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Housing element opens debate about Fresno's housing mix

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How did Joseph Chamberlain wind up at Fresno City Hall on Thursday? I thought he was deader than a doornail.

But it sure felt like the Colonial Secretary at the height of Great Britain’s imperial glory was in the Council Chamber. If not his corporeal self, then certainly his philosophy toward the, uh, less fortunate of this world.

It all had to do with the city’s new Housing Element and Fresno’s national reputation for high concentrations of urban poverty.

To cut to the chase, the council approved Fresno’s latest blueprint for citywide housing on a 6-1 vote. Council Member Esmeralda Soria voted no.

The early-evening hearing went for three-and-a-half hours. It lasted so long that Soria was able to leave midway through the marathon, fulfill another appointment, then return and pretty much dominate the question-and-answer period.

This blueprint is called the Housing Element. Yes, “element” is a funny word to describe such a document. You see, the 2035 general plan (adopted by the council in December 2014) consists of about a dozen sections, or “elements.”

There’s the Mobility and Transportation Element. There’s the Economic Development and Sustainability Element. There’s the Resource Conservation and Resilience Element.

The general plan adopted 17 months ago contained all the necessary elements but one – the Housing Element. By law, that one gets its own public vetting process and a separate review by the council.

I have no idea how many pages are in the Housing Element. The numbering system thoroughly confuses me. But it’s produced in book form, and the book handed out Thursday night is thick. Let that be your yardstick.

City officials also distributed copies of letters from Granville Homes and several local groups of housing advocates. These folks know how to pick apart a Housing Element and come to firm opinions.

On top of that, there were copies of a staff report from Sophia Pagoulatos, planning manager with the city’s Development and Resource Management Department.

The stack of letters combined with the staff report were just as thick as the Housing Element.

You know where I’m heading with all this measuring – I don’t have the brains to tell you in 40 or 50 words what’s in a Housing Element of that size.

I’ll let Pagoulatos give it a shot:

“The California Legislature has identified the attainment of a decent home and suitable living environment for every Californian as the State’s main housing goal,” she wrote in the staff report. “Recognizing the important part that local planning programs play in pursuit of this goal, the Legislature has mandated that all cities and counties prepare a Housing Element as part of their comprehensive general plans.”

We all deserve a solid roof over our heads. Real life is complicated. The Housing Element aims to give city leaders and the public a written guide for squaring that circle.

State law – public participation – population characteristics – special housing needs – available land for development – infrastructure constraints to development – financial resources – governmental red tape – in-a-perfect-world wish list. These are some of the topics tackled in the new Housing Element.

I don’t feel too bad about my inability to summarize this. Based on Thursday’s meeting, I’d bet the only people in the chamber besides planning department staff who actually read everything were Granville’s Jeff Roberts and Ashley Werner from Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability.

Notice I didn’t include the seven council members.

The hearing wasn’t about dry policy and stacks of numbers. It hinged on emotion and idealism. That came from the audience and the council dais.

There wasn’t much of a turnout – probably no more than 25 people not connected to City Hall. A handful of the 25 were kids.

About 10 people went to the public microphone. Several asked the council to delay the vote. They said the Housing Element needs more public review.

There wasn’t much chance of that. A new Housing Element adopted on Thursday would be good for eight years. A new Housing Element adopted after April would be good for only four years. Who in their right mind would voluntarily do all this work again in a mere four years?

Several speakers spoke only Spanish. Richard Salinas and Soria served as interpreters.

The speakers wanted what we all want: Quality housing, affordable rents/mortgages, nice neighbors, lots of neighborhood amenities.

Enriqueta Garcia, a resident near Jane Addams Elementary School in West-Central Fresno, said (as translated by Salinas) she wants a life where she can “walk around the neighborhood with her children and find a park on every corner rather than a liquor store.”

Council Member Steve Brandau was first in line when the action returned to the dais. He wasted little time making a motion to adopt the Housing Element as presented by staff.

Well, he did have one little amendment: The Housing Element must not in any way be construed as supporting inclusionary zoning/housing or rent control in any form. Council Member Lee Brand did the second.

Rent control is self-explanatory. Inclusionary zoning/housing these days is a hot button issue in municipal policy across America. It means using law to require that a certain percentage of new housing construction be earmarked for low and moderate-income people.

Brandau’s amendment was the main reason for Soria’s no vote.

As Council Member Oliver Baines noted later in the meeting, there’s nothing in the Housing Element that pushes inclusionary zoning/housing or rent control. Brandau and Baines weren’t tilting at windmills. They were skirmishing. City Hall before the year is out almost certainly will be a battleground on inclusionary zoning/housing and rent control.

What made Thursday’s hearing so passionate was the idea that justice is fundamentally tied to housing, and housing is fundamentally tied to geography.

And to make this formula work for all Fresnans, government must employ its regulatory powers.

In a nutshell, government officials from City Hall to Washington, D.C. are all too aware that Fresno has an unusually large number of poor people. These people are, to an unusually high degree, concentrated in certain neighborhoods.

This is widely viewed with alarm for two reasons.

First, it’s not right in an egalitarian society like ours to isolate (and thereby publicly stigmatize) large groups of people based simply on the size of their pocketbook. The proverbial army barracks successfully brings together diverse peoples in common cause. Should not a modern city do the same?

Second, wealthier parts of town, simply due to the array of assets that deep pockets typically produce, have a huge advantage when it comes to self-perpetuation. Would it not be to everyone’s advantage to employ City Hall’s land-use authority to mix on an intimate scale the living arrangements of the poor, the working class, the middle class and the wealthy?

The conviction in government circles is that the wealthy would not be impoverished and the middle class would not lose stature by such social engineering. The conviction is that the exposure (through housing policy) of the poor to the varied assets of wealthier neighborhoods would, in time, transform the material and psychological well being of the poor.

The poor – now doomed to nasty and brutish lives in crime-ridden neighborhoods – would learn to live in heart and mind like the well-to-do because the superior example of civic and personal behavior would be constantly before their eyes. This lesson would reverberate through the generations.

That’s the theory. That’s what the Housing Element is all about. That’s what City Hall housing policy in a variety of contexts will tackle in the coming months.

The only problem at Thursday’s hearing is that the seven council members, the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin and city staff danced around this concept but never found the gumption to express it in clear, concise language.

Council members using vague platitudes were keen to champion fairness across the board. But they shied away from trying to explain exactly why John Doe, struggling fry cook in West Fresno, would come to have a better life by moving next door to investment banker Juan Garcia in Northeast Fresno.

Council Member Baines at the tail end of Thursday’s hearing did ask Planning Manager Pagoulatos to define the two most important but maddeningly squishy terms in the debate: High Opportunity Areas and High Need Areas.

I thought: If they would just give us firm definitions of these terms, then they’d be forced to take the next step – explaining with equal firmness how the two concepts would mesh without being condescending to the poor.

“We have not defined these yet,” Pagoulatos said.

Baines didn’t push her. I’m guessing he hadn’t expected a firm answer from the get-go.

And that’s why I thought I saw the ghost of Joseph Chamberlain in the Council Chamber on Thursday.

You can’t read a worthy biography of Winston Churchill or a history of the run up to World War I without coming across Chamberlain, Great Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1895 to 1903.

The sun never set on the British Empire during this time.

In a speech in 1897, Chamberlain explained why Great Britain was doing the world a favor with its colonial policy in the Empire’s non-self-governing areas (located mostly in “tropical climes,” as they say):

“In carrying out this work of civilization we are fulfilling what I believe to be our national mission, and we are finding scope for the exercise of these faculties and qualities which have made us a great governing race.”

Is that what this new Housing Element and the feds’ Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule are all about – a sort of reverse colonialism in which the disadvantaged go to “civilization” in order to learn a superior life rather than the old colonialism of “civilization” going to the disadvantaged?

Just about everyone spoke in code on Thursday, but I swear that’s what I heard. And I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t raised in Lindsay to think about my fellow Americans in a subservient manner.

Then Sal Quintero came to my rescue. The District 5 Council Member wasn’t talking about Southeast Fresno residents as hapless, submissive victims who need to move to North Fresno to learn how to advance their own interests.

Quintero used his turn at the microphone to talk about Southeast Fresno residents who built their own homes 20 years ago.

“They’re still there,” Quintero said. “They’re maintaining their neighborhoods.”

Sal, you kicked the ghost of Joseph Chamberlain right out of the Council Chamber. Well done.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

2 Comments

  1. George, the new Housing Element is doomed to failure due to Brandau’s opposition to inclusionary zoning. In most cities, that’s the vehicle by which most affordable housing units get built. Several months ago, Brandau (and Brand if memory serves me right) hinted that the blowback from residents in their districts would be ugly if affordable housing was built north of Shaw and especially north of Herndon. Bottom line: the housing element is more kubuki theatre.

  2. Provocative article. Makes me examine my somewhat spoon-fed beliefs regarding inclusionary zoning. I always enjoy my assumptions being turned on their heads. You really can’t legislate economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods without a lot of drama and failures. Is there a different approach that the Housing Element suggests/allows? Sounds like it would take many pages and a lot of time to find out.

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