October 30, 1994 - From the October, 1994 issue

Senator Roberti’s Exit Interview: Power Abhors a Vacuum

One of the first Sacramento legislators to fall victim to the Prop. 140 term-limit initiative, State Senator David Roberti has been a long-time leader in the field of planning, land­use and housing at the state level. The Planning Report interviewed Senator Roberti after the close of the 1994 legislative session for his thoughts on the future of planning issues and the California Legislature. 

Senator Roberti, you've been a champion of and a worthy advocate for affordable housing and related finance issues. Your absence from the State Senate will certainly create a vacuum. How will this vacuum be filled? 

There are many state legislators interested in affordable housing, perhaps not to the extent I have been, but I'm sure they will be coming forward. The prognosis for housing in California is very difficult - the cost of land is high and it appears that no matter how low interest rates go, it isn't enough of an incentive to build more affordable housing. Absent government intervention, I’m talking about not just public housing, but joint ventures between the public and private sectors, I really don't think we’ll see affordable housing. People need to get that through their heads. 

The California Housing Program also known as the Tax Credit Allocation Committee in the Treasurer's office, has been fairly successful because it's based on credits, but is generally limited in its scope to middle-income housing. Aside from that program, there haven’t been many all-encompassing initiatives. The California Housing Finance Agency (CHFA) only really works well where the land costs are fairly low. For instance, there were a couple of years when all the CHFA loans were in Fresno. It's just not a state-wide program. 

In the September issues of The Planning Report, former Executive Director of the Tax Credit Allocation Committee, Ronne Thielen, suggests the State move towards a more business-like approach to financing affordable housing? Your reaction? 

I absolutely agree. I would hope that the various agencies involved in housing would worry less about their jurisdictions and start working on how to make the system comprehensible for the developers of low-cost housing. Presently, the few developers who know how to work their way through the maze are successful. 

AB 1320 by Assemblyman Costa, the major rent control preemption bill in the last Legislative session, was barely defeated. How do you see the coalitions for measures such as these coming together in the future without Senator Roberti in Sacramento? 

Well, I’d say it's probably going to be easier to pass that kind of legislation. I always like to make the point that for me the issue has never been rent control, it's always been local control. Each city is different and should be allowed to control its own destiny. Some cities are so overdeveloped that they have no place to go, while other cities have lots of room for development. I think the local city councils, although they sometimes make mistakes by going too far, are in the best position to deal with most landlord/tenant issues, not the State Legislature. Housing markets and the nature of the people who seek housing and own housing, are so radically different from one part of the state to another. 

Often, I think the advocates who are pushing the legislation are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. In many ways, they should be the last group that wants to have the State involved in landlord/tenant relations. Usually the pressure on the State is to fix an inequity that comes up from the bottom - for people like renters and tenants - who want action on a real or perceived need to redress. Once you have the long-arm of the State in the business of cities - meaning what should the housing market be - then where are you going to stop? Do we stop on vacancy de-control issues? Once you put the Legislature in the fight, it will never end. I think the advocates pushing the Costa bill would be happier to forgo the fight with the three or four cities which don't have vacancy de-control and look at a longer vision not having the State so deeply involved in landlord/tenant matters.

Also in last month's The Planning Report, USC's new Dean of Urban and Regional Planning, Ed Blakely, suggested that the state should be more active in urban planning issues. Your reactions, please. 

I think the State should implement a mechanism whereby local governments can act on a regional basis. The reality is that the State should almost demand it, but the jurisdictions are so jealous of their authority that it's probably unlikely in the next few years. You can't really solve transportation, water, density and other environmental problems unless you do it on a regional level. For instance, there were two or three waste management bills in the closing days of the session, all trying to contravene the actions of a city. 

Increasingly, you are going to see the State called upon to make broader­than-local decisions. That is probably going to happen out of necessity, because the local jurisdiction is too small. But I think it is much better for us to implement local mechanisms whereby jurisdictions can join together. Speaker Brown had a proposal as well as Senator Presley, but neither initiative moved forward. There must be some regional coordination for input from local jurisdictions to maintain their autonomy. 

How does the issue of regionalization and planning play itself out in Sacramento?

Well, you have the NIMBY forces, whichever way they are lining up on a particular issue. Then, you have the environmental groups which sometimes are the NIMBYs and sometimes have a broader perspective. Then, of course, you have the business community and the various facility operators. It's a real interplay of divergent interests. 

There has been a lot of discussion lately at the local and state level regarding Charter Reform. Is structure the problem for those seeking better planning at the local level? 

A large part of the problem is structure. Business complains quite a bit that they are over regulated, that the system is too complex, and they may have a point. In California, we have such an overlay of horizontal and vertical jurisdictions.

However, sometimes the same people who write me letters with a request to get legislation off the back of business are the same ones who want to maintain the nuance of every jurisdictional level of government. But you can't have it both ways. 

If you were on a one-person Executive Committee examining Charter Reform, what would you propose? 

I’d have the City of Los Angeles broken down into boroughs that had the authority to make decisions at the local level. Also, I'd expand the city boundary, allowing the city government to make more generalized decisions. It would be all nice and neat, but unfortunately, it's not going to happen that way. Presently, we have single-issue management types of resolutions. 

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For instance, in order to deal with regional transportation, we've come up with regional transportation agencies across the state. In response to regional air quality issues, we've developed air quality districts. I don't think such plans are efficient - regional matters should be integrated. You don't talk about air quality and transportation separately. In the long run, all we've succeed in doing is creating another layer of government on an already complex maze. We need to regionalize and simplify. 

How would you assess our Governor's role in planning, land use and housing issues? 

At times the Governor tries to bring about consensus in land-use. In terms of affordable housing, he really hasn't done that much, but on land-use, I think they have tried despite budget constraints. 

Looking at the next few years, what should be our expectations when we look to the State for leadership on regional issues? 

Hopefully, if they put some sort of muscle behind it, they can get some kind of authorization to regionalize. If things stay the way they are now, it's not going to happen. The change is really going to have to come from the locals who will have become so intertwined in their own immobility, that they themselves will demand change. Ironically, they are the very people who are right now probably trying to stop any kind of change. Very soon it's going to be obvious that we won't be able to provide service for our citizens in Southern California without some kind of restructuring of government. 

Los Angeles vs. the rest of California has always been the political match up in Sacramento. How is your absence from state leadership going to affect this battle for resources and influence within the legislature? 

It probably doesn't help. I've been acutely sensitive to the fact that there is really a hostile attitude to Los Angeles in the rest of the State. It permeates State Government and its bureaucracies. One problem, and I've told them this face-to-face, is the Los Angeles Times. They consider themselves a national paper, so they see it as kind of tacky or déclassé to be in the business of fighting for Los Angeles. But, you can be sure that every other newspaper is doing just the opposite - trying to rip-off Los Angeles for their own areas. One of the problems is that our state legislators at times don't pay attention to what is happening in Los Angeles. Legislators who move to Sacramento, in fact, do develop Sacramento-itis. They have that 5 or 6 percent lower level of sensitivity to accumulated problems. 

It certainly wouldn't hurt to have the Legislature come down to Los Angeles for one week, even if they didn't vote on a single issue, just to see how it is to move about. You don't have that type of appreciation in Sacramento. 

For example, there was a bill at the end of the session this year to save Del Norte County from having prisoners at Pelican Bay Prison released in their county. The proposal was to give them a ticket to the County where the crime was committed. In other words, give them a ticket to Los Angeles. Why should we get them? That doesn't mean they were born here, it just means there are easier pickings in Los Angeles. You do need to save Del Norte County, but there needs to be a more equitable way than all the problems coming to Los Angeles. 

How would you describe media coverage of Los Angeles throughout the State? Of what consequence is such coverage? 

The perception across the state is that it’s it's a horrible place, you can't move around, you wouldn't want to live there. You hear baseball scores on Sacramento television and you'd think the Dodgers were from Russia. If you go to San Francisco and say you are from Los Angeles, they'll usually offer their condolences. They are often obsessed with Los Angeles. 

Is public cynicism the product of such attitudes?

In my humble estimation, I do think it's the media. This country has gone through some of the greatest crises - a civil war that almost ripped our country apart, the Great Depression, the World Wars - but the nature of politicians wasn't any different, and in some ways things were much worse than they are now. 

However, they had something then that we are losing now, and that was a press and an educational system that dealt in some depth as to what American Government is all about; what you could expect, what the reasons were for competing forces - the very nature of democracy. You can't explain all that in a thirty second clip. All you explain is gridlock.

After a distinguished career in the legislature, haw would you like to be remembered?

Well, I guess as a good person who represented people who sometimes had no one else to speak up for them. That's it in a nutshell.

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