October 18, 2003

Zoning Changes: Let the Process Work

I watched the October 16 Planning Board meeting and was struck by two things.

First, it impressed me how the remote video cameras managed to hone in on the backsides of the speakers from the community. I thought back to July, when I spoke briefly to the Planning Board, and swore to myself at future meetings I'd wear only long, flowing dresses or long jackets over skirts.

Second, and far more on topic, from their comments and expressions, the Board itself was clearly not listening to anyone from either side of the issue. They had made up their minds, as was obvious hours after the meeting began when the Board quickly voted to forward its plan to the Planning Council.

Where's the Beef?

Who could possibly object to affordable housing? Not I, for one. In my profession, librarianship, the average starting salary is $30,000, although our work requires an increasingly costly master's degree for even the worst-paying jobs. Even in the Bay Area, where librarians' salaries are higher than average, owning a home is still a pipe dream for most of my peers, a problem we share with our colleagues in other public services, such as police, fire, and education.

Also, quite frankly, quite a bit of development in the Point has been on substandard plots. If you have enough money and the right connections, you can pretty much build what you want. Right now, throw a stone in any direction in the Point and you'll find a construction crew finishing a luxury home squeezed onto a substandard lot. Let's be fair: exceptions to local zoning laws should not be a privilege restricted to the rich and well-connected.

But I object to the plan forwarded by the Redevelopment Agency because it establishes a dangerous precedent for circumventing the approval and permitting process that is central to ensuring local residents can participate in decisions affecting their lives, and because I also don't see enough assurances that the substandard plots will be guaranteed for low-income housing.

The proposal recommends establishing a "Pattern Book" offering five standard housing patterns builders can choose from; this proposal would "eliminate further DRB [Design Review Board] action" since these building patterns had been preapproved. The availability of this "Pattern Book" is the main rationale for elimininating the checks and balances of the planning process. But in the hilly, narrow streets of the Point, the selection of a pitched roof or a flat roof, or the placement of a house's entrance, can have significant impact on the effect of housing construction. It is the community, and often only the community, that is in a position to point out how any one particular house impacts an entire neighborhood.

I'm also concerned that someone will eventually point out that if expedited approval processes are acceptable for low-income housing, these processes should be acceptable for any housing. It's obvious to most people who have presented concerns to the Planning Board that this agency can barely contain its boredom and impatience with community concerns and input, and that it considers the democratic process a significant inconvenience. This board does not need any more tools enabling the circumvention of the reasonable, and quite minimal, checks and balances of the planning process.

From the point of view of those backing the proposal, there may be a concern that rampant NIMBYism will prevent roadblocks to reasonable construction. To this I offer a compromise: have the planning and review process, but make it clear that the city will not be stonewalled in its efforts to create affordable housing on these substandard lots.

My second major concern is that I don't see any guarantees for ensuring that this housing is actually available to first-time low-income homebuyers. My fear is that the actual selling prices of these homes will place them out of the reach of the people we are presumably targeting.

Many of these plots are worth far more than the value of a small prefab house. It takes more than a very low down payment to place a home within purchasing range of a first-time home buyer (not that programs intended to reduce the "down" aren't important, particularly in places such as the Bay Area where housing costs are stratospheric). The total cost of the house has to be within reach of the family's ability to make monthly payments. For inner Richmond, a home on an undeveloped plot may indeed be within reach of its target purchasers. But in the Point, what will ensure that these homes are affordable to a family of 4 living on less than $80,000 (the Area Median Income)?

What is the answer? First, keep the process open. Democracy may be messy and time-consuming, but it works. Second, directly address the issue of housing costs. If we are developing substandard costs in the name of lower-income families, prove that this group will benefit.

The November 6 City Council meeting will be interesting and important. Wear something slimming, and get there early. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, your voice is important!

Posted by kgs at October 18, 2003 08:32 PM | TrackBack

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Posted by: Sandro at October 18, 2003 08:51 PM
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