Governor Jerry Brown’s “Streamlining Affordable Housing Approvals” proposal will have far-reaching consequences on urban planning in cities and counties across California. However, there has been little discussion about the real-world consequences of this policy on the planning profession with regard to public participation.
Simply put, the Governor wants to get rid of local discretion in the approval of multi-family residential projects. To invoke this “by-right” privilege, developers have to limit market-rate (not “affordable”) units to between 80-95 percent of their projects, build on parcels that have urban uses around them on sites zoned for residential uses, and avoid dangerous and sensitive sites where they should not be building in the first place.
It sounds like a common sense solution to the state’s constrained housing supply, until one gets deeper into the complicated sausage-making process by which general and community plans are put together. When a plan is adopted, there is often an implicit contract between the local community and the public agency that it would have a “last look” on projects that could undermine the intent of the plan altogether. This is because it is extremely difficult for planners to analyze and predict every scenario, define community desires in objective terms, and to mitigate against the worst case, within reasonable limits. Urban planners try to build trust within the community, in order to get the approval of a framework within which community input would continue to be solicited in a meaningful way.
Distrust between planners and communities could result in a planning paralysis, where the approval of every plan is scrutinized to death in terms of its most adverse impacts on the community, regardless of how unrealistic they may be. The benefit of the doubt that public agencies get, when they adopt “Statement of Over-Riding Considerations” to avoid mitigating infrastructure and environmental impacts of plans, would be called into question. The ultimate decision-making power over projects would shift from public hearing bodies insert (such as city councils and planning commissions) to administrative officials; and since ministerial approvals are categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, it would limit legal challenges.
The Governor’s proposal ostensibly does not change land-use standards for cities and counties. However, the reality is quite different, since the planning process often allows standards to be customized for specific projects, through planning tools such as deviations, variances and conditions put on development permits. It is precisely this two-tiered approach that allows more flexible planning strategies such as form-based codes, mixed-use zoning and programmatic environmental review.
A top-down authoritarian approach on project approvals completely undermines long-standing traditions in planning theory of empowering communication, win-win dispute resolution, deliberative democracy, and participatory planning. Many planners would argue that contrary to the misconception of public participation as a hindrance to development, a well-design public participation process legitimizes planning itself, and leads to better outcomes overall. I have previously written about the community benefits gained from empowering communities through deliberation.
Public agency planners are loathe to stand in front of an angry crowd of stakeholders, who are skeptical of one unaccountable bureaucrat exercising inordinate power over their self-determination for generations to come. This is what kills plans.
Yet, this is exactly what the Governor’s proposal does. It puts planners in the untenable situation of sitting behind a desk and checking the boxes on a paper application, knowing that the project has real-world consequences and stakeholders whose interests may not be addressed – – oftentimes knowing that their assurances to the community at the time of plan approval, about having a meaningful voice in project approvals, were misleading.
According to the Governor, the intent is to streamline affordable housing. But affordable housing projects are already streamlined, per state law. The proposal has received a mixed reception from affordable housing advocates. This is because many affordable housing advocates are concerned that it silences the voices of residents and neighbors, at the time that it matters the most: during the permitting of a project that will impact their lives. Some advocates are puzzled by the fact that the Governor’s proposal lowers affordability standards for projects that need it the most, when they are near transit lines. Advocates in urban areas often use the public input process to include more below-market units and other community benefits. Since the proposal only applies to land zoned for multifamily housing, it does not advance building affordable housing in counties like Marin, where there is virtually no land zoned for it.
So what does this mean for planners working in cities, counties, in public agencies across the state?
Firstly, it puts public agency planners on the front-line of attack from anyone upset about a residential project. No longer can a planner rely on hearings by planning commissions or elected officials to shield them from the public ire. The larger and more controversial the project, the bigger the backlash. Imagine a planner telling a stakeholder:
“Thank you for your input, which will no longer be considered. We have streamlined you out of the approval process.”
Imagine what a chilling effect that would have on planning the next time around. Or consequently, lead to stringent growth control measures that would worsen housing affordability.
Secondly, only objective standards that have been legislated into the planning and zoning documents, will bear any recourse. This puts a significant onus on planners to quantify and qualify everything, no matter how abstract or nuanced. These standards will literally become the last line of defense for every community wanting their quirkiest detail. And unfortunately, what is not explicitly standardized, is on the chopping block. This approach leaves many stakeholders marginalized, especially those who advocate for better jobs, and against displacement. With the exception of a few plans, too often, economic prosperity is not considered a land-use issue. The environmental justice community too has advocated for explicit recognition, and has faced institutional resistance in many cities. To illustrate the impacts of streamlining, I have previously critiqued San Diego downtown’s Design Review process (having been on the panel for three years):
•We cannot consider the environmental impacts of a project, such as air pollution or traffic.
•We cannot require a developer to provide [more] affordable housing or community amenities, if the developer does not agree.
•We cannot reject a project if we feel it does not comply with elements of the general plan.
•We cannot compel developers to provide a different density or building type.
•We cannot compel developers to provide sustainability features, even if we feel the community plan calls for them.
Thirdly, it may lead to a “no man’s land” of planning practice, where cities simply do what they want, ignoring state law. For example, housing elements must include analysis of identified sites which must demonstrate density standards to accommodate a jurisdiction’s regional need for all income levels. Alternatively, they can use a default density of 30 dwelling units per acre for most urban areas. There are 39 jurisdictions that are currently out of compliance, of which two-thirds are in the draft stage.*
There appear to be no common characteristics for being out of compliance, since the list has jurisdictions that vary in size, geographic location and density. The real reasons that affordable housing is not being built in California have much to do with financing and infrastructure, rather than planning.
Planning is both local and political. For those wanting to take politics out of planning, it is really about picking which political issues and local stakeholders they want to cut out.
* Alpine County (Alpine), Placerville (El Dorado), Arvin (Kern), Maricopa (Kern), Claremont (Los Angeles), La Puente (Los Angeles), Maywood (Los Angeles), Montebello (Los Angeles), Paramount (Los Angeles), Pomona (Los Angeles), Redondo Beach (Los Angeles), Rolling Hills (Los Angeles), South El Monte (Los Angeles), Westlake Village (Los Angeles), Point Arena (Mendocino), Atwater (Merced), Livingston (Merced), Los Banos (Merced), King City (Monterey), Marina (Monterey), Sand City (Marina), Huntington Beach (Orange), San Clemente (Orange), Villa Park (Orange), Riverside (Riverside), Riverside County (Riverside), Barstow (San Bernadido), Grand Terrace (San Bernandido), Montclair (San Bernadido), Encinitas (San Diego), Arroyo Grande (San Luis Obispo), Etna (Siskiyou), Modesto (Stanslaus), Waterford (Stanislaus), Trinity County (Trinity), Visalia (Tulare County), Woodlake (Tulare County), Fillmore (Ventura), Oxnard (Ventura).
Photo by Carol Kim.