By Eric Krock

Friday evening’s forum in Palo Alto on S.B. 50 was a sham and a bust as a voter education event, but it was an outstanding opportunity to see Scott Wiener demonstrate his unethical persuasion techniques in person. Here were some of the lowlights of his comments.

Mischaracterize the status quo

Wiener described the current system of land use planning as “pure local control.” That’s false.

  • His own S.B. 35 enables developers to bypass the local planning process and environmental reviews if they commit build specified percentages of affordable housing units and pay “prevailing wages” on the project.

  • Cities and counties are required by state law to meet housing goals under a formula established by the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). Cities that have failed to meet these goals such as Menlo Park and Pleasanton have been successfully sued by groups such as Urban Habitat at a cost of millions.

  • The state also mandates density bonuses that override height and density limits established by localities. Senator Wiener mysteriously forgets to account for the effect of state density bonuses when he talks about the height and density limits created by his bills. Why? The effect of those bonuses is to allow even higher and denser buildings than he wants to acknowledge.

Cherry pick your data points

Scott Wiener LOVES to talk about Beverly Hills. In fact, if you see Scott Wiener talk about housing, you’re almost guaranteed to hear about Beverly Hills. Is that because Beverly Hills is typical of the rest of California? Absolutely not. Beverly Hills is only 5.7 square miles in a state of 163,696 square miles. It has a population of 35,000 in a state of over 39 million people. And we all know that 90210 is in no way representative of the rest of the state.

So why does Scott Wiener invariably bring up Beverly Hills? Beverly Hills has managed to get itself an extremely low Regional Housing Needs Assessment of three units over an eight year period. Wiener raises a valid question. Although 63% of its housing is already multi-family, it’s possible that Beverly Hills may have gamed the RHNA system. If so, the way to fix that is to improve the RHNA target allocation process and the allocation for Beverly Hills, not to blow up the local land use planning process statewide. The RHNA target of Beverly Hills is an edge case that is in no way representative of the RHNA targeting practices of major California cities, and the fact that this 5.7 square miles surrounded by reality may have gamed the system is no argument for rewriting land use policy statewide and micromanaging land use plot-by-plot from Sacramento, as Senator Wiener has proposed to do in S.B. 827 and S.B 50.

Cite push polls

Scott Wiener claimed that three statewide polls show that majorities support S.B. 50. What he didn’t tell you is that at least one of those polls he cited was a push poll conducted by Lake Research Partners, the kind of firm you pay to get you the poll results you want, for California YIMBY, which is a poorly-disguised lobbying organization for for-profit luxury real-estate developers.

He also somehow failed to mention that this push poll prefaced their question about S.B. 50 with a completely biased, one-sided description of the bill, which read: “Senate Bill 50 would change state law to allow more homes like apartments, townhouses, and triplexes, including affordable housing for lower- and middle-income families, near public transit lines like buses or trains, and in areas with a lot of jobs.”

In their description of S.B. 50 during the poll, Lake Research Partners somehow forgot to mention that S.B. 50 would override the local planning process, eliminate environmental reviews for S.B. 50 projects, limit projects to handful of public review sessions no matter how large they are, and mandate local approval of S.B. 50 projects in their entirety in residential neighborhoods even if the projects included non-housing elements like rooftop restaurants, residential crematoria, or goodness knows what other kind of “mixed use” elements that would previously have never been allowed in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

In contrast, a poll of LA residents performed by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs used neutral wording and gave respondents separate choices for or against allowing multi-family housing in areas zoned for single-family only, promoting each possible answer in positive terms. That poll found that residents “prefer keeping apartment buildings in neighborhoods already zoned for multi-family housing” by a ratio of more than 2:1, and that “majorities of both owners and renters prefer to have new apartment buildings built in multi-family zones only.”

Getting the results you want from a poll is easy. Just frame a single response the way you want to in biased terms and make selective use of evidence. California YIMBY and Lake Research Partners are good at that, and Scott Wiener shamelessly uses and promotes the baised and misleading results they gave him.

Only discuss one side of a project, and only cite numbers for the parts you WANT to talk about

In discussing mixed-use developments, Scott Wiener consistently talks about the number of housing units created but makes no mention of the number of office workers the offices will hold (which invariably far exceeds the people in the housing units in these large mixed-use developments) or the number of retail workers who will be employed in retail components, both of which will generate traffic in and out of the projects every day, further burdening our road system.

For example, he mentioned that Facebook has proposed a development with 1500 units of housing. He didn’t mention that only 15% of those units will be affordable housing. He also didn’t mention that that same development will include 1.75 million square feet of office space, sufficient to hold over 11,000 office workers, so the project will be making the jobs-to-housing ratio worse, not better.

Likewise, here’s how State Senator Wiener described the upcoming Vallco Shopping Mall redevelopment: Vallco “will be turned into 2,400 units of housing, half of which will be affordable. Some people have criticized that project saying, oh, because there are also going to be jobs there, and it will somehow exacerbate the jobs/housing balance. There’s been some criticism that there will be some jobs there and that this will somehow make the jobs to housing ratio worse. Of course, traditionally in the Bay Area this site would have been an office park with no housing.”

Once again, Wiener cited specific numbers on what he wanted to talk about (the number of housing units created) but spoke in vague generalities about the topics he wanted to avoid (office space, number of office workers, retail space, and number of retail workers). What Wiener inexplicably forgot to mention is that the Vallco Mall redevelopment project as rammed through by Sand Hill Properties under S.B. 35 will have 2 million square feet of office space. Office space produces 1 worker for every 150 square feet on average, and the average household in the U.S. has 2.58 people.

Using those benchmarks, the Vallco redevelopment under SB 35 will generate over 13,300 workers but only housing for 6200 people (2400 households) at most, again making the jobs-to-housing ratio even worse (as even Wiener himself admits). Even if you make an absurdly unrealistic assumption that every household will have 2 workers at that office complex, that will mean 7300 more workers going in and out of those offices per day in an area with no mass transit, making the Highway 280 traffic even worse and increasing emissions.

And that’s without accounting for the employment and traffic impact of the 400,000 square feet of retail. Thanks to S.B. 35, Sand Hill was also not required to submit a traffic mitigation plan. Thanks for nothing, Senator Wiener. We know it won’t be you who’s stuck sitting in traffic on Highway 280. You live in San Francisco, work in Sacramento, and cash campaign donations from for-profit luxury real-estate developers all over the state!

Wiener’s statement that “traditionally this would have been an office park with no housing” is also nonsense. He’s referring to some traditional past of his imagining that certainly doesn’t exist today. There was no consideration being given to having the Vallco site used solely for office space. The Cupertino City Council’s community plan was a mixed-use plan that would have provided more units of housing than Sand Hill’s S.B. 35 plan does.

In sum, attending a Scott Wiener event is a waste of time if you want to get a balanced, accurate overview of jobs, housing, transit, traffic, schools, and quality-of-life issues, but it’s ideal if you want to see a career politician using techniques of unethical persuasion to create misleading impressions in the mind of his audience.

Eric Krock is a member of Livable California and resident of the South Bay who is active in seeking to ensure we preserve quality of life as the Bay Area grows. He believes in rational, evidence-based land use planning that balances jobs, housing, mass transit, traffic, schools, and green space. He can be contacted through the California Local Control web site.