May 14, 2018 - From the May, 2018 issue

Mayor Brand to CA Legislature: Instead of Simplistic Supply Side SB827, Give Cities Resources

In reaction to legislation threatening to usurp local control of housing and land-use policy by the state, mayors and local officials are mobilizing to enshrine their decision-making jurisdiction in the California Constitution. Redondo Beach—one of the top 25 densest cities in Southern California—is one of those cities.  With a housing density greater that of San Francisco, it has supported investment in transportation infrastructure and new job creation, but has been critical of new development mandates. Mayor Bill Brand, in this TPR interview, opines on the current housing policy dialogue in California in the wake of SB 827's demise. Brand, who previously was elected to the Redondo Beach City Council on a slow-growth platform, is clear in his sentiment that state legislation relying on upzoning R1 neighborhoods is a patently "absurd” approach to generating more affordable housing supply in our lifetimes.


Bill Brand

"We want to pass a statewide citizen-led initiative that amends the state constitution to protect local zoning and land-use regulations." - Mayor Bill Brand

With Redondo Beach being one of LA County’s most densely populated cities, what is your view on the state Legislature’s current approach to encouraging through legislation increased local housing production?

Bill Brand: The state’s current effort is a giant overreach that goes far beyond where they should be going.

Many people don’t realize that Redondo Beach is one of LA’s most densely populated areas. We have 11,000 residents per square mile. That’s far denser than Los Angeles, which has only 8,000, or Long Beach, which has only 9,000.

The housing issue is very complex, and the problems are different in different areas. In Redondo Beach, we have a jobs/housing imbalance. Over 90 percent of people in Redondo Beach leave the city to go to work. We have the housing; what we really need are more job centers.

Some of the bills coming out of Sacramento would exacerbate the problems we have here. And that’s a common theme I’m hearing from other local elected officials: that many recent state bills are out of touch with the complex land-use decisions we have to make. We feel like Sacramento dial turning is exacerbating complex local problems that require local solutions, and we are strongly opposed to it.

Legislators interviewed by TPR have essentially argued that: California has an unmet need for housing; cities have not seriously taken on that responsibility because their City Councils have been blocked by the resistance of single-family homeowners to any more development; and there is, therefore, a need for the state to be less permissive, and to step in and take over jurisdiction for housing supply. How do you respond to this framing of the housing issue?

I think that theory represents outliers, not what’s going on generally. Sure, there are some communities that have been blocking any housing. But I think most communities are grappling with an affordable housing shortage, not necessarily a housing shortage per se.  The idea coming out of Sacramento that the housing crisis is a simple supply-and-demand equation—and that we just need to increase supply—is patently absurd.

Look at San Francisco. It’s the most densely populated city in the state and one of the most densely populated cities in the country, at 19,000 residents per square mile. Guess what? It’s also one of the most expensive cities in the country. Clearly, they don’t have an overall supply problem as much as they have a housing affordability problem, and a housing/jobs imbalance opposite what some surrounding cities of large urban centers face. 

If Sacramento wants to take a broad brush to the whole state, they ought to consider a simpler law that mandates 10 percent affordable housing for any project over, say, 10 units. Everybody could get their heads around that, and it would set the tone for helping to alleviate our affordable housing and homelessness crises moving forward. Right now, the laws coming out of Sacramento are accomplishing exactly the opposite in most communities.  SB 35 is a good example, but no one in Sacramento really listened to us at the local level when crafting these bills.  They just labeled us as the problem. 

Much of the focus of the Legislative bills coming forth this year has been on leveraging urban transportation investments—both in rail and busy bus corridors—by up-zoning the latter and thus incentivizing cities and developers to increase housing density. How have Redondo Beach’s city leaders responded to such legislation?

When Redondo Beach hears “transit-oriented development,” we think: We’ve got the development; what we need is the transit. Despite the fact that we have the density to justify transit, the South Bay has been left out of LA County’s whole transit loop, which is why so many people have to leave Redondo to get to work.

Some communities in the Western areas of LA, where Silicon Beach is forming, have successfully reversed much of the jobs/housing imbalance that they previously had. We’re looking to do that, too. We are working on extending the Green Line, and that’s going to help a lot. But right now, we’re loading up the transportation corridor in the morning in one direction and loading it up again in the evening in the other direction. Our planning commissioners and General Plan Advisory Committee are looking at how to better balance that and reverse the transportation flow outward by siting job centers in Redondo Beach.

What—in the way of housing policy—do cities like Redondo Beach want from the Legislature and the state?

We certainly want resources in terms of financial assistance. We’re looking for more help increasing options for transportation. We want to increase affordable, regional transportation options, like the Downtown Express from Redondo Beach to Downtown, and make them more rider-friendly. Ridership on our transit system all over has gone down 20 percent in the last five or so years.

We’d like to see enhancement in both infrastructure and programs to increase ridership versus adding housing. The housing bills in Sacramento could have a bigger impact on our community than anything they’ve done since I’ve been in government, other than tax laws. We’d like them to stay out of our land-use planning. And it’s not just Redondo Beach: Every city in the South Bay has passed resolutions opposing new legislation like SB 827.

This month, TPR also includes an interview with State Sen. Ben Allen about his SB 961, which would create Neighborhood Infill Finance and Transit Improvement Districts around rail stations and along high-frequency bus corridors. These districts would collect the enhanced tax increment from increased property and sales taxes within them, and use those funds to invest in district improvements. It’s also focused on encouraging housing in those districts. Are you and other nearby cities following that or similar legislation?

Anything that encourages affordable housing and better transportation, and that returns some of the money that would go to the state back to the local community so that we can foster those outcomes, is a good thing. That’s what I would love to see from the state. Since the redevelopment agencies were extinguished some years ago, it’s really hampered our ability to capture the revenue that would go to the state and better redevelop areas that need redeveloping, like our Galleria.

I gather you’ve been talking to other cities around the state about their reactions to the bills coming out of Sacramento. Talk about the nature of that dialogue. How are other cities viewing what’s happening? 

We are all thinking along the same lines. I recently met with city representatives from the Bay Area—Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, and San Jose—and we all felt like Sacramento is trying to take away our ability to properly govern our local communities by taking over the housing regulation at the state level, and that they’re really out of touch.

Each area has different challenges. The Bay Area is very different from here. They have a jobs/housing imbalance, too—but it’s because they have all the jobs. Companies like Google and Amazon are coming in and creating big job centers, but they’re not building the housing. We have the opposite problem down here. But we have a commonality in that we feel we’re best suited to solve these complex issues, not a broad brush from Sacramento.

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In fact, we at the city level want to pass a statewide citizen-led initiative that amends the state constitution to protect local zoning and land-use regulations. That’s being drafted right now. There’s broad support in local communities around the state for taking a break from having Sacramento govern our local control issues, particularly land-use and zoning. 

Let’s pivot to Redondo Beach’s current planning issues, including the CenterCal waterfront project. What challenge does this currently proposed project present to the City?

I’ve never supported the CenterCal project; it’s much too big for our waterfront. I participated in the public meetings early on, and I was encouraged to see that everybody went into it with an open mind. But ultimately, what came out of that process was a project that was not consistent with what our residents want.

We all want to see the waterfront revitalized—but "revitalized, not supersized,” as the slogan goes. I’d consider going from 220,000 square feet of development to 525,000 square feet of development to be “supersizing.”

As Coastal Commission staff laid out in their recent reports, the project also violates the Coastal Act and various elements of our local coastal program. In all likelihood, we’ll be hitting the reset button in August, when the commission will decide on the project’s future—if it has one.

If it doesn’t have one, we plan to coordinate the redevelopment of the site with that of the AES power plant when it is permanently retired at the end of 2020.

Likewise, what are the City’s plans for transformation the former AES’ power plant’s 50-acre waterfront site?

This is a great opportunity. For many years, AES was proposing a new power plant here. We were successful in battling that, in part because much of the grid is transforming, and every state agency I know was trying to find a way to retire as many of these coastal power plants as possible. We were fortunate in that the one in Redondo Beach became one of the ones that would retire permanently, like Morro Bay, Chula Vista and a few others.

Now that we know there isn’t going to be a power plant there, the question becomes: What is going to go there? It’s currently zoned for industrial uses or a park. AES has been marketing it for non-industrial uses, but whatever zoning change it may get will require a vote of the community—and every time the community has had the opportunity to vote, they’ve voted for a park there. That’s what the community wants to see, and it’s what’s needed in the South Bay.

We are the only densely populated coastal area in all of California that does not have some sort of beautiful waterfront park. That would be a huge enhancement to the city, the county, and, really, to the state. Many people don’t realize that the AES site is actually a state landmark; it was a 40-acre wetland for thousands of years, and the Coastal Commission has determined that at least six acres are still active wetlands.

I think it’s in everybody’s best interest for a portion of the wetlands to be restored as a large public amenity for the community to enjoy, and to also have a public-private development there that could help with the financing, return significant revenue to the city, and maintain the facility on an ongoing basis.

The city can’t do this on its own, so we’re partnering with the county on an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District. With Prop 68 coming up, there may also be funding that the site would qualify for assistance on building that public amenity. It’s going to require close collaboration, cooperation, and co-creation.  It’s not going to happen next summer, but we’re on the right path. Between this site and the CenterCal site, I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a good foundation for revitalizing a critical area to the county and the state. 

Are there any fiscal incentives, since the passage of Prop 13, for the City to approve more housing developments? Many analysts have commented that one of the unintended consequences of Prop 13 was that property taxes, while collected by localities, are allocated by the state legislature. As cities receive more revenue from Sales Tax collections on retail outlets to pay for essential city services than they do from housing, the result is usually more demand for public services. Does Redondo Beach face that dilemma when considering development opportunities? 

It’s not the very first topic of discussion, but it always comes up when we’re making big land-use decisions. Residential does not pay. We only get about 17 cents on every property-tax dollar; the rest goes to Sacramento. That doesn’t cover our expenses.

If you were to rank land uses from a fiscal perspective—which use provides most revenue to the city—hotels would be at the top. They pay transit occupancy taxes and property taxes, plus there will be sales taxes, and there may even be leased property. They are the best return. Next is commercial, and then residential.

That’s another issue we have with the bills coming down from Sacramento. If residential density paid, we’d be a very rich community. As it turns out, we’re not, because it’s really commercial that pays, and that’s what we lack.

One of the consequences of Prop 13 is that cities look to attract successful commercial and hotel. Still, I remember when it was passed—and why. I think a lot of people have forgotten that older people were being forced out of their homes. The state was coming in with big reassessments, and people’s property tax bills were going up. It was creating a tremendous amount of uncertainty and hardship around the state.

Prop 13 was created to serve a purpose. While it created other challenges, I do think Prop 13 fixed a bigger problem, and that if we tried to repeal it, we would probably end up right back where we were.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.