Friday, November 30, 2018

#334 / The Good Mayor

Sam Liccardo, pictured, is the Mayor of San Jose. He appeared as a featured speaker, a little over a month ago, at an annual conference of environmental lawyers held at Yosemite. This was the 27th annual environmental law conference held at Yosemite, and while the conference this year seemed just like earlier editions, it actually took place under modified legal auspices. The conference used to be sponsored by the Environmental Law Section of the California State Bar, but now the various special interest and voluntary sections of the the State Bar have been spun off to a separate and independent nonprofit, the California Lawyers Association. The conference met at Tenaya Lodge, at Yosemite, from Thursday, October 18th to Sunday, October 21st. I have mentioned it in a couple of previous blog posts. You can click right here for the program.

Liccardo was chosen to speak, I feel certain, because he has been an environmental leader in two different ways. First, he is working to make more "infill" housing available in the center of his city. Many environmentalists think that preventing sprawl and infilling our central cities is the best way to accommodate population growth with the fewest environmental impacts. Liccardo is advancing that agenda in the City of San Jose.

Liccardo is not just promoting more residential growth and development inside the city, though. He is also pushing for permanent protection for the open spaces surrounding the city (and within it, too). Specifically, Liccardo has been a leader in trying to preserve and protect the Coyote Valley, which has long been slated for industrial development, even though it is a vital natural link between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. Protecting the Coyote Valley is critically important if we want to maintain our midcoast region as a biologically healthy environment. Liccardo's strong support for Measure T, a bond issue that appeared on the November 6, 2018, City of San Jose ballot, helped convince voters to approve this measure. Measure T will provide up to fifty million dollars for land conservation in the Coyote Valley.

Because Sam Liccardo is working hard to protect the natural world, not just building more of the human world, I'm calling him out as a "good mayor." Most city leaders are devoted to lots more "development," and little else. A mayor who is at least equally dedicated to the preservation and protection of the natural world deserves to be called a "good mayor," in my opinion.

Liccardo spoke at a plenary session on Saturday morning. At one of the panel discussions held later that day, panelists addressed "The High Environmental Cost of California’s Housing Shortage," and promoted some of the ideas advanced by Liccardo. I was not completely sold on the proposals made during that panel, however, which tended to credit the idea that simply building "more" housing will make that housing more "affordable." 

"Affordable," of course, is a word that may disguise as much as it reveals, since everything is "affordable" to some one. If the people who most need "affordable" housing are those who have average or below average incomes, then the housing that meets the needs of those persons must be "affordable" to an individual or family earning a lot less than the more economically fortunate people in the community (or those who come from outside the community) who will likely be competing with local, and lower-income, residents for the housing that is available. The suggestion that building more infill housing will automatically mean more "affordable" housing is mistaken. The only housing that will be truly "affordable" to an individual or family with an averge or below average inome will be housing that is, somehow, price-restricted. In other words, "affordable" housing must be taken out of the so-called "free market." In a market, those who have the most money get what they want. 

One important thing to realize, in the Bay Area, anyway, is that those generating a huge part of housing demand (the large corporations with their jobs) are not paying for the impacts they are causing and there isn’t any solution unless we get money to write down the cost of newly-produced housing, keeping it as permanently “affordable” through price restrictions. Why not get  some of that money from those corporations?

Anyone who observes what is really happening can see that the private market will never produce "affordable" housing. It will just produce MORE housing, and that housing will be taken by those with more money. Since we have a global market competing for our very scarce housing supplies, plus a lot of billionaires and want-to-be billionaires competing for any housing that is produced, simply increasing supply won’t do anything except gentrify and otherwise drive ordinary working people out of the homes they may barely be holding on to. 

This is true throughout the Bay Area; in Santa Cruz County, this problem is acute, exacerbated by the growth of the UCSC campus, which is aiming to add 10,000 more students to a community where ordinary income workers are, literally, becoming homeless. Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz City Council, pushed by a pro-development city staff, has bought into the argument that we need to let the developers build more, and has actually reduced inclusionary requirements that can produce at least a little bit of price-restricted, and thus "affordable" housing. Maybe the new City Council, with three new members elected on November 6, 2018, will change that pattern.

In Santa Cruz, a "good mayor" will have to go one step beyond Sam Liccardo. We need city leaders who will demand that developers set aside a significant percentage of any new development permitted for price-restricted "inclusionary" housing that will actually be "affordable" to those who live and work in Santa Cruz!

PS: Just as a brief postscript, The Mercury News has reported that Mayor Liccardo (and other members of the San Jose City Council) signed "non-disclosure" agreements with Google, as the City negotiated in secret with Google over a proposed development in the heart of the San Jose. You can't really continue to qualify for "Good Mayor" status if you are hiding the ball from the people you represent. Just a thought for the Mayor! There is a lawsuit about this in progress, and any one who cares about self-government should definitely be on the side of full disclosure by public officials, not "non-disclosure." 

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