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Urban activists set out to sue San Francisco’s suburbs

September 18, 2015

by Heather Smith : grist – excerpt

The first time I heard of Sonja Trauss, she was mobilizing San Franciscans to support new apartment construction. This was not a campaign that went over well in the Mission District, a formerly working-class neighborhood that was in the middle of a full-on freakout over how many people seemed to want to build luxury condos there. One night, when I was walking down 24th Street, I saw that someone had taped up fliers to telephone poles with pictures of Trauss on them. Her eyes had been whited out and replaced by dollar signs.

Based on this backstory, I assumed Trauss must be one of the numerous young real estate professionals who come to the Bay Area to seek their fortunes. I was surprised, when we met up last week, to realize that she actually belongs to a species I’d thought almost extinct in the Bay Area: the bona fide, deeply eccentric city-government nerd. Even stranger, Trauss had just turned around and done something that seemed to delight even her more vociferous opponents — she was trying to sue a suburban municipality to build more affordable housing.

Here is how Trauss’s thinking goes: We need more housing units, and the market-rate units we build now will become tomorrow’s middle-income apartments. Her theory is based on her experience working for a neighborhood advisory committee in a rapidly gentrifying part of Philadelphia right before the mid-2000s housing bubble burst. “When the market crashed,” Trauss told me, “all those projects we had approved went on sale for a third of the price they would have, while all the projects we gummed up were never built. We lost the opportunity to create more units.”

Trauss’s enthusiasm for building has brought out the critics. They say that, at best, she just doesn’t know her local history (when the mid-2000s housing bubble burst, the Mission was relatively unaffected); at worst, she’s a tool of the real estate lobby, hoping for a payout…

The lawsuit would be based on the 1982 Housing Accountability Act — an obscure California law intended to help affordable housing projects from having to compromise on density in order to win approval from local planning commissions. In 2011, a court ruled that the act applied to all housing, not just affordable housing. In 2014, a developer in the Mission used the act to fend off an effort to scale down a 12-unit apartment building that they had been trying to build for years on the site of a former Kentucky Fried Chicken

Any person who could make a case that they would have lived in one of those 315 apartments, had they been built, could sue the City of Lafayette for standing in their way.

Right now, Trauss has a legal team and 15 plaintiffs lined up. She’s looking for more… (more)

This is not about housing or helping people. This is about controlling people. Telling them where to live and how to get around, and how to run their town.
Ms. BARF contends that anyone in shape should be able to walk 40 minutes to the BART station, or, if they can’t walk, they can bike. I know Lafayette pretty well, and the BART station is not that close to the downtown area, so to get anything done without a car would talk well over two hours. The hills could slow you down even more.
I hope Ms. BARF never gets sick or grows old, because she is in for a big surprise when she does.

Trauss and her friends decided to call themselves the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation — or, for short, SFBARF. The acronym was deliberate; Trauss’s roommate insisted that you couldn’t buy branding like BARF, and no one would ever confuse them with anyone else. (The current lawsuit is organized under a new, less creatively acronymable name: the California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund.)

The ultimate goal is not to torment Lafayette so much as to fire a warning shot across the bow of all the Bay Area suburbs who have failed to take on their share of new residents. “I talked to Sam Altman, the head of Y Combinator,” Trauss says. “He told me that Y Combinator alone creates 10,000 new jobs a year in the Bay Area. That means we need 5,000 new homes. At least.”

That said, Lafayette Terraces, the 315-unit complex that inspired the lawsuit, is far from a poster child for smart growth. Those 315 apartments were going to come with over 500 parking spaces, made necessary because the development is a nearly 40-minute walk away from the Lafayette BART station. A high density building’s environmental value vanishes if the people who live densely still drive everywhere. Many of the things that Lafayette residents objected to about the project — increased pollution from traffic near the complex, in particular — made sense.

That’s the argument that the mayor of Lafayette — attorney and former Ecology Law Review editor Brandt Andersson — made when he debated SFBARF member Brian Hanlon on television station KTVU. Andersson felt SFBARF’s pain, he said. He himself had a kid in his 20s who was still living in the home. But in its enthusiasm to find a test case, Andersson argued, the group had ignored the specifics of Lafayette as a city.

For one thing, since the city had never formally turned down the development, SFBARF didn’t have much of a case. For another thing, Lafayette had drawn up a plan, made three years ago, to keep multi-unit housing downtown, near the BART station. “We don’t want high-rises,” Andersson said — the plan called for a maximum of three stories in height, and 35 units per acre. But over the last few years the city had approved several apartment complexes downtown, and had optioned a city-owned parking lot to a developer to build 24 units of workforce housing.

All fine and good, said Hanlon, but still not enough — between 2007 and 2013 Lafayette had only signed off on permits for 10 percent of the amount of low-income and moderate-income housing that the Association of Bay Area Governments recommended built to keep up with population increase in the area. (Overall, though, Lafayette built 65 percent of the recommended number of units, which is a higher percentage than San Francisco.)

Trauss objects to Andersson’s characterization of the development as too far out of town. An ordinary person could walk the 1.7 miles to downtown, she responded, and a not very in-shape person could bike. Plus, she adds, “It’s almost always true that new development doesn’t have the transportation infrastructure (this includes walking friendly roads, not just buses and whatnot) it needs at the time it’s developed. That’s because we don’t build transportation (or really do anything) unless there are people asking for it. So if we let ‘not enough transportation’ be a reason to not build (and often we do), almost nothing will get built.”

That said, this case has always been about something bigger than Lafayette. “It’s not just a lawsuit,” says Trauss. “It’s a political exercise. Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don’t have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they’re morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that’s too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced.”

“It’s easy to see the problem when you’re tearing down someone’s home. But when you’re not building, it’s hard to see whose home it is.”… (more)

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