The California state Capitol building. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)


April 21, 2023 at 3:43 p.m.

You don’t think of the typical Californian giving in to a mantra of “there’s nothing we can do” or “our hands are tied.”

But the threats of a “strike force” coming from Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office; intimidating letters from the Housing and Community Development Department chastising communities for what department considers inadequate housing elements; and well-funded, corporate-serving agencies like the pro-housing group Yes In My Back Yard, as well as it’s legal arm YIMBY Law, are having a stifling impact.

So it may not be surprising that many of our elected officials are using this rhetoric when their constituents plead with them to make decisions on behalf of the neighborhood and community.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors recently caved into threats from the state and Senate Bill 35 over a housing project in Marin City (“Marin supervisors reject pleas to halt Marin City housing project,” March 25). They approved project financing rather than express indignation, imagination or courage to stand with their constituents.

In the article, the Rev. Rondall Leggett of First Missionary Baptist Church is quoted as telling the supervisors, “We’re tired of you telling us that your hands are tied and there is nothing you can do. This project is abusive.”

While current elected officials may not feel empowered to lead, constituents from across the state aren’t waiting. Claiming their authority as former elected officials, citizens, taxpayers, neighborhood leaders, Republicans and Democrats, people from as far south as Riverside and from throughout the Bay Area traveled to Sacramento on April 11 to participate in housing policy “lobby day” organized by Catalysts for Local Control.

Event coordinator Leon Huntting is a former member of the Sausalito City Council and a past president of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers. He isn’t buying into the idea that his hands are tied.

Huntting set up 26 meetings with state legislators or their aides who sit on Assembly or Senate housing, governance or audit committees.

Why would Huntting, Charles Head (president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods) or former city council members Michael Barnes, Stephen Scharf, and Ken Bukowski from Albany, Cupertino, and Emeryville, respectively, dedicate a spring day to travel to Sacramento?

“We’re seeing the worst housing policy in my 50 years of community service,” Huntting said.

Four Catalysts teams (with four or five people per team) spoke with a common theme. Like state legislators, we also want housing that is affordable. It’s unacceptable, however, for legislators to favor investor interests over the wishes and needs of constituents and communities.

From the 30,000-foot level, legislation is being passed despite flawed analysis of the housing needs and the reliability of Regional Housing Need Allocation numbers.

Evidence shows that housing needs are exaggerated and RHNA targets are unrealistic and unreliable. The Embarcadero Institute and a state emergency audit, along with several other studies by individuals, have shown the RHNA targets are suspect.

From the 10,000-foot level, we know that when the basic assumptions and numbers are questionable, the housing bills that emerge are likely flawed for residents, while favoring investors and developers.

SB 423 would permanently extend the housing policy of SB 35 into perpetuity without meeting the need for housing that is affordable. It relies on streamlining and ministerial approval, which harms the environment and neighborhoods. SB 423 would expand SB 35 to nearly all cities, including those in the coastal zone.

Assembly Bill 309 would create a statewide housing authority with the mission to produce and acquire state-owned housing. Who benefits if the state gets into the risky business of developing and managing housing at a time when the state deficit stands at $22.5 billion?

From the 1,000-foot level, neighborhoods and constituents are put at risk. For example, when the state uses threats to force cities to rezone to accommodate building for unrealistic growth projections, there is a risk that officials will feel coerced into approving sites that could prove to be toxic, or prone to fires and flooding.

Imagine this: Californians and local electeds reclaim their can-do attitude of making a difference. Instead of giving up the American dream of democracy and home ownership, we rise up against the state’s recipe for housing failure. It’s time for a new mantra: Our hands are untied.

Susan Kirsch, of Mill Valley, is founder of Catalysts for Local Control.