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  • Writer's pictureJack Metz

Catalysts On A Crusade

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Early tomorrow morning, residents of numerous California counties will congregate in Sacramento to demand legislators rethink everything about state land use policy. Thanks to the impressive orchestration efforts of Catalysts, a grassroots network based in Mill Valley, dozens of partner organization members will break out into teams and meet with various Capitol decision makers.

If all goes according to plan, the Catalysts' Lobby Day campaign will convince a critical mass of elected officials to:

  • Scrap the unquestionably bogus statistical methodology used to calculate housing needs

  • End knee-jerk deference to aspirational pipe dreams steeped in complexity and urgency

  • Oppose two bills (SB423 & AB1485) that will only make it harder to unwind these mistakes

  • Pledge to vote no on any future statutes that use state power to bind the hands of localities

  • Restore at least some of the control cities and counties have lost in the last five years

  • Protect current/future homeowners and renters from dangerous building code shortcuts

  • Implement real solutions that actually solve the wretched affordability problem

If the politicians they sit down with only pay them lip service, well, then the future looks bleak for virtually every municipality within an hour's drive of the Golden State's four biggest urban regions (Bay Area, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego) as well as even the smallest incorporated areas near the borders with Arizona, Mexico, and parts of Nevada.

For more information or to get involved, consult this flyer.

To hear my summary of what these noble citizens are up against, continue reading below the fold.

Before we get into things, I want to thank Susan Kirsch, founder of Catalysts, for being the first person to ask our site to amplify a story. Harbinger issues like this one, especially ones that are translatable to folks reading thousands of miles away, are exactly why we started The DC Equalizer in the first place. We exist to help reasonable individuals stamp out tyranny in their communities.

[Full disclosure: while Susan and I only met online last week, her group's battle holds added weight for me as someone whose parents still live in Marin County.]

With that out of the way, let's get down to business.

Shaky Foundation

Governments everywhere have lost their collective minds when it comes to increasing the housing supply. I wrote a fairly lengthy piece on it recently. Yet, nowhere is this insanity more prominently on display than in California.

Take a look at the chart below. It really says it all. For decades, the average housing needs across the state hovered around 100,000 new units per year. That all changed drastically when the 'experts' in charge of putting together the current Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) more than doubled that annual goal.

[Bear in mind that the federal government estimates the state's population has dropped by almost 500,000 since 2020. Do you think anyone linked to the RHNA is clamoring to revise it?]

How did such an order-of-magnitude transformation happen? According to the Embarcadero Institute, it all stems from the passage of a sloppily written 2018 CA Senate bill (SB828) that corrupted RHNA's math. Specifically, the bill's errors led to a broken formula that now counts every "overcrowded" and "cost-burdened" situation twice while also more than tripling the assumed baseline owner-occupied vacancy rates.

Considering the track record of the legislator who sponsored it, it's very possible that this was not an accident. We can debate Wiener's intentions until the cows come home; but there's no mystery behind the State Auditor's appraisal of the latest RHNA's accuracy: he views it as "largely flawed." In a separate evaluation, independent researcher Gaetan Lion refers to the statistical manipulation of these underpinnings as "alchemy." Former Sausalito City Council member Leon Huntting (a past President of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers) told me in no uncertain terms that he considers it the worst housing policy he's experienced in his fifty years in this arena.

In short, the consensus is that this version of the RHNA, often referred to as the Sixth Housing Element, is absolute garbage that requires immediate modification.

Seismic Retrofit

Distorted zoning models might not sound like a big deal on their own. Honestly, they probably wouldn't be one if local interests had the ability to still dismiss them as ill-informed guidelines. But therein lies the problem. The RHNA is no longer just a planning tool; it's been weaponized to such a degree that it now all but requires cities and counties to adhere to its unrealistic expectations.

Distinguished economic analyst and science editor Michael Barnes (who also served two terms on the Albany City Council) delivered an excellent presentation detailing a litany of peremptory consequences associated with falling short of the prescribed housing goals. To name a few:

  • Ministerial Streamlining - a deliberately sneaky way of saying that cities must, with rare exception, approve (by-right) projects and/or upzoning without public comment or oversight

  • Builder's Remedy - a mechanism that allows developers to determine when permits are pulled (as opposed to city reps); thereby offering these firms a huge opportunity to game the system by running out the clock in order to avoid local discretionary hurdles -- goes hand in hand with the aforementioned imposed streamlining

  • Density Bonuses - under the guise of rewarding the construction of affordable housing, government offers a waiver that raises the limit on the total number of market-price units developers can erect -- this incentive ends up reducing the overall percentage of affordable homes in any project that activates said bonus, creating a mathematical dog-chasing-its-tail scenario where affordable percentage targets can never quite be reached -- density kickers also usually lead to further amenity reductions

Barnes also makes a great overarching point about how illogical it is to penalize governing bodies for missing housing thresholds in a society where private entities are the ones doing the building. Taken as a whole, his rationale seems especially noteworthy given the way Wiener is angling to ramp up enforcement, as evidenced by the language contained within 2023's AB1485.

Settlement Day

In general, I doubt very many people would place themselves on the side of real estate magnates, bureaucrats, and a State Senator with an obvious agenda, regardless of the issue. I have to believe that if you told every adult Californian what kind of chaos the RHNA will cause, only the build-no-matter-what profiteers would be left defending it.

The fact that it has gotten to this stage is already a travesty. I might sound like a broken record, but Americans shouldn't have to spend every waking hour fending off the growth-at-all-costs crew. Residents like Zelda Bronstein shouldn't feel compelled to write articles alerting neighbors to the anti-democratic amendments that aim to subject them to the whims of unelected civil servants. But, sadly, that's where we're at.

It's going to take more than a village to turn the top-down tide. It'll probably take all of them. Or, as Leon Huntting put it, "What I see is a tsunami... as soon as the populace actually learns how detrimental the (Sixth) Housing Element is to them personally... giant waves of angry voters will come crashing down on the Capitol."

Luckily, Catalysts like Susan Kirsch know how to reach them!

Note: the post above may contain commentary reflecting the author's opinion.


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