Sports Talk and the Future Legacy of California Cities

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Oakland has much to crow about today—–more specifically the Golden State Warriors who have played all of their championship seasons there and may be on the verge of another.

This scrappy blue-collar city about which the writer, Gertrude Stein, once groused “there is no there, there,” is better known for teams that have made a habit of deserting it such as the Oakland Raiders who after an earlier gig in Los Angeles are now apparently headed for game-happy Las Vegas— but not the football kind.

The Warriors—aptly named—are most certainly a big part of what’s there although they too will be leaving next year for the glitzier environs of a sparkling new stadium being built for them in San Francisco’s exploding Mission Bay area.

But the fame which Oakland has brought to its city through its sports acquisitions belies a darker tale of the plight many of the state’s great urban centers share and cannot escape.

In one word California became TOO BIG and while it can find space for expensive stadiums—Los Angeles has Staples Center where the fast-rising Clippers and the currently woeful Lakers shoot their hoops, and San Carlos’ Levi Stadium is the new home to the hapless S.F. Forty Niner footballers—there is a dearth of property for housing people.

The state’s pride in its soaring sports edifices with their legions of fans does not carry over to the thousands who cannot afford the price of one ticket and are without decent shelter or any at all. They clutter the streets of our great metropolitan centers within blocks of the giant sports venues for which there always seems to be enough money to build new ones.

The loyalties elected officials invariably display to maintaining these profitable franchises has not translated into similar concern for tax dollars that could be used to relieve traffic and people congestion.

Neither will happen in the immediate future and the two are very much intertwined.

Even with the dawning of electric vehicles, we are still putting thousands more cars on the streets but not taking the homeless off them.

We are gradually giving way to multi-modal means of transportation even in the face of disgruntled motorists not inclined to share roadways with bicyclists,  corporation buses and the exploding fleets of Uber and Lyft drivers, but resisting the need for more workplace housing near public transit that could reduce some of the urban traffic snarls.

If one priority is to clean up the air—a worthy goal—the need to resurrect our neighborhoods with sufficient affordable, moderate and market rate housing has not been another.  

Perhaps with a new team in Sacramento there may be some changes.

With a burgeoning population nearing 40 million and still growing, the state might as well put up a sign declaring it uninhabitable for the thousands of renters, first-time buyers, and would-be newcomers, who cannot afford the soaring housing prices as well as commercial enterprises which end up seeking more hospitable places to conduct business.

In California as a whole, from 2011 to 2016, the state added only one new housing unit for every five new residents which has driven both rental and purchase costs through the roof.

Governor Newsom and most enlightened lawmakers have labelled this a crisis. He has set an ambitious goal of building 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 proposing a state investment of $1.75 billion for this ambitious initiative.

The 2019 budget asks that $500 million go to any locality that creates new housing with $250 million more to ones that speed up zoning and permitting processes.

There is also $500 million for tax credits in it for the often ignored middle class to incentivize more home-building near jobs.

We are coming to the game late—and it is not clear if even these commitments will be enough to satisfy demand. First a number of pre-conditions must be met:

Cities, which are most seriously impacted by the housing shortages, must come up with viable plans tailored to their communities. SB 50 by Senator Scott Wiener (San Francisco) now winding its way through Sacramento’s legislative labyrinth is taking direct aim at the problems.

The stark reality is there are no one-suit-fits-all solutions.  Sports teams will thrive as long as mega-rich owners are willing to fill the coffers. But resolving the housing mess will require a state-wide effort which has been lacking.

The California Environment Quality Act (CEQA) enacted in 1970 much to the delight of environmentalists and equally maligned by development interests, community planners and housing activists has resulted in some sound protective measures and also needless roadblocks.

While it has been a boon for the legal establishment with thousands of law suits heading for court calendars, communities interested in sensible growth have been stymied.

Oakland, it turns out, apparently not content to rely solely on its laurels as a sports capital reports it is now on track to protect 17,000 households from displacement and plans on constructing 17,000 new dwellings according to a new report.  The city has already produced more than 10,000 new homes in the past 5 years.

In one of the most destructive wild fires in state history which decimated 37,000 homes in Northern California alone, Redding in Shasta County lost 1,000 homes.

With a pre-fire population of barely 92,000 the little town will not be needing a massive sports complex anytime soon, and rebuilding efforts have hardly made a dent.  Civic pride was on the rise after funding a mere 47-unit affordable housing complex though it took another crisis to jump-start the effort.

In neighboring Butte County, the Camp Fire destroyed 13,503 homes, in the town of Paradise which was wiped completely off the map. No telling where those displaced will end up living.

Aside from CEQA regulations which raise hurdles that put developers and municipalities into protracted conflicts, different wage requirements in each city that make builders of low-income housing eligible for public financing have state laws working at cross purposes.

The California Public Policy Institute—a reliable source— claims these labor rules can increase construction costs on an average of 37 percent—“about $84,000 for a typical new home.”

With the elimination of Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs) in 2012 by the Brown Administration,  designed to enhance urban renewal by funding low and moderate income housing through reallocation of property taxes, cities were left scrounging for dollars.

Millions ended up in the pockets of a few unscrupulous developers without the necessary safeguards against misuse. But a majority of these otherwise honest brokers ended up holding the bag after making sizeable investments when over-zealous citizen watchdogs and their elected representatives were pulling the rug out from under them for questionable reasons.

With the state now enjoying a bulging surplus, talk has been revived of restoring RDA funding to ease the housing crisis providing this would not undercut education or other vital public services.

But simply throwing more money at a problem will not make it go away.

Attitudinal changes about who gets to live where are at the heart of the housing shortage with neighborhood acceptance perhaps a key impediment.

Additional low and middle income housing is finally receiving stronger advocacy. The homeless, however, have no visible lobby.

As of January 2018 according to the U.S Department of Housing & Urban Development on any given day there are 130,000 homeless (without shelter) living on California’s streets—50,000 just in Los Angeles. That is nearly one quarter of the national total.

San Diego and Los Angeles are seeing some decline in the homeless population. However, Orange, Sonoma and Santa Cruz Counties are experiencing increases. In San Francisco with nearly 10,000 still homeless there has been little change but a new Mayor is taking aggressive steps with proposals for additional so-called “satellite housing” though encountering stiff resistance.

The story is the same in practically every zip code and pressure for change generally elicits a standard response from those either unwilling or failing to recognize that some means of shelter is non-negotiable if cities are going to reclaim their streets. In short, indifference is not an option.

Comedian Will Durst was once asked by someone in the audience, “How is it that New York and some other cities have been able to solve the homeless problem?” His response was, “they have a program—it’s called winter!”

California’s salutary climes definitely contribute to the homeless migration and that remains a constant notwithstanding the dramatic changes in weather patterns.

Marin County—where I happen to live—and other communities are experimenting with what are called “HOT” Teams combined with federally-mandated “coordinated entry”—designed to provide one-stop housing and other services for the chronically homeless on a one-by-one care basis.

Says a program director, “if we can put people on the moon and find a cure for cancer, providing adequate housing may be a daunting task, but it is hardly impossible.”  

According to one dedicated Marin County Supervisor, “Over the past two years 130 individuals (of the 350 identified as “chronically homeless”) have been housed with an 85% success-rate.”

She emphasizes that the vast majority of the homeless are not the long term opiate users and drug addicts who will require more radical remedies.

The idea is to get away from temporary “emergency” shelters and transition people into permanent housing where some might be able ultimately to re-enter the work place.

These steps may be only making a dent but they are worth the money spent and each community must find its own solutions.

However the cumulative returns region-by-region may offer as good or an even better bang for the buck than the millions spent by a city to erect a new sports stadium on a team that could end up deserting it.

For generations yet to come the ones that attended to the housing needs of all its residents might never get a championship trophy but they will ensure themselves of a much grander legacy.

 

 

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