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What's the Matter With the Planning Process?

Current planning models places housing affordability and preservation fundamentally at odds with one another. We must be willing to re-evaluate our processes if we are to truly move forward.
Reuben Duarte | @reubenduarte | August 4, 2015, 10am PDT
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Brooke Anderson

If you haven't noticed, the debate over how to address housing affordability and preservation has been contentious and political for quite some time. Late last month, however…Shit. Got. Real.

Gabriel Metcalf of the San Francisco-based research firm SPUR wrote what is possibly the first widely public frustration-induced blame-naming in this debate. In a post for CityLab, Metcalf decries the city’s Progressives for betraying not only their city, but their own Progressive values. He argues that their stance on urban development policies has made strange bedfellows of both Progressives and wealthy property owners (NIMBYs), each seeking to curb pro-development policies, albeit for different reasons.

The San Francisco Left could never come to terms with its central contradiction of being against the creation of more "places" that would give new people the chance to live in the city. Once San Francisco was no longer open to freaks and dissidents, immigrants and refugees, because it was deemed to be "full," it could no longer fulfill its progressive values, could no longer do anything for the people who weren't already here.What's the Matter with San Francisco (originally titled: How San Francisco Progressives Betrayed the City they Love), July 23, 2015

Progressives did not take this assignment of blame too kindly, with Robert Cruickshank (who actually lives in Seattle) of Calitics blog authoring his own retort of Metcalf's post, arguing that San Francisco's Progressive community has been the one fighting for the working class and against wealthy property owners.

[Early] battles [over development and displacement] convinced progressive San Franciscans that the vulnerable populations of the city faced a very real threat to their homes from redevelopment, whether initiated by the private or public sector. Progressives generally don't care about a wealthy single family homeowner. But they care very much about people of color and retirees losing their homes.Progressives Didn't Cause the San Francisco Housing Crisis, July 23, 2015

No matter what side you're on, there is plenty of blame to in this complex world of cause and effect to go around. Those seeking to protect existing residents are not helping bring down the cost of housing for everyone, and those calling for more housing construction are forgetting that infill development necessitates displacement. We have to (or should) ask, why is it so difficult to meld housing affordability and preservation? To answer this question, we have to look at each policy's methods and goals, as well as our current urban planning process.

Two Policy Camps

Broadly speaking, the debate over housing policy falls into two large policy schools of thought: Preservation and Affordability. The Preservation Camp favors policies that preserve the existing housing stock, building form, and many other neighborhood characteristics. Their contemporary narrative tends to hover around preventing evictions of tenants in long-held residences, but also includes the topics of traffic ("this neighborhood can't support more development, because, traffic!"), parking (replace "traffic" with "parking"), and neighborhood character ("building is too tall or too dense!" "Views!"). Though the policies of the Preservation Camp are indirectly concerned with the real cost of housing—how much money you are spending toward housing—the primary goal of preservation has little to do with broad housing affordability. I will return to that statement in the next section.

On the other end is the Affordability Camp, which largely focuses on policies that address the cost of housing itself. Affordability Camp policies largely rely on narratives that deal with the housing market and price. These include topics of building supply and demand ("build more housing of all kinds! Density!"), Affordable Housing programs (big "A" and "H"), affordable housing in general (little "a" and "h"), and community redevelopment agencies (where in the hell are they?). Inclusionary housing would also fall under this camp. The Affordability Camp focuses specifically on market fundamentals, such as demand, supply, and price as mechanisms for problem solving rather than the more subjective criteria of the Preservation Camp. (Subjective as in, it's difficult the quantify neighborhood character.)

Each side has their merits, which is what has made this debate so difficult, if not impassioned. After all, no one really wants to see people evicted from their homes with no place to go, just as no one thinks housing prices should be prohibitively high. While calling out these two groups is not a groundbreaking revelation, it's often overlooked or under-addressed how disparate and adversarial these groups actually are, despite advocating for similar goals.

Two Competing Planning Models

At present, urban planning in the United States, and California in particular, is dominated by individual or small community groups who largely drive planning priorities and outcomes. This participatory model of planning lends itself to an adversarial deliberative process where individual preference competes against traditional urban planning practice, which is largely taught and practiced as rational decision making and problem solving. In essence, it places Participatory Planning against traditional Rational Planning. As Bruce Stiftel describes in an AICP exam guidebook:

A fundamental aspect of planning in the rational mode is the disjuncture between individual rationality and collective rationality. […] In certain situations, individual preferences aggregated to a societal level produce illogical or undesirable outcomes, including rubber-necking delays on highways and hockey players' reluctance to wear helmets. In such situations, if the group made a decision as a whole, it would be far different from the sum of the individual decisions of the members. In a market-oriented economy, planning's reason for being is fundamentally tied to this disjunction between individual rationality and collective rationality. The National AICP Examination Preparation Course Guidebook, 2000

Preservationists utilize the participatory model to their advantage, emphasizing policies that preserve the status quo in terms of housing, development, and the physical character of a neighborhood or city. Though from a narrative standpoint, the mission of Preservationists will sound like a benefit to the group at large, such as saving a neighborhood from gentrification to keep residents in their homes, these policies only benefit individuals. They benefit the individual who wants to stay in his or her home or the property owner seeking to inflate property value, which are fine in of and themselves, but these policies neglect the collective need for broad affordability. For Preservationists, a participatory model that emphasizes the preference of individuals rather than the group offers the best methods to do so: to stop development from happening by protest, delay, or litigation.

By contrast, the policies of the Affordability Advocates follow a rational model of planning in which the most rational (read: efficient) alternative is chosen and implemented to benefit the collective, rather than individual self-interest. In the case of housing, policies are designed to manipulate the market (often erroneously referred to as free market fundamentalism, despite the fact that zoning by definition inhibits a free market). Specifically, the focus is on policies that directly place downward pressure on overall price, such as increasing supply by advocating for more development, or focusing on tertiary mechanisms that make development of housing easier. These include easing land use regulations or calling for development finance reform.

The difference between the aggregate and the individual is small, but there nonetheless, and their clash becomes easily visible in cases such as the proposed San Francisco Mission Neighborhood housing moratorium.  

In a Preservationist argument, the moratorium is the right answer to the right problem. Individuals are being evicted from their home or simply forced to move out due to high housing costs. A moratorium ensures that no new changes affect residents already within the neighborhood (ignoring that the Ellis Act still applies). Yet, to an Affordability Advocate who relies on the more traditional Rational Planning model, a moratorium is a policy within a vacuum that ignores the context of the overall market economy. An Affordability Advocate sees numbers such as those published by the California Legislative Analyst's Office earlier this year showing that high housing costs can be directly correlated with a lack of unit construction over the years.

Between 1980 and 2010, construction of new housing units in California’s coastal metros was low by national and historical standards. During this 30–year period, the number of housing units in the typical U.S. metro grew by 54 percent, compared with 32 percent for the state’s coastal metros. Home building was even slower in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the housing stock grew by only around 20 percent. […] The slowdown in building in California’s coastal metros corresponded with a substantial rise in housing costs relative to the rest of the country. In 1970, home prices in the state’s coastal metros were about 50 percent more expensive than in the rest of the country.California's High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences, March 17, 2015

Thus, to an Affordability Advocate, a moratorium is counter-productive. The ensured scarcity brought on by a moratorium only drives up housing costs over time, exaggerating the problem they seek to repair. To them, the issue of high housing costs is a broad market-scale inefficiency that requires a broad solution that addresses collective, rather than individual needs.

Of course, with broad strokes come consequences. To advocate for strategies that focus on reducing the direct cost of housing can, and often times do, result in displacement of residents, or more specifically non-property owners such as renters. After all, in places like San Francisco where vacant land is few and far between, new development necessitates re-development or "infill" development—replacing existing low-density buildings with new higher density buildings. 

This ignorance of the individual has long been a critique of Rational Planning theory. However, in our current bottom-up/participatory style urban planning process, there is little incentive for the two groups to come together. Preservationists can achieve their goals by taking advantage of the process to delay or prevent plans and projects because in a model that emphasizes the individual, that’s the point. To Affordability Advocates, there is equally little incentive to work with Preservationists because, to them, Preservationists have consistently prevented their preferred policies from being implemented. To the extent they are, they are watered down, fueling their belief that Preservationists are to blame overall, as we saw with Metcalf's post.

Our current planning structure represents the failure to adhere to the purity of either planning theory while haphazardly attempting to join them together. Participatory Planning has not simply armed the community with knowledge and understanding of planning topics to create a more informed and engaged citizenry. It has also given rise to a type of armchair planner in opposition to learned planning professionals; professionals who rely on the Rational Planning model to focus on collective, rather than individual well-being. The results are policies that are, often times, clunky at best or counterproductive at worst. But this doesn't have to be the case.

Vertically Integrated Models

One of the very first posts I wrote for Planetizen was on the decline of respect urban planning expertise. A justifiable result after years of failed "urban renewal," community groups called for more involvement, more participation in what was then a centralized planning process (again, Rational Planning vs. Participatory Planning). While I argue that it was a justified response at the time, the urban planning profession's acquiescence to direct community involvement lead to a slow, adversarial, and an often counter-productive planning. The solution, ironically, is a return to a centralized framework in which policies are more vertically integrated without silencing community interest.

Before you grab the proverbial pitchfork, we need to understand that we are no longer in the same place as we were in the 1980s when the very reasons to leave behind central planning existed. Instead, a new paradigm is emerging. The challenges facing cities are no longer truly confined to their individual borders and income inequality is shifting how we morally assign value to planning topics, such as housing. For example, is housing a public right?

I believe many Progressives would support the statement that housing is a right because if housing is a right, it is also protected. As a right, it would embed strong tenant protections. Housing could not be taken away so easily and individuals will be protected from dramatic increases in rent or evictions. Thus, such a policy change would satisfy the top priorities of many Preservationists. But it's also not free. If housing were to be become a right, we would also need to divest our individual selves from the planning process to ensure affordability goals. After all, if housing is a right it should not be left to the whims of the rationally self-interested, and it would be Government's responsibility to enforce its protection as original Progressivism intended.

As an analogy, think of housing the same way that marriage equality. If you believe that gay men and women have a right to get married (as I believe any Progressive would), then you also believe that no individual has the right to take that away. Yet our current bottom-up planning process does exactly that. Individuals or small neighborhood groups can slow down, or even halt housing projects that would help meet needed demand, the same way an individual or interest group vote and take away my right to marry. To argue that this is preferable is a highly conservative argument, for better or worse, and as Metcalf wrote, makes strange bedfellows of Progressives and property owners.

This style of urban planning is not unusual. Germany, for example, has a vertically integrated planning process where planning decisions from lower levels of government must be consistent with the policies and framework of the higher government above, such as regional, state, and national. Conceptually, California has similar guidelines, such as local plans and regional plans, or the Regional Housing Needs Assessment required by the State government. However, unlike the California system, the goals and policies of the higher government bodies in Germany are binding. If the regional plan requires 5,000 units built, local governments have to find a way to build 5,000 units. Additionally, private developers do exist in Germany and they do the development of housing projects, but because housing is more of a public good, individuals have less of a vote in the specifics of individual projects. Thus the options for litigating a project, for example, are far more limited.

Such a significant policy change would be challenging and how such a system would ultimately take shape in California, or the United States. for that matter, is a matter of debate. Laws in the United States prevent centralized planning standards on a Federal level, but regional planning agencies, such as the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) or the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) could be strengthened from their role as voluntary Joint-Powers Agencies. Instead of providing voluntary guidance, these agencies would establish binding planning standards on issues, such as housing, where decisions could be made away from local interests that threaten the collective well-being. This isn't to say that planning would be run by technocrats. Citizen participation would be preserved and, in fact, encouraged on the local plan level, where residents would participate in the drafting of neighborhood specific plans or city-wide general plans. However, these localized plans would still be required to conform to the framework of binding regional goals.

To most observers, this should sound familiar as it is not terribly dissimilar to the framework we have now. However, it's the subtle differences between what is binding and what is not, and where citizen participation is encouraged and where planning policy takes over that differentiates the two approaches.

Less Yelling. More Doing.

The debate over housing in California is a heated one, with advocates on both sides struggling to adhere to their ideological purity. Yet what we really need is a re-evaluation of our own planning process and our roles within, both as a profession and as a community. A vertically integrated planning system with a strong central framework may seem far from what we have, but it is a subtle, yet significant change that acknowledges our current planning paradigm, while ensuring community input is not lost.

Until then, all we're really doing is shouting.

Reuben Duarte's picture

Reuben Duarte

Reuben Duarte is a Land Use Planner at Sheppard Mullin in Los Angeles, California, where he assists real estate developers, property owners, and other business entities in guiding their projects through the entitlement process, including permitting, re

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