Fresno's affordable housing pivot becomes experiment for Gov. Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown’s Fresno-influenced experiment could be the beginning of top-down housing policy.


Local and state officials gathered Thursday morning in Southeast Fresno to hold a “roundtable” discussion on Gov. Jerry Brown’s new affordable housing proposal.


A more apt metaphor would be “balloon” – as in “trial balloon” posing as policy seminar.

The event took place at a Fresno Housing Authority office a short distance south of the fairgrounds. Housing Authority Chief Executive Preston Prince was moderator. Mayor Ashley Swearengin and state Department of Housing & Community Development Director Ben Metcalf played prominent roles.

Council Member Esmeralda Soria and Dan Zack, City Hall’s assistant planning director, were among the dozen or so other officials and community leaders to attend.

The Governor wants more high-quality housing for low-income Californians. No one of sound mind could disagree. The challenge: How?

Governmental housing policy is as complex as governmental health policy. I’ll let a fact sheet from the state housing department cut to the chase:

“The Governor is proposing a change to state law to remove regulatory barriers and streamline development timeframes by granting multifamily attached housing to be approved through a by-right ministerial process. Eligible housing proposals would be required to include some affordable housing and be located on appropriately zoned residential land in infill and transit rich areas.”

The four pivotal words are “by-right ministerial process.” What does that mean for Fresno’s 520,000 residents? In essence, it means we are no longer allowed to worry or care about where low-income multi-family housing is built.

The elites – you know, the vanguard embedded in City Hall, Sacramento and Washington, D.C. – will decide that for us. In fact, they already have. Low-income multi-family housing will go wherever justice demands.

No need to remind you who gets to define “justice.”

The Prince-led discussion was closed to the media. But afterward the participants gathered in a small Housing Authority room for a 25-minute news conference.

Every word was riveting, and I say that in all sincerity. Just about every City Hall policy fight over the last 20 years – make that the last 60 years – has some sort of tie to comments from speakers at the news conference.

Let’s hear from several of those speakers:

Prince was first to the microphone. He said the Governor’s proposal would reduce the red tape that hinders, if not halts, the construction of many affordable housing projects.

“Fresno is no different from California and the rest of the country – we have a high demand for affordable housing,” Prince said. “Eighty percent of our low-income families are paying more than 50% of their income for rent. We have a need for 35,000 affordable housing units. One of the issues of affordable housing is the cost of building affordable housing.… But there things that a government agency can do, whether it’s at the city level or at the state level, to address the costs incurred by developers through the regulatory and entitlement process. Here in the city of Fresno the mayor has taken the lead to create a great program, a by-right program, adopted in December, that (says) if a developer meets certain conditions they will be able to have an expedited permitting process.”

Prince said the state is now moving in Fresno’s “by-right” direction. He then introduced Metcalf.

“It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here in the city of Fresno, a city which, under the leadership of Mayor Swearengin and the City Council, has (displayed) incredible leadership to do the hard work of putting in place appropriate, current, thoughtful plans that explain where and what the community wants to be built in their city,” Metcalf said.

“This is important because today in California we have an unprecedented affordable housing crisis. A million-and-a-half California households today are spending more than half of their income in rent. That means every month tough decisions are getting made about where they spend their money: On rent or on food? On rent or on health care? They’re making sacrifices for their savings, for their retirement, for their children.”

Metcalf said the state over the last 15 years has consistently failed to build enough affordable housing to keep up with demand.

“Unfortunately, when we look ahead, the challenges just get worse,” Metcalf said. “We see a growing disparity between the demand for housing and the number of units that are coming on the market. What is getting built in California – the majority of it is single-family homes often in locations that are far from jobs and other amenities and often priced at levels that are unattainable to those who need it most.”

Metcalf said there’s no silver bullet to the state’s housing challenges. At the same time, he added, the recent budget deal in Sacramento includes “conceptual agreement” on several items that “will move the needle forward” on affordable housing reform.

The first is the Governor’s by-right affordable housing plan. Metcalf said this plan “takes a page from the work done here in Fresno to streamline the delivery of housing serving families of all incomes.”

The second is $400 million from the state’s general fund to spur the construction of affordable housing. State leaders are still deciding how this money will be spent.

“Now, there is still a healthy dialogue going on around the specifics: How this funding plan will get designed, how this legislation will get drafted and exactly what it will do,” Metcalf said. “We expect that over the next several weeks we’ll work closely with groups all around the state, with the legislative leadership, to make sure that this bill evolves in a way that moves the needle but does it in a respectful way of the needs of communities all across California.

“Let’s just pause for a moment and talk about what by-right housing is from the governor’s perspective. This is housing that conforms with the zoning and the general plans that have already been arrived at by the city, cities that have gone through the process of identifying what they want built – they’ve done the environmental reviews, they’ve held public meetings. What this says is, when this (affordable) housing is so desperately needed we can’t subject it to a second and discretionary review. We need to move it through on a ministerial basis.

“By-right is not only what’s done in Fresno but it’s also a national best practice, identified by the American Planning Association this past April as a model for how zoning codes should be written. And its (absence in many cities is) much of the reason why, in this state, affordable housing costs as much as 12% more on average and takes as long as 30% longer on average than housing in other parts of this country. We need to move (regulatory reform) forward.

“This is even more important when it’s paired with dollars. That’s to make sure some of this housing is also targeting some of the most vulnerable. That $400 million state investment helps plug the gap we’ve seen over the last eight years as funding levels, particularly from the federal government as well as the state level, have dropped precipitously.

“It’s true that housing affordability and (other housing) challenges are huge and complex problems. That’s why we’ll be having these conversations over the next several weeks to get this bill done and get it right. That’s why this administration and the Department of Housing and Community Development will be holding a series of conversations over the next six months to develop a long-term strategy for affordable housing – and the next step of items that we know will need to happen out of Sacramento to address these problems once we get through this first opportunity.

“But, in the meantime, we can’t wait. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s take this opportunity to do the best we can.”

Additional weeks of “conversations” among Sacramento politicians and lobbyists and special interest groups. Six months of conversations with average Californians from San Diego to Crescent City. See why I called Thursday’s seminar a “trial balloon.” This is far from a done deal. With the Mayor’s considerable help, the Governor was testing which way the wind is blowing in our neck of the woods.

Swearengin was next to the microphone. She thanked Metcalf for making the trip south. She thanked Prince and his team for hosting the event.

“It is no surprise to anyone in our local community for me to stand up here and say these words: We absolutely must do what it takes to revitalize the city of Fresno,” Swearengin said. “The path that we’ve been on for decades now has resulted in some of the highest concentrations of poverty, some of the worst environmental consequences, of any other large city in the United States.

“You all know that (policy and humanitarian challenge) has been the passionate pursuit of my administration for the last seven-and-a-half years. We have already adopted the innovative policy proposal that the Governor is now recommending statewide. And we did that in December of this last year when we updated our new citywide development code. The way that we arrived at a conclusion that a by-right development process was the right way to approach development for the city of Fresno was because we are seeking to remove every barrier from investing in our city and particularly in neighborhoods that have not seen new investment for decades.

“And we knew that if we could remove every barrier locally there are still many many challenges to revitalizing our older neighborhoods and to the existing parts of the city. But at least the things we control ought to be in alignment with our ultimate goal of revitalizing our city. So, that led us down the path to by-right development.”

Swearengin said Assistant Planning Director Zack would be next to the microphone. First, though, she did a little lobbying herself.

“I also want to take this opportunity to say we applaud the Governor for bringing forward this proposal statewide,” Swearengin said. “We know what a benefit it’s going to be to the city of Fresno, and I can only imagine how much it’s going to help deal with the affordability crisis around the state, as well.

“We’re grateful to the Governor’s team for bringing this proposal forward. We know there are many issues to be resolved, and we encourage all sides to get together and reconcile the differences they may have about implementation of this policy. But let me say I believe it’s directionally correct and the details need to be ironed out. We’ve certainly done some of that hard work here in the city of Fresno. We encourage people around California to do the same thing.

“Let me also take a moment to say: Adopting a by-right development process still leaves major gaps in allowing us to see investment in inner-city Fresno and existing parts of the city, and those gaps are financial. And so, with the director to my left, let me say: Fresno needs funding support, as well. The policy changes are so important, but also it’s the funding to back that up.

“My colleague from the City Council, Esmeralda Soria, is here, and she and I worked together to ensure a little bit of additional money in this year’s budget to go towards affordable housing. But it is just a drop in the proverbial bucket. We need a regular, dedicated, much larger funding stream dedicated to affordable housing in Fresno.”

Zack was perhaps the key player in getting the new development code/zoning ordinance written and passed. He didn’t have a lot of time on Thursday to explain how Fresno used to process developer proposals for low-income housing. That meant he didn’t have a lot of time to explain how by-right development is a big improvement.

If I understood Zack correctly, the old way was slow – and slow in business means expensive.

“The opposite of by-right would be conditionally approved,” Zack said.

In a by-right city, a developer who meets all the requirements of the established code (written 10 days ago or 10 years ago) gets to build his multi-family affordable housing project with no push-back from anyone. These requirements include locating the project in the correctly zoned area.

In a city more attuned to conditional approvals, the developer and his multi-family affordable housing project would have to negotiate a more uncertain regulatory path. In other words, the neighbors could protest. That doesn’t mean the neighbors would prevail. It does mean their protests would have legitimacy.

Fresno with its new development code became 112 square miles of by-right development opportunity. City officials on Thursday said that’s OK because the code was thoroughly vetted by the public before going to the City Council.

Other than Granville Homes’ Jeff Roberts and Leadership Counsel’s Ashley Werner, I can’t think of any civilian who understood that the new development code meant the people had given up authority to “conditionally approve” future development.

But apparently that’s the case.

“By-right means we’ve already looked at the whole city, figured out where (development such as affordable housing) makes the most sense and where it belongs and what it should look like and how tall it should be and all of that,” Zack said. “And if you do all those things that we’ve already vetted with the community and have determined works, you get approved. You don’t have to go through all these other steps.”

Thursday’s news conference was winding down. There was time for a few questions from reporters.

I got in two.

1.) Does “by-right” policy mean Wellington Place would have been built, regardless of any input from a council member or neighbors?

The answer: Yes, if the site was zoned for such a project.

As you may recall, Wellington Place was a proposed 324-unit apartment complex with 65 low-income units. It was to be built in Northwest Fresno. We’re talking 1997.

The complex never got built. Council Member Chris Mathys, who represented the area at the time, and neighbors said Wellington Place was the wrong project for that part of town.

It took six years and a lawsuit before the controversy died.

2.) In light of the Governor’s proposal, City Hall’s new development code and the feds’ Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, is America headed toward a nationalized housing policy?

The Mayor asked Prince to respond.

“I think what’s going to be happening here at the city level, with the city and the county and the Housing Authority, we will be looking at creating an Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing plan,” Prince said. “I think it’s due by the end of 2018. I can’t remember the exact date. We’ll be looking at how do we create housing options throughout the community for low-income families, and that does mean housing options within high opportunity neighborhoods where there are very few options for low-income families.

“So, I think it does dovetail all together. It is about creating mixed-income, vibrant neighborhoods, well designed, that have great connectivity to the broader neighborhood, that have transportation connections, employment connections. It is about a thoughtful national housing policy. I would say yes to you.”

I’ve worked with Preston Prince for years. He is dedicated to making our city a better place for everyone. Fresno is blessed to have him.

Prince also enjoys the give-and-take of debate. I figured he wouldn’t mind my response to answer.

“From the top down. We appreciate it.”

Preston ignored my attempt at irony.

1 comment
  1. George, aka The Kid From Lindsay whom I admire so much: Recently visited with Dick Hamilton and he expressed a desire to make contact with you. So would I.
    Boy, does the Bee miss you.

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