Public Citizen ~ Larry Barnett

Larry Barnett Larry Barnett lives in Sonoma where he was elected to three terms on the City Council and served twice as Mayor. A thirty-three-year resident, he currently serves as Chair of Sonoma's Planning Commission. He has been married for 48 years, has two daughters and three grandchildren.


Trickle-down housing

Posted on December 12, 2022 by Larry Barnett

Despite its so-called progressive leanings, I guess it’s only logical that the state that gave us Reagan and his trickle-down economics would embrace trickle-down housing; land speculation has always been California’s favorite game, and nothing says boom n’ bust like real estate.

In its current incarnation, California’s housing industry – a cabal of builders, lobbyists, consultants, and politicians – has pulled off its latest hat trick by jumping on the housing “crisis” bandwagon with a “build-baby-build” approach. This approach, facilitated by a raft of new state housing laws that manage to ignore affordability and equity altogether, is just the latest in a century-long effort to privatize and exploit California’s land for the benefit of investment banks, Wall Street and the 1%.

Cynically appropriating progressive talking points – about creating housing that’s affordable and available to a wider cross-section of the population while actually doing nothing of the sort – the cabal knows exactly what it’s doing. That includes having stripped local jurisdictions of the ability to fulfill the aspirations of their own General Plans and design a future that reflects community goals.

When housing legislation is written by housing industry consultants and passed by members of the state legislature whose campaign finances are provided by those same housing industry giants, you know the fix is in, and that’s exactly what’s happened. The discretion of local jurisdictions has been stripped away by state laws that impose uniform one-size-fits-all laws, despite the widely varying character of big cities, small towns and unincorporated areas within counties. Just as trickle-down economics has been revealed as a bait-n-switch political tactic that benefited only the wealthiest among us, so too trickle-down housing will only benefit the wealthy, the housing industry, and the politicians who’ve imposed it.

The current laws accomplish these objectives by (1) “streamlining” the housing project approval process by limiting the number of public meetings to five in evaluating an application, including any appeals. Given the complexity associated with large projects and their impacts, imposing such limitations effectively hamstrings local decision-makers. If not approved after five meetings, state law now dictates automatic project approval; (2) demanding that all applications be judged using “objective” standards only, which is to say calculable and of a nature such that no interpretation is required. Considerations such as “compatibility, appropriateness, and character” are no longer acceptable criteria in evaluating a housing project; and (3) allowing land subdivision and unit development by right without imposing any affordability requirements at all, leaving sale and rental prices to market forces alone.

Trickle-down economics promised but failed to deliver economic equity; so too trickle-down housing will fail on its promise to provide affordable housing to those who need it most, namely low-wage workers and their families. And for communities like ours stressed by drought, inadequate mass transit, wildfire risks, and over-taxed budgets, trickle-down housing portends physical and economic failure.

Most unfortunate is the way some progressives have jumped on the cabal’s bandwagon and are willing to ignore both history and the lessons we’ve already learned about greedy land speculators. Embracing a “build-baby-build” approach that promises those at the bottom will be well-housed is delusional. Were it not for our local government requirement that 25% of large projects meet affordability standards, next to nothing for lower-wage earners would be built.

All this means we’re in for yet another housing boom that exploits communities and solves nothing but concentrating more wealth at the top. Next, of course, comes the bust.

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