Category Archives: California Blog

Divide and Conquer: Now it’s NIMBY vs. YIMBY

Divide and Conquer GoetheNever let a crisis go to waste. And if there is no crisis, start one. When fomenting a crisis, it helps to encourage group identification, then to pit one group against another. This has been the modus operandi of political leaders going all the way back to Philip II, whose maxim “divide and conquer” served him well in transforming self-governing city states into one big Macedonian kingdom.

The latest California crisis (besides the coastal progressives’ obsession with “resisting” something or other in Washington DC they are not supposed to like) is housing, and the latest division is between NIMBYs and YIMBYs.

The Not In My Backyard faction identifies with older residents who like the way things are in their neighborhood. They like their neighborhood’s “character,” they own or hope someday to own a single-family home with a backyard, they prefer not to take public transit, and they fiercely defend their turf from outsiders who feel entitled to change it. Bastions of NIMBYism, such as the Bay Area’s Marin County and San Francisco’s Westside, have traditionally used city and county zoning to preserve their neighborhoods.

The current California YIMBY movement goes back only to 2014, with the founding of BARF, Bay Area Renters’ Federation, by a charming and articulate former math teacher by the name of Sonja Trauss. In a 2015 article, What’s Your Housing Utopia, Sonja states her case unequivocally,

I want the market to provide a unit I can afford… I want to consume housing the way I consume all other products: Buy used, old or out of fashion, buy scratched and dented, buy odd lots, split the cost with friends… How do we get market rate housing for all markets? Step One: End the shortage. If we need 100,000 units, we have a lot of work ahead of us. If you’re involved in opposing a new housing project, stop, just stop. Our need for housing at all price levels far outstrips our supply at any level. Are you preoccupied with whether the new units “match” the rest of the neighborhood? Matching is for your belt and your shoes. Housing supply is a serious problem. If you’re sentimental about the past, swallow your tears.”

Then there is SPUR, San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, renamed from San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association in 1977, after the razing in the 1960s of San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the name of “urban renewal.” Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of SPUR, elevates the NIMBY/YIMBY war to the level of opposing views on private property – homes as property purchased and owned by someone vs. homes as infrastructure provided to all regardless of means.

I think there are more people understanding housing as a social-justice issue. While they might not like their communities changing with higher-density buildings, more people understand that they are necessary to live up to our values as progressives.

A recent article in the neighborhood newspaper, The Westside Observer reports on a community meeting discussion on California Senate Bill 827, which would mandate construction of buildings up to eight stories high along all transportation routes – bus routes as well as fixed rail – regardless of local zoning or neighborhood character.

What had started out as a community meeting slowly became a referendum on the land value of homes and apartments that younger generations would like to take away from older generations — right now!

The war, yet another identity-politics war, is on. Absent politicians never letting a crisis resolve itself peacefully, NIMBYs and YIMBYs, in spite of their vastly different outlook and needs, might have worked things out. However, that is not to be.

If we understand what is going on, we can choose our political leaders and our legislation with an eye to rejecting continuing crises provoked by identity wars. We can choose instead peacemakers who can encourage local solutions and compromises that offer remedies to challenges.

California’s Vanishing Neighborhoods

California is labeled a “progressive” state by mild voices and a “Marxist” state by more aggressive voices. Interestingly, the true progressives/Marxists occupy only a thin strip of land along California’s coast, but are so numerous they are the state’s deciders. Even within the progressive/Marxist coast, there are small pockets of conservatives that, for the most part, have little say.

However, once in a while, the fiscally conservative, free market, private property loving silent minority rises up in fury and hits the tax-and-spenders where they hurt – the ballot box. They rose up in 1978 and passed Proposition 13, which ended the bountiful distribution of property owners’ hard-earned cash. They rose up in 2003, and engineered the successful recall of Governor Grey Davis, who had plunged the state into a squabbling war among special interests. They helped elect Donald Trump in 2016. They are not happy campers today, and seemingly ready for another “Revolt” like the one in 1978.

Outside of progressives/Marxist eyes, observers can cite ample reasons for another cultural uprising: generous largess supported by high taxes, continuous mandates voiding local decision making, mounting state debt, an army of bureaucrats earning six-figure salaries, a legion of unelected officials doing what elected officials should be doing, and the huge elephant in the room that will not budge – uncontrollable unfunded public pension liabilities that have crowded out basic services.

Of this laundry list of grievances, one seems to stand out: state mandates that obliterate the ability of local property owners to decide the character of their neighborhoods. By character, residents mean appearance, density, tranquility, safety, ease of using one’s transportation of choice.

Sacramento has been cranking out legislation that allocates specific numbers of new housing units to each jurisdiction, requires such allocated housing to be built for all income levels in all neighborhoods, and voids decisions by local planners.

The latest example is Senate Bill 827 introduced January 3, 2018, requiring dense housing at all income levels within one-half mile of a bus stop, regardless of neighborhood. The proposal, supported by the now ubiquitous YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard), elicited this furious comment on the Crenshaw Subway website,

Like the Colonizers before them, YIMBYs claim the ‘Hood as Theirs! The bill is backed by group that calls themselves YIMBYs, which stands for “Yes in my backyard.” Like the colonizers whose agenda they seek to replicate, it takes a certain entitlement/ supremacist mindset to call a community they didn’t grow up in, don’t live in or are new to as “theirs.” It’s NOT their backyard – it’s ours. And we’re not about to give it up. WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED!

Ouch! The fury continues with a list of obvious housing injustices ignored by YIMBYs, such as,

…they could care less about the predatory lending that led to the greatest evisceration of Black wealth in decades – it wasn’t their grandma whose mortgage became unaffordable overnight.

The article ends with a battle cry,

It is time that we put our war paint on, soldiers. SB 827 is bill that must be killed.

Another piece of legislation particularly disliked by conservatives and small businesses is Senate Bill 1, signed into law in April 2017, mandating a $0.12 per gallon increase in gasoline taxes. SB1 claims roads and bridges have been long neglected and need funding to upgrade.

However, there is enough talk in the bill of “sustainable communities” and “greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets,” code words for top-down mandates from Sacramento, to have elicited a proposed voter initiative that as of this writing has achieved over 25% of signatures required for ballot status. “Repeal the Gas Tax” would require that all increases in gas taxes be presented to voters from approval, including that included in SB1.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses issued the following statement in opposition to SB 1,

NFIB/CA is opposed to this Main Street Menace, which adds 12 cents per gallon in new taxes to gasoline, which is already the most expensive in the country. It also increases the high price of diesel by a whopping 22 cents per gallon, and adds $70 in new registration fees to each vehicle. These new taxes are supposed to be used to fix California’s ailing highways, a problem that government has failed to address for decades. The politicians have diverted budget money to other pet projects for years and now want consumers and businesses to pony up more hard-earned dollars to bail them out without offering real reforms.

Ford GoBike
Is this legislators’ idea of upgrading California’s infrastructure?

Politicians’ favorite “pet projects” are the “sustainable communities” mandates conservatives do not like either.

If the gas tax repeal initiative gets on the ballot, and passes, progressives/Marxists, as well as YIMBY “colonizers,” will likely experience great distress, since the event could signal the first salvo of the The New Tax Revolt.

Enough of Taxes?

Jerry Brown and Howard Jarvis
1978 photo of Jerry Brown and Howard Jarvis observing the passage of Proposition 13

In June of 1978, California became a different state. Property owners revolted. They refused to continue to be viewed as the state’s ATM. Proposition 13 passed with nearly two-thirds voter approval. But, alas, legislators were not to be thwarted in their tax and spend routines. So, state taxes increased to fill the void, with some unbeneficial consequences such as state control of school districts and other local services.

Today, California is at a crossroads. Income, sales, and fuel taxes are among the highest in the nation, while public debt and unfunded public pension liabilities soar. Voters will need to choose to either repeal or reform Proposition 13 and open the floodgates of property taxation, or tie the hands of tax and spenders in order to force them to put their house in order.

Howard Jarvis once stood at the barricades and said enough is enough. His efforts led to the passage of Proposition 13. Nearly 40 years later, could the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association be at the forefront of another tax revolt, one that would lead to the lower taxes that could bring back the corporations and the productive workers that have fled the state? Can the HJTA lead a tax revolt that will prevent California from going the way of Detroit and now Chicago? Where do you stand? Can the HJTA count on you? Read the article: Don’t Let California Become Chicago.

Obscene Salaries and Fire Deaths

California is a tinderbox, regularly a source of conflagration aided by misguided land management and obscene budgets. Here are quotes from email discussion participants on different subjects, that when presented together paint a sad picture of the state.

* From someone who thankfully evacuated safely from the recent Northern California fires – pictures of the burned out Fire Station and comment:

20171107_171942

20171107_172037“The untold story is about the undone and untimely fire suppression, fueling the firestorm. This was the same fire as the 1964 Hanley fire, when no one died. But, today’s safety budgets put only a fraction of safety personnel on the job for the appropriation. Instead, there are obscene salaries and pensions consuming the budget. The people who perished in Coffee Park were burned by the fire that started two hours earlier and 18 miles away.”

* From someone who follows the state’s budgets, especially salaries and pensions:

“I understand the state has a legal mandate to funnel 40% of state income taxes to the educational/UC system. In reality, they are getting over 55% of taxes now. The educrats are enjoying criminally luxurious compensation because of this, while students also get to go into debt paying tuition for nothing more in return. A colleague sent this article below out, what I believe is representative of California’s government problems. Please put this link up on any blogs, mailing lists you may have.”

From the article in question:

“Officials in the University of California president’s office improperly interfered with a state audit of UC finances, instructed campuses not to ‘air dirty laundry’ in an audit survey, and misled the regents about why they did it, according to an investigative report reviewed Tuesday by The Chronicle….

…The overall audit [preceding the survey audit] found that the president’s office had accumulated $175 million in funds it hadn’t disclosed to the public, had paid its staff far higher than comparable state employees, and had relied on weak budget practices that kept the regents unclear about how money was spent.”

* Let’s connect some dots, and vote responsibly when requests for funds are on the ballot.

How is a Police State Created?

Silicon Valley SurveillanceCalifornia is ground zero for an incipient Police State, so say recent news stories in several publications, including California Political News and Views and Reason.com. View the short video on Reason.com. Understand how a Police State grows in increments.

Today, those increments are most prevalent in technology hubs like Silicon Valley. Technology has afforded us unparalleled conveniences. It also has created unmatched surveillance. DHS, NSA, CIA, FBI, TSA and other three-letter agencies claim to keep us safe through technology. Such technology relies on massive data gathering – your purchases online, your birthday wishes to your grandkids on Facebook, your wedding pictures on Instagram, your rant about lousy government schools on Reddit, and your biometrics captured by cameras pretty much anywhere.

The articles mentioned above focus on Palantir Technologies, a data crunching company that happens to believe that helping government make sense of data gathered from citizens guards civil liberties.

As an aside, Palantir is also the magic seeing stone from J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy legendarium. Fantasy is what we get from those who assure us that data gathering from ordinary citizens serves to keep us safe, or that helping government parse data into categories of the snooped protects civil liberties.

Track record is best evidence. What has technology done with cookies – simply ensure you can successfully navigate from page to page on a website? No, cookies cling to your navigation, recording every website you visit, ready to serve as witness when you suddenly become persona non grata.  How about the Berlin Wall, the physical example offered in the Reason video. The Wall did not just pop up, but developed as papers were required of everyone crossing the border, checkpoints became formalized, folks became accustomed to being tracked. Then came the Wall.

How is “Affordable Housing” Working Out For You?

Legislators pass housing bills
Sacramento Bee: Legislators announce passage of bills

In 2016, there were 550,000 homeless people in the United States, mostly concentrated in large cities such as New York and Los Angeles.  California has the largest percentage of unsheltered (not in emergency shelters) homeless in the U.S. at 66%.  California has 22% of U.S. homeless population (in shelters and unsheltered), and 12% of the total U.S. population.

The currently accepted reason for California’s large homeless population is the state’s traditional resistance to population density — the Not In My Back Yard syndrome.  Therefore, the accepted remedy is to force all counties to build “enough” taxpayer subsidized housing.  However, one could observe other contributing factors:

* Destruction of small transient hotels, where low-income or no-income individuals and families called home.  Old timers will remember the last stand, the battle for survival of the International Hotel.  The low-income residents lost and the developers won.

* Explosive growth in drug use that interferes with gainful employment. Is anyone going after the real causes of the growth?

* Advent of central planning that mandated high population densities along transit corridors and designated large swaths of land as conservation or protected areas closed to development. Some call it the Watermelon Plan, green on the outside and red on the inside.

* Acceptance of words such as “displacement,” “housing rights,” “fair housing.”  Rejection of principles such as self reliance, freedom of movement, local control.  Maybe Orwell’s Animal Farm is no longer read in school.

* Utter rejection of the word “suburban sprawl.”  New rule:  everybody stay put.

One would think that as density rises in confined spaces, housing prices would rise.  Thus, all funding options should be viewed as ongoing and forever increasing – never “enough.”

On September 15, 2017, the open-ended nature of California’s “housing crisis” became clear.  Senate Bills SB 35, SB 2, and SB 3 passed the legislature, and are expected to be signed into law by Governor Brown.  SB 35 further moves decisions on housing from cities and counties to state.  SB 2 loads residents with more fees when they need to file a property-related document.  SB 3 funnels $4,000,000,000 in bond money into subsidized housing.  Supporters in the legislature say “It’s just a start.”

Mello-Roos Taxes and the Peanuts Syndrome

LucysFootball 3Lucy yanking the football just as Peanuts kicks – the iconic image created by the great Charles Schulz will forever live in the public consciousness as a badge of trusting souls. No matter how many times Lucy causes Peanuts to tumble as he kicks into empty space, Peanuts trust Lucy to keep the ball in place the next time.

We the People seem to have acquired the Peanuts syndrome.  No matter how many times legislation morphs into other than its intended purpose, We the People remain faithful to the idea that the next law or rule will fix what went wrong.  The immutable rule of legislation is that every law grows to include more stuff.  Eventually the original piece of legislation becomes something else.  Examples abound; but here, let’s talk about the Community Facilities Act, passed by the California legislature in 1982, better known as Mello-Roos to honor the act’s co-authors.

California’s 1978 Proposition 13 chocked off the flow of property tax money.  Predictably, instead of developing fiscal restraint, the legislature established other ways to tax homeowners.  Mello-Roos was enacted as a quasi parcel tax, not subject to Proposition 13, to provide funds for public infrastructure in newly-created development areas.  Not a particularly bad idea.  However, as time passed, Mello-Roos transformed, with significant transformations occurring since 2010.

Senate Bill 555 in 2011 further blurred the distinction, never quite clear, of what was truly a public facility or service and what was private by authorizing the financing of energy-efficient improvements on privately-owned property.  Assembly Bill 2618 in 2016 included seismic safety improvements to what could be financed.

Lawsuits have not been successful in curbing the morphing of Mello-Roos.  The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a suit on behalf of the Building Industry Association against the City of San Ramon, asserting that Mello-Roos applied only to new infrastructure created specifically for residents of a Mello-Roos district.  The court ruled that existing infrastructure was also covered, thereby breaking the link between the services and the residents paying for the services.

A high-profile expansion of Mello-Roos is the construction of San Francisco’s Transbay Center, located within a highly urbanized and dense Mello-Roos district.  Among the community benefits is a magnificent transit terminal that will include inter-city transportation service, leaving little connection between residents of the district and the services provided by the development.

Yet, residents of the Transbay Center Community Facilities District will still pay the Mello-Roos tax in addition to their regular property tax.  Lucy strikes again.