Davis to be.  (Hometown has a lot of different meanings, for that matter.)  Regardless, you don’t know whether or not I’m involved there – or the possible extent of it.  Nor do you know of my possible connections to Davis.

      You (also) already know that Woodland is a very different town, regarding its support for development.  But to some degree, it has been absorbing pressures to develop as a result of the UC’s system to grow, and the business interests attempting to take advantage of that.

      Nor do you know if another commenter on here advocates for more housing in Dixon, for example – while also being part of a development team, in Davis.

      But I will say that I am strongly opposed to the business interests attempting to force their desires on cities throughout the state.  I dislike this dishonest attempt to the core of my being, while attempting to claim that they’re doing so out of concern for those “priced out” (or homeless).

      But again, Davis is a town that actually appointed someone to the housing element committee – who doesn’t live in the town.  You can thank Dan Carson, for that.

      In any case, the article itself addresses “NIMBY cities”, as David and others put it.

      As to the housing shortage, I’ve already posted twice the statistics that show that the average household size has grown in California after dropping for decades, indicating that there is insufficient supply for demand.

      I (and another commenter) already showed that the average household size was drastically higher in the U.S., in previous decades.

      You’re referring to a slight increase (over some recent time period).  Probably due to larger housing unit size, as well.  The square footage of single-family housing units has drastically increased, over the past few decades.  Even though the size of families occupying those housing units has decreased.

      By the way, isn’t it environmentally-responsible to live in dense surroundings, in the first place?

      In addition, housing follows jobs and income (not the other way around) and the jobs are in places with constrained housing. Population growth isn’t a particularly useful measure of housing demand, especially when the change in growth is caused by the housing shortage that you claim doesn’t exist because the state’s population isn’t growing. You’re using circular reasoning.

      What, exactly – is your “reasoning”?

      The Bay Area can accommodate much more with higher densities. SF’s population loss is a one year anomaly caused by a freak event. It’s population has grown significantly since 1980 after being stable for half a century.

      It is absolutely not an anomaly, and is primarily driven by the ability to telecommute, “kick-started” by Covid.  We’re at the point where advances in technology (e.g., the ability to download massive amounts of data quickly, and the ability to participate in remote meetings) has enabled many to work from anywhere – even Boise, Idaho, which has had some of the largest increase in housing prices in the entire country.

      (Not to worry, though – they’re in a bubble which is already being “rectified”.)

      In any case, I personally know of at least two or three high-paid workers, who are taking advantage of this new opportunity to telecommute (and more-comfortable weather), as a result of technological advances.  One of whom moved to Nevada, and was finally able to purchase a house at a reasonable price (while also enjoying close proximity to the Sierra mountain range).  In my opinion, they’re enjoying a lifestyle which is not available to them in Davis.

      In this sense, perhaps Silicon Valley is actually/finally proving its worth, so to speak.

      By the way, there are groups (such as “Our Neighborhood Voices”) who are challenging the dictatorial mandates from the state.

      https://ourneighborhoodvoices.com/

  5. Ron Oertel

    Thought I’d search for an article which shows some of the problems that San Francisco is facing regarding abandonment of its commercial space, largely as a result of the pandemic and resulting telecommuting – most of which is likely to be permanent.

    When there’s large amounts of vacant commercial space, that’s also a sign that workers are not needed, locally.  That’s why San Francisco’s population dropped by more than 6% over the past couple of years.  This translates directly into less need for local housing.

    I don’t think this even accounts for unneeded/unused retail space.

    The state’s housing requirements were apparently created prior to this trend.  Had they accounted for it, San Francisco should have been assigned a negative RHNA number.

    As we outlined last week, the amount of vacant office space in San Francisco has ticked up to a pandemic high of 18.7 million square feet versus under 5 million square feet prior to the pandemic.

    For context, the 1,070-foot-tall Salesforce/Transbay tower at First and Mission, which is the tallest building in San Francisco, contains 1.35 million square feet of office space spread across 59 floors.  And employing the framework we introduced back in 2020, there is now 13.8 Salesforce Towers or 815 Salesforce Tower floors worth of empty office space spread across San Francisco, which is roughly enough space to accommodate between 107,000 employees, based on an average, pre-Covid density or 143,000 (a la twitter) worker bees.

    https://socketsite.com/archives/2022/04/visualizing-all-the-vacant-office-space-in-san-francisco-3.html

    (My fifth comment for the day.)

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