May 3, 2022 - From the May, 2022 issue

CNU's Cole Calls for 'QUIMBY' Alternative

With Pasadena and other cities continuing to battle with the state over new housing policy coming out of SB 9 & 10, TPR spoke with the Pasadena's Former Mayor, former City Manager of Santa Monica, former Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, and current Executive Director of the Congress for the New Urbanism , Rick Cole, on his views of what this legislation means for the Golden State. In his opinion, these new laws will not make as much of a difference as some fear. As well, Cole promotes the importance of building high-quality housing stock with the introduction of an alternative player in the YIMBY/NIMBY debate: QUIMBYs (Quality in My Back Yard). 


"In the end, SB 9 is a fairly modest change that won’t produce as much housing as supporters hoped, nor anywhere near the negative impact its opponents fear." -Rick Cole

In the increasingly toxic debates over the last three years between self-described YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard) activists and those who they label NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) you’ve generally sided with the YIMBYs. Yet for decades you’ve served in local government- in leadership positions. Is there not a downside both for neighborhoods and communities in Sacramento’s usurpation of local control of land use?

Rick Cole: Yes, I’m skeptical of “one size fits all” solutions. Given California’s vast diversity, I share the concern about regulating local land use across 482 cities in 58 counties. Yet I think local control comes with local responsibility. For too long cities have been fiscally incentivized to selfishly pursue their own interests. While our economy, air, water supply and transportation systems are not confined by local boundaries, cities have evaded regional responsibilities to match jobs and housing. The post-Proposition 13 strategies cities pursued to replace property tax loss made them dependent on sales, business license and transient occupancy tax revenues. So they eagerly chased retail, office and hotel development and generally shunned housing.

That imbalance produced today’s crisis – the rent is too damn high, ownership is increasingly out of reach for young families and we’re on an endless treadmill of expanding freeways at colossal expense to accommodate the jobs/housing imbalance.  You can’t continue as the fifth largest economy in the world if your workforce can’t afford to live here. Nor can you sustain a social order when tens of thousands of people are living in hellish conditions on the streets.  It’s simply unacceptable to squander California’s enviable standard of living and quality of life because more and more people can’t afford to stay – and more and more are so fed up they want to leave.

Efforts to reform the way local government is financed have gone nowhere since emergency legislation was passed in the immediate wake of Proposition 13 in 1978. Instead, bills to mandate housing rather than fund much needed local infrastructure keep getting passed in Sacramento to the frustration of most local elected leaders.

I understand the frustration, but local leaders should accept that their historic mistrust of the State is also part of the problem. When Jerry Brown had to dig the State out of the fiscal crisis it faced in the teeth of the Great Recession, he sought shared sacrifice that would have trimmed redevelopment funding. Unfortunately many cities, instead of focusing on affordable housing and community development to benefit underserved communities, abused redevelopment to subsidize Walmarts, golf courses and outlet malls.  Yet rather than seek compromise with the Governor, the League of California Cities sued all the way up to the state Supreme Court. They won the ultimate Pyrrhic victory. The courts affirmed the cities’ argument that the State couldn’t unilaterally reduce redevelopment revenue – but also held the State had every right to end redevelopment altogether. Which the State did. Localities need financing tools to spur affordable housing -- which means finding ways to get past that history to seek win-wins, including fiscal reform that makes it easier for cities to fund both affordable housing and the infrastructure of parks, complete streets and public works needed to support the additional population.

Your answer above asserts “many cities” abused redevelopment; and, you earlier admitted that you are skeptical of “one-size-fits all” solutions. Why then have you supported one size fits all legislation such as SB9/10?

It goes both ways – I’m also skeptical about overcoming the implacable opposition to local zoning reform by the vast majority of cities that cling to single-family zoning. There is a reason why rear cottages, apartments over garages, duplexes, triplexes, bungalow courts and garden apartments are called “the missing middle.” They used to be common in residential neighborhoods before being forbidden by so-called “single-family zoning.” Despite the growing recognition that single-family zoning was rooted in historic racism, it’s almost impossible for local electeds to challenge it. SB 9, while far from perfect, forced cities to restore some options for “missing middle housing” based on the same principle that earlier State legislation legalized Accessory Dwelling Units statewide. So I would rather have seen the League work toward a compromise that might have made SB 9 less prescriptive. As it is, SB 9 allows local communities to enact objective design standards and exempts historic districts. In the end, it’s a fairly modest change that won’t produce as much housing as supporters hoped nor anywhere near the negative impact its opponents fear.  

Where do you see win-win policy opportunities to meet the needs of Californian’s now effectively priced out housing?

First let me specify that there is no “win” for those communities that seek to maintain their exclusive status as affluent enclaves – municipalities that accept zero responsibility for providing housing opportunities for the “essential workers” those communities depend on. I’m talking about teachers, fire fighters, grocery clerks, utility workers, not to mention the army of nannies, gardeners, house cleaners and construction and maintenance workers who take the bus, carpool or arrive in trucks and vans every day from places that lack the safe neighborhoods, lush parks and quality schools they enable with their labor. But I do see a tremendous opportunity for state and local collaboration and even partnership to build the range of housing we need in proximity to our state’s job opportunities.

Are such partnerships still viable given the hostility  that’s arisen – echoed in your responses here - between State and local authorities?  Is there any appetite for state housing legislation that included provision for “value capture” of landowner/developer profits from by right “upzoning?”

I suppose we should never underestimate the power of political short-sightedness to impair our opportunity for long-term shared success. Otherwise we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in. Yet a collaborative effort to finance social housing at a scale that would make a dent in our shortage of affordable housing is within our capacity. It would be far superior to the insane obstacle course we make non-profit affordable housing builders navigate – and then complain when the cost per unit exceeds three-quarters of a million dollars each. The Paris everyone on the globe looks to with envy was built with a public-private partnership that produced housing at scale in tandem with public investment in grand boulevards. Assemblymember Buffy Wicks has a bill, AB 2011, to enable a similar approach to the hundreds of miles of wide arterials that criss-cross every city, town and suburb in California. Matched with a public agency that could finance the affordable housing element of that vision, we could create good jobs, safer streets and capitalize on public investments in light rail and bus rapid transit.

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Given the skepticism about government’s ability to do big things efficiently, what prospects are there for big thinking that challenges the interests of institutional wealth?

I refuse to believe that the Golden State no longer has the capacity to surmount our challenges. We’ve been written off before – in the wake of the Rodney King upheaval, critics declared California a “failed state.” The same happened when the Great Recession hit. The State and many cities teetered on the edge of bankruptcy – Vallejo and San Bernardino actually succumbed. Nevertheless, California has deep reserves of economic and social resilience – we just need to find the civic and political will again to face up to our problems. There are no panaceas, but there are workable opportunities. When I was growing up, my parent’s generation invested in a world-class system of higher education. They moved mountain and earth to connect our cities with freeways and aqueducts. They built millions of homes and the infrastructure to support them. There were steep costs to those endeavors – not only massive public investment but wrenching social and environmental sacrifices that were borne disproportionately by our society’s most vulnerable. But today’s Californians have the option, I would argue the necessity, to match the determination of earlier generations with an inclusive commitment to equity and sustainability.

What’s needed to enable building affordable housing at scale?

At the risk of oversimplifying, I think there are three critical elements.

First, regional public entities that could operate at scale, starting with underutilized and vacant public property, to mass produce a range of housing types compatible with their contexts. So missing middle housing – duplexes, bungalow courts and garden apartments on closed school sites and other locations in lower-density neighborhoods. Four to seven story apartment and condo blocks along wide arterials that would be transformed into complete streets to accommodate walking, biking and transit as well as cars. Higher-density development in urban cores and around transit nodes. For years, experts have wondered why a city like Vienna or Singapore could develop social housing shared by low and middle income city dwellers and we can’t. Why not? Sen. Kamlager’s SB 679 contains the framework for the kind of entity that’s needed to accomplish that.

Second, a state mandate for “objective standards” and processes for regulating development. There can still be room for local fine tuning – but not the option of “just saying no” or dragging out project entitlements through years of toxic battling over the scope, design and location of what gets built.  We should set objective high quality design standards, but then make it far easier for builders to build if they comply. SB9, while wildly unpopular with most local electeds, carries such a provision. Cities should embrace it.

Finally, it’s crucial to inject the “QIMBY” element into the stale YIMBY vs NIMBY stand-off. By QIMBY I’m not talking about the 1965 park fee legislation named after the late Assemblymember John Quimby. I’m talking about “Quality in My Back Yard.” As a New Urbanist, I know design matters. We need more housing. But we should not only ensure it’s livable for the people who will live there, we must also pay attention to ensuring new housing contributes to safe and walkable neighborhoods through smart design. Not everyone would choose to live in Paris, but no one complains that it’s unlivable. We should replace racially-tinged single use zoning codes with form-based codes that objectively regulate new development to be livable and compatible -- even at higher densities. Actually especially at higher densities.

On that last point: as Mayor of Pasadena, I helped shepherd one of Southern California’s very first transit-oriented developments, the Holly Street Village Apartments. Mixed-use; 313 apartments; 20% earmarked as affordable; adaptive reuse of an historic landmark; and immediately adjacent to a park and light rail station on the Gold Line. I’m proud of that development, including both the area master plan by Stefanos Polyzoides and the project design by Jan Van Tilberg. But in those early days, we underestimated the importance of the pedestrian relationship to the street, building a vast subterranean parking garage and enclosing the inner courtyard. It’s not enough to put density near transit – you have to design to enable walking, biking and transit as the preferred default options.

You suggest a “grand bargain.” What prospects do you see for leadership (public/private/labor/civic) needed to bring it to pass?

I was one of those who lived through Jerry Brown’s often tumultuous first stint as Governor. I was dubious about him having the discipline and focus to surmount the multiple crises he inherited the second time around. Yet he deserves credit and gratitude for putting the State back on track and leaving it in significantly better shape than he found it. Today we have compounding crises of housing affordability, homelessness and erosion of our economic competitiveness. Not insurmountable, but we can’t ignore them either.  I think there’s an opportunity for both State and local leaders to sit down and find common ground on the real issues of producing more housing while making sure that State policy supports and doesn’t undermine strong local communities.

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