Once a storied left-wing publication, the magazine is now fallen into the neoliberal Yimby camp—and the editor refuses to talk to us about it.
JUNE 21, 2023
48 Hills Editor’s note: When I first saw a piece by Michael Barnes in the Marin Post, taking on the editor of Mother Jones on housing, I was intrigued. MoJo has a long, storied history as a voice of the left in the United States, but of late, the magazine’s editor, Clara Jeffery, has been very much in the Yimby camp, arguing for private market-based solutions to the housing crisis.
I was curious what she thought about the critique, which we are publishing today. I contacted Sean Wherley, the media person at MoJo, and asked if he could connect me with Jeffery.
At first, it seemed hopeful; he told me he would get in touch with her and asked about my deadline. I followed up a week later:
Any progress on this? I would be very disappointed if the editor of Mother Jones was unwilling to have a conversation with me about one of the most important issues facing the state, and one that she has made a signature issue for herself and the publication. Thanks!
Wherley said he would try again, then told me that Jeffery was going to “decline to comment on the piece that appeared in the Marin Post.”
Me: And I gather that means she won’t talk to me about the issues she wrote about or about the housing crisis in general. Too bad, we could have had a great discussion.
At that point, Mother Jones stopped responding.
This is, to say the least, disappointing. Journalists have a responsibility to be accountable and responsive. I am not all that scary, and 48hills is part of the progressive media world, as Mother Jones has been for many years.
These are real issues, and Barnes has pointed out many, many problems with the MoJo article. I would still love to talk to Clara Jeffery; she’s got my email and phone number.
Mother Jones Magazine recently published this sloppy and dishonest article, “Think Globally, Build Like Hell Locally,” in their May + June edition. In it, the author, Clara Jeffery, posits the question, “How can we decarbonize the economy when we can’t even build housing?”
The one-time radical left magazine has gone all Yimby on us
I have written the following rebuttal because I wanted to set the record straight on many of the contentious housing issues that are being misrepresented in the media. I encourage you to read the article first (click here). Excerpts from that article and my comments follow, below. Excerpts appear indented and in quotes, while my comments are inserted below each excerpt.
“In March, “Save Lafayette” finally lost a long-running battle to stop a 315-unit housing complex from being built in Lafayette, a small affluent city near Oakland, California.”
Why would Jeffery choose to open her article with this particular town? There are 482 cities and 58 counties in California, a total of 540. But since San Francisco is both a county and a city, there are 539 distinct jurisdictions in California. The Lafayette Terraces project is not typical, it’s an outlier. So why Lafayette? Perhaps it is because this city was the subject of a book, “Golden Gate: Fighting for Housing in America,” authored by Conor Dougherty.
Like Jeffrey’s piece, that book is sloppy and biased, so let’s try to correct the record: Lafayette is not close to Oakland. The 315-unit project lies 11 miles from Oakland, across the first range of coastal hills and in a different county (Contra Costa, not Alameda). It is closer to Berkeley than Oakland, but the project lies only two miles from the city of Walnut Creek to the east.
“From a climate perspective, the spot was ideal: on a former quarry, next to a high school, close to mass transit.”
This is mostly incorrect. The project is near Acalanes High School, but on the other side of Pleasant Hill Road, a busy four-lane divided arterial. However, the project is 1.5 miles from the Lafayette BART station. The round trip would require about one hour of walking, too much for busy parents or anyone who has other plans before or after work. In addition, the project is on a steep southwest-facing slope that will require a significant amount of regrading with diesel-powered earth-moving equipment. With a major freeway at its base, the project has air quality issues, which were mitigated by an agreement between the developer and the city to install high-efficiency (MERV 13) air filters in the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems of the project.
The project site gets too hot in the summer to be ideal. According to the city’s Wikipedia entry, “During the summer, temperatures can soar beyond 100 °F (38 °C) in Lafayette and its neighboring cities while the areas west of the hills and nearer to the bay remain up to 20 °F (11 °C) cooler.” The Terraces project, like most housing units in Lafayette, will require energy-consuming air conditioning, unlike cities further to the west.
“Sixty-three units—20 percent—were set aside for low-income households. But the group of “Lafayette residents who support our City’s historic character” objected to “excessive urbanization that overcrowds our schools, causes massive traffic congestion, worsens parking problems, and threatens our health and safety.”
In the affordable housing world, “low income” means something specific. According to state and federal guidelines, in Contra Costa County a low-income household of four at 80 percent of the four-person household Area Median Income (AMI) of $142,800 earns $114,240. Affordable rents should be no more than 30 percent of gross income. A monthly rent payment equal to 30 percent of gross income would be $2,856. That level of rent would still be unaffordable for many households in Lafayette in need of affordable housing. Keep in mind that a household with two full-time, minimum-wage workers each earning $15/hr has an annual income of $60,000. To avoid paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing the maximum monthly rent this couple could afford is $1,500.
“Like every community in the Bay Area, Lafayette has been building nowhere near enough units to meet its state housing requirements.”
This is not true. Many cities in the Bay Area met or exceeded their 2015–2023 5th cycle Regional Housing Needs Assessments (RHNA) targets. Most California jurisdictions overproduced market-rate housing and under produced affordable housing. Builders prefer to build market-rate housing. Without enough subsidies, builders can’t be enticed into building affordable housing, and remain focused on market-rate housing.
“As the developer of the Terraces battled opponents, the city offered a different way: Instead of 315 mixed-income units, what about 44 luxury houses? The developer assented, only to have Save Lafayette turn against that project too, persuading voters to reject it via a ballot referendum, which allowed the developer to revert to its original plan. Save Lafayette then sued under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a ’70s-era law frequently used against projects that are environmentally beneficial. (See “The Green Movement’s Best Weapon Has Become a Problem.”) A mind-numbing 100 public hearings later, the Terraces won’t be completed for several years, so that’s a decade-plus of 315 households having to find alternative housing, if they could find housing at all.”
According to the 2017–2021 American Community Survey, Lafayette has 7,205 single-family housing units, including townhouses, and 1,657 apartments. The median gross rent (including utilities) is $2,739. In addition, there are many housing projects underway in Lafayette, in addition to the 315-unit Lafayette Terraces project.
“Never mind, too, that hampering urban density causes people to sprawl into the wildlife-urban interface, which is a major cause of forest fires, and parts of Lafayette are in what Cal Fire deems a “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone.”
The Terraces project is in a very high fire hazard safely zone (VHFHSZ), as is the area to the northeast of Acalanes High School, which may be more difficult to evacuate because of the additional traffic from the new development.
“And if you’re surprised to learn that Lafayette residents overwhelmingly voted for Biden, don’t be. In uber-liberal Berkeley, NIMBYs are fighting student housing by claiming Cal students essentially amount to noise pollution: that fight, led by a homeowner who spent half his year in New Zealand before the pandemic hit, almost forced UC-Berkeley to rescind offer letters to 5,000 freshmen.”
The issue is more complicated than that. First of all, Contra Costa County has a much higher percentage of Republican voters than Alameda County, and Lafayette has far higher percentage of Republican voters than Berkeley, Oakland or San Francisco. But the issues of growth and local control are not partisan. Compare two conservative southern beach cities, San Diego and Huntington Beach. San Diego is one of the most pro-growth cities in California, while Huntington Beach is notorious for its resistance to housing mandates from Sacramento.
As for the UC Berkeley kerfuffles, Jeffery is confusing two different issues. Regarding enrollment: The narrow legal issue was that UC Berkeley had a Long Run Development Plan that required an Environmental Impact Report, which included student enrollment targets. When the campus exceeded these targets, a neighborhood group sued under the California Environmental Quality Act. Attorneys for the campus dropped the ball and did not file the necessary papers on time. A judge then ruled in favor of the neighborhood group and blocked UC Berkeley’s large enrollment increases. This ruling was upheld at both the appellate and state Supreme Court levels.
Campus administrators should have been paying attention and should not have sent out admission letters before the legal issues were resolved. But instead, they used the suddenly disenrolled students as hostages. I spoke with staffers on campus who expressed disappointment with the senior administration’s incompetence and cynicism. The legislature did pass a stop-gap bill that allowed UC Berkeley to enroll the students. More here, here, and here.
The noise issue is related to a dormitory that was slated to be built on the site of People’s Park. The judge reviewing the CEQA process found that the alternative site analysis was inadequate and that the issue of noise pollution was not taken seriously enough. Noise is not just a problem for Berkeley. The City of Richmond, a mostly Black and Latino working-class city a few miles north of Berkeley, has a noise ordinance that I recently discovered. You can read the preamble here.
“As for Berkeleyites are also using CEQA to fight a development that would sit atop a mass transit station—can’t get more climate-friendly than that!”
This is incorrect. BART was empowered to convert its parking lots to housing by AB 2923. The bill was carried by then San Francisco assembly member David Chiu, now the San Francisco city attorney. The bill was controversial and was opposed by three of the nine BART directors. Suburban BART stops, including the North Berkeley and Lafayette BART stations, were designed with large parking lots so that commuters could drive from their homes, park at BART, and take the train into San Francisco. With the parking lots converted to housing, and the neighborhood over-parked by the cars of the new residents, most commuters will just drive to San Francisco. There is nothing climate-friendly about this.
“NIMBYs come in a variety of forms, but the most confounding are those who call themselves progressive yet abuse laws conceived to protect the environment, or foster good government, to block desperately needed housing, driving up costs and fueling homelessness.”
The acronym NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is a slur. Calling people names is a poor substitute for serious analysis. The use of that slur also creates a false dichotomy. Development is not a black-and-white issue. California residents have a multitude of opinions on housing and growth issues.
“Welcome to San Francisco. When our population began to surge 15 years ago, people feared that the influx, particularly of young techies, would fuel gentrification. Politicians representing less-affluent neighborhoods fought against any housing that wasn’t 100 percent affordable, while others representing neighborhoods historically opposed to all development had a new tool: They’d back 100 percent affordable housing, with the guarantee that their constituents would then fight any such projects in their neighborhoods. Upshot: We’re 82,000 units shy of where state housing targets say we must be by 2031.”
During the fifth RHNA cycle San Francisco did very well in meeting its overall goal of building 29,000 housing units. Developers built 75 percent more market-rate housing than required by the RHNA targets. Like most California cities and counties, it did not meet its affordable housing goals because non-profit developers could not find the required subsidies.
But the 2023–2031 sixth cycle RHNA target of 82,000 housing units is almost triple that of the fifth cycle—in a city that is losing population. These numbers are a scam, part of an even bigger statewide scam perpetrated by the Dept. of Housing and Community Development. The funding required for the affordable component of San Francisco’s affordable housing target is $18 billion, give or take a few billion dollars. This level of funding doesn’t exist.
“Constricted supply leads to higher prices. That’s a bedrock law of market capitalism, which, like it or not, is the system in which we live.”
This is naïve. San Francisco is no different from many other cities. If by market capitalism author Jeffrey means monopoly capitalism, then yes. Housing development is a monopolized industry, like many others in the United States. Monopolists face downward-sloping demand curves. They do not keep building to the point where they drive down prices against themselves. It is the developers who constrict supply as demand changes. Constricted supply is baked into monopoly capitalism.
“Over the last decade, much scholarship has been devoted to the question: Does new market-rate housing itself drive gentrification? And study after study has shown that, on the whole, it does not . Essentially, by the time new buildings go up, displacement is well underway; new projects can even help staunch it, by taking the pressure off existing housing stock. One study of San Francisco found rents decreased slightly within 500 meters of new construction, and renters’ risk of being displaced fell by 17 percent.“
The author is cherry-picking. She cites only two studies, and only one is serious. The body of research shows mixed results. The Pennington paper cited by the author is based on her 2021 Berkeley Ph.D. thesis in the Dept. of Agriculture and Resource Economics. This research was funded by the Upjohn Institute, which also provided the data for their vacancy-chain methodology.
The vacancy-chain methodology is flawed. It’s a bit like trying to model automobile traffic patterns by only examining the movement of brand-new vehicles. Another Berkeley scholar, Emerita Professor of City and Regional Planning Karen Chapple, Ph.D., is also the Director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, where she also serves as a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning. Chapple offers more balanced and critical perspectives here and here.
Chapple discusses two flaws in the vacancy-chain literature. First is what Chapple calls the ecological fallacy, or the substitution of group averages for individual-level data. Second, Chapple notes that the vacancy-chain literature ignores the broader context of churning, or the constant flow of people moving in and out of neighborhoods. When neighborhood churning effects are considered, Chapple finds that new market-rate housing tends to benefit high-income residents.
“Now, does that mean regulators shouldn’t consider the gentrification risks of developments proposed in historically disadvantaged communities? No. Does it mean those communities should bear the full brunt of new affordable housing developments and any associated social services? Also no. But is there an urgent need for more low-income, missing-middle, and even market-rate housing? Yes, yes, yes.”
San Francisco has a clear need for more affordable housing. But “missing-middle” refers to a form of housing, not an income level. Missing-middle housing consists of duplexes, tri-plexes and other small multi-unit structures that blend with single-family houses. There is not an urgent need for market-rate housing. Developers are building market-rate housing at a reasonable rate. According to state Dept. of Finance (DOF) data, with the decline of population and the continued growth of new housing units, the number of per capita housing units in San Francisco is about what it was in 1990 (the same is true at the state level). However, with the decline in the number of families with children, and the growth in the number of young single people in the city, demand has shifted toward studios and one-bedroom units.
Note: Figures exclude vacant housing units and persons living in nursing homes, jails, dormitories and other group quarters. Source: California Dept. of Finance Demographics Unit.
“And yet some on the left continue to be quite acrobatic in their defense of blocking housing, ignoring all evidence that this mostly benefits rich homeowners. Some excuses put forth in San Francisco: There are tens of thousands of long-vacant units, so no need to build more. (False: Most are in the process of being sold or rented.)”
Not quite. An updated city report pegs the number of vacancies at more than 60,000 housing units, about 15 percent of all housing units in San Francisco. And most are not in the process of being sold or rented. However, while the Covid emergency winds down, these numbers will remain fluid.
“When progressive NIMBYs performatively insist all new development be for very low-income folks only, they ignore the squeeze also felt by middle-income residents, and ignore, too, the simple fact that enough public funding for the needed amount of affordable housing currently does not exist. And when they insist private developers set aside, say, 40 percent of units for affordable housing, they know full well such high requirements kill the chances those projects will come to fruition.”
The state’s RHNA standards also call for 40 percent of SF housing to be affordable for low- and very low-income households. But because the subsidies don’t exist, San Francisco won’t build 82,000 units required by the state’s RHNA process.
“Consider: If city leaders block projects with 50,000 units, 20 percent of which were set aside for low-income folks, but greenlight projects devoted to low-income people that have 1,000 total units, which scenario actually results in more low-income housing? Answer: The first, by a factor of 10. But it’s easy to gain lefty cred by bashing private developers, and so we continue to make perfect the enemy of the good.”
This is a silly example. The author is just making up numbers. But it obscures the reality that what matters is not the amount of affordable housing, but the proportion of affordable housing with respect to market-rate housing. As California’s economy grows, the amount of affordable housing must grow at least as fast as market-rate housing. Otherwise, we are not solving our housing shortage, we are merely scaling it up.
“Why am I banging on about housing in a package devoted to the green energy transformation? Because watching how the housing wars have played out in California makes me very worried about whether we can achieve that transformation. Doing so requires building tons of denser, transit-linked housing, but also massive wind and solar farms, enough transmission lines to circle the Earth three times, lithium mines, and scads of factories, and that’s just for starters.”
You can’t build your way out of the climate crisis. All that building would be too carbon-intensive. A better option is to repair and repurpose existing buildings. But this does not require “tons of denser, transit-linked housing.” Not enough people want to live in cities to make that option work. With work-from-home, many workers no longer need to remain close to their former job sites. And many low-income working people—construction and home health care workers, and service and retail workers on evening or night shifts—cannot take public transportation to their jobs. Transit-linked housing is of little use to them.
For comparison, my small-lot, single-family-zoned neighborhood is dense enough to support walkability and bikeability. In addition, my little 1,100 sq. ft. stucco bungalow has a driveway, which will allow me to reliably charge an electric vehicle. I also have solar panels, which in a typical year produce 4,800 kilowatt hours (Kwh), while I use only 1,550 Kwh. I return to the grid 3,250 Kwh.
If I used all that extra power to drive an EV, assuming a typical rate of four miles per Kwh, I could drive 13,000 annually without buying any gasoline. However, over the lifetime of my car, I have averaged about 7,200 miles per year. At that rate I would have 1,450 Kwh annually to devote to running a heat pump to heat and cool my house.
Suburban living can be cleaner and greener than urbanists realize. Many fail to consider the GHG reductions possible in suburbia with solar PV, EVs and heat pumps (and good insulation). People living in apartments with zero parking, who are forced to park at random spots on the street, will have a hard time owning and recharging an EV. But many of them will still own autos. For more click here, here and here.
“The scope is enormous, and every part of that endeavor risks floundering amid red tape and local resistance. As Bill McKibben notes in our cover story, “Yes in Our Backyards”: “California used to be the world’s ideal—the Golden State. Now it’s increasingly a cautionary tale, of the wildfires that break out when you don’t control the temperature, of ‘bomb cyclones’ that dump a year’s worth of rainfall in a month, and of the homeless camps that inevitably arise when the only houses still available are too expensive for most people to afford.”
California is no more a cautionary tale than many other places. Fires and flooding are occurring all over the planet. Housing affordability is a problem in almost every major city in the developed world. San Francisco’s rent-burden statistics are better than those of many other cities.
“Today, we must consider not just personal interests, but global impacts. Failure to decarbonize will not be borne equally, but it will be felt everywhere—just as when San Francisco and Lafayette didn’t build enough housing, people decamped to Oakland, causing rents to rise there.”
People from Lafayette decamped to Oakland? The author needs to provide evidence for that assertion. If anything, people decamped from San Francisco to Lafayette. However, all three of these cities lost population last year.
“The housing crisis and the green energy transformation intersect on a variety of planes. Taking on these enormous tasks in earnest will require progressives to shed some old habits and challenge some dearly held assumptions. Challenging assumptions is part of Mother Jones’ role, and I believe that we’re uniquely positioned to speak truth to friends, as well as to power.”
This article is an embarrassment. It just smears green lipstick on the same old neoliberal pig. It’s too bad, since one of my favorite climate-change articles was published in Mother Jones. UC Berkeley economic historian Brad DeLong noted recently that neoliberalism, “the economic paradigm that underpinned Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and the Washington Consensus, is alive and well in at least one place: the pages of the Economist.”
And another place? Mother Jones magazine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My background: After earning my B.A. and M.A. in economics in the early 1980s, I served for 2.5 years as a budget and economic analyst for the State of Washington in Olympia, WA. I came to Berkeley in 1989 as a Ph.D. student in economics, but my interest in the social sciences faded while my interest in the physical sciences grew, so in 1996 I switched career paths and joined the UC staff.
I retired in 2017 after spending the final 11 years of my UC career as the science editor for the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry. The College is immensely proud that the last three of the eight female winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — Francis Arnold (2018), Jennifer Doudna (2020), and Carolyn Bertozzi (2022) — were all either students, faculty members, or both at the College. I have had the privilege of interviewing and writing about all three.
I served on the Albany City Council from 2012 to 2020, and I stay involved with local govt. issues. Finally, as an avid cyclist, I have cycled or walked in 42 of California’s 58 counties, traveled by car through another 13, and have failed to visit only three.