“Governor’s Housing Plan Promoted at Closed-Door Meeting with Mayor Lee”

48 Hills, July 20, 2016

I went to the strangest press conference today. Ed Lee was there; so was Ben Metcalf, who is Gov. Jerry Brown’s director of housing and community development. We met at SPUR’s downtown headquarters, at a little after 11am.

There were only a handful of reporters – me, J.K. Dineen from the Chron, Liam Dillon from the LA Times. Kim Mai Cutler showed up late.

And it wasn’t clear why we were really there – except that for the past couple of hours, Lee, Metcalf, and a group of “stakeholders” (mostly big nonprofit housing developers like Bridge, the Bay Area Council, and the pro-any-kind-of-development Housing Action Coalition, and the law firm of Holland and Knight, which represented a tech startup illegally using space in Chinatown) had been meeting privately to figure out how to promote the governor’s plan to allow developers to build housing without the normal community oversight.

The measure has been pending in the state Legislature, but community housing groups all over the state have tried to slow it down. It would override local laws and allow anyone who wants to build any type of housing to do that “by right” if it complies with existing zoning and has a tiny minimum of affordable housing – wiping out the ability of community groups to try to cut better deals with developers.

“While this proposal claims to merely streamline the approval process for housing projects, it will in fact cause significant negative impacts on the environment, jobs, working and low-income neighborhoods, and the public’s right to participate in decisions impacting their everyday lives,” a statement issued today by ten community groups, including ACCE California, the Chinatown Community Development Center, Tenants Together, the Council of Community Housing Organizations, and Public Advocates, noted.

And instead of holding public hearings on the legislation, the groups said, “invite-only meetings are being conducted by the administration that exclude a full presentation of the facts and open dialogue about the plan’s far-reaching implications.”

Some labor groups aren’t too happy about it, either.

So there we were, at the end of one of those “invite-only” meetings, to which the press was not among those invited. In fact, there wasn’t much advance notice of the meeting at all – those of us who showed up either found out about it from activists and asked if we could come or got notice a few hours before the meeting started.

And there wasn’t a whole lot of concern in the room about that the secrecy.

I asked Metcalf why there had been no public hearings on the plan, and he told me that the measure was part of the governor’s budget process, which “is not a public process.”

Of course, he told me, the governor is “open to all possible feedback.” Not clear how that feedback will get delivered.

I asked the mayor why he would support a measure that undermines his own land-use authority, and he said that “I feel very strongly that in the governor’s proposal, we already have the right” to make local zoning decisions.

And he said that some developers have already agreed to affordable housing levels as high as 40 percent.

But that’s happened only when community groups were able to force negotiations with those project sponsors. Under the governor’s plan, much of that housing would merely have to be built at minimum inclusionary standards, which for projects now in the San Francisco planning pipeline is about 12 percent. In cities that don’t have their own affordable-housing laws, the number could be as low as 5 percent.

Gabriel Metcalf, the president of SPUR (no relation to the guv’s Metcalf) told me that the proposal would have regional and statewide application – that it would allow housing to be built in places like Cupertino, where tech companies have set up offices with tens of thousands of workers but no dense housing ever gets approved.

But those communities still have zoning laws that can block dense housing. Much of the new development would happen in places like San Francisco.

I asked Ben Metcalf why he wasn’t suggesting a more productive approach – a law that would require any community that approved commercial developments creating more than, say, 200 jobs to authorize and force the developers to pay for workforce housing.

That would mean no huge Apple headquarters in Cupertino, no Google and Facebook complexes, unless the communities that get the tax benefits also provide housing for the tens of thousands of new workers.

It would mean no Twitter tax break unless the city first found a way to finance housing for all the people displaced by the new tech workers.

He told me that was a “creative” idea and promised to pass it along to the guv.

Meanwhile, Brown’s housing plan is moving forward with very little public debate.