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“Local Control” of Housing Policy is Inherently Reactionary


This is an excellent piece about the housing crisis, and a crucial takeaway is that “local control” has roughly the same function and effect in housing policy as it did under Jim Crow (and still does in keeping schools segregated):

What this suggests is that the real solution will have to be sociological. People have to realize that homelessness is connected to housing prices. They have to accept it’s hypocritical to say that you don’t like density but are worried about climate change. They have to internalize the lesson that if they want their children to have a stable financial future, they have to make space. They are going to have to change.

Steve Falk changed. When he first heard about Dennis O’Brien’s project, he thought it was stupid: a case study, in ugly stucco, of runaway development. He believed the Bay Area needed more housing, but he was also a dyed-in-the-wool localist who thought cities should decide where and how it was built. Then that belief started to unravel. Today, after eight years of struggle, his career with the city is over, the Deer Hill Road site is still just a mass of dirt and shrubs, and Mr. Falk has become an outspoken proponent of taking local control away from cities like the one he used to lead.

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Mr. Falk’s transformation began in 2015, with a phone call from a woman he’d never heard of, with a complaint he had never once fielded in his 25 years working for the city. Her name was Sonja Trauss, and she thought the Deer Hill Road project was too small.

Ms. Trauss was a lifelong rabble-rouser and former high school teacher, who’d recently become a full-time housing activist. She made her public debut a couple of years earlier, at a planning meeting at San Francisco City Hall. When it was time for public comment, she stepped to the microphone and addressed the commissioners, speaking in favor of a housing development. She returned to praise another one. And another. And another.

In backing every single project in the development pipeline that day, Ms. Trauss laid out a platform that would make her a celebrity of Bay Area politics: how expensive new housing today would become affordable old housing tomorrow, how San Francisco was blowing its chance to harness the energy of an economic boom to mass-build homes that generations of residents could enjoy. She didn’t care if a proposal was for apartments or condos or how much money its future residents had. It was a universal platform of more. Ms. Trauss was for anything and everything, so long as it was built tall and fast and had people living in it.

The data was on her side. From 2010 to 2015, Bay Area cities consistently added many more jobs than housing units — in some cases at a ratio of eight to one, way beyond the rate of one and a half jobs per housing unit that planners consider healthy. In essence, the policy was to enthusiastically encourage people to move there for work while equally enthusiastically discouraging developers from building places for those people to live, stoking a generational battle in which the rising cost of housing enriched people who already owned it and deterred anyone who wasn’t well paid or well off from showing up.

The key issue here is that “local control” means that only one (relatively privileged, and in the case of the Bay Area, extremely privileged) interest is reflected, with the result of leaving many more people worse off:

When it was Ms. Trauss’s turn to speak, she argued that the entire notion of public comment on new construction was inherently flawed, because the beneficiaries — the people who would eventually live in the buildings — couldn’t argue their side.

“An ordinary political process like a sales tax — both sides have an opportunity to show up and say whether they’re for or against it,” she said. “But when you have a new project like this, where are the 700-plus people who would initially move in, much less the tens of thousands of people who would live in it over the lifetime of the project? Those people don’t know who they are yet. Some of them are not even born.”

Not only is there no good reason for “local control” of housing policy, it’s actively bad. It’s a racket for incumbent property owners that is very bad for public policy overall.

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