Chronic lawsuits against new Bay Area housing developments. Loud, angry protests against pro-growth legislators and mayors.
If the Bay Area has an all-season contact sport, it’s the recurring NIMBY fights against housing construction.
And although almost everyone agrees housing prices are too high, few want to see faster development to tackle the problem, according to a recent Bay Area poll for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and The Mercury News.
In the midst of an expanding housing shortage, rampant homelessness and highest-in-the-nation housing costs, the poll suggests Bay Area voters haven’t reached the tipping point needed to demand action.
“We’re in a crisis,” said Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He compared the housing shortage and resistance to new development to an airplane slowly descending, with few passengers recognizing how perilous the journey has become. “Our job is to keep the plane from crashing.”
About 83% of people surveyed said the cost of housing is a very or extremely serious problem, but 74% of respondents say development in their city is moving too fast or just about right. Only 18% felt development was lagging, a message the governor, mayors, think tanks and housing experts have been trying to get out.
The public sentiment could present a challenge to Bay Area leaders supporting dozens of aggressive new pro-housing measures in Sacramento. Those measures include Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, of San Francisco, which encourages high-density apartments and condos near transit routes and curbs local authority to thwart development.
Other bills would make it easier and cheaper to build accessory dwelling units, streamline local approvals and provide incentives to build housing for low- and middle-income earners. State housing advocates estimate California is running a deficit of 3.5 million homes from decades of underbuilding. A recent study by Joint Venture Silicon Valley estimated the region is short as many as 108,000 homes and apartments.
The five-county poll revealed a growing pessimism in the Bay Area. About two-thirds of respondents said the region’s quality of life has declined in the past five years. The top concerns included the high cost of living and expensive housing, homelessness and traffic.
Pollster FM3 conducted the survey of 1,568 registered voters in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and this news organization. The poll, conducted Feb. 14-24, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Sentiments about the pace of building break down along traditional lines — older, conservative voters are skeptical about more development, while younger residents, including one-quarter of current and former tech employees, say new construction is coming too slow.
Roughly 40% of Bay Area residents over 60 feel development is going too fast, compared with 33% of all respondents.
But several groups are more likely to believe construction is coming too slow, including renters (23%), those between the ages of 30 and 39 (31%), current tech employees (28%), and black residents (26%). Nearly 1 in 4 residents with household incomes over $120,000 also say development is lagging.
The tension has erupted at public hearings, creating more drama and less compromise.
Just this month, a hearing on SB50 packed a committee room in Sacramento, with passionate residents, local officials and lobbyists taking sides. In San Francisco, protesters heckled and shouted down Mayor London Breed at a public meeting about a proposed homeless center in South Beach.
Matt Lewis, spokesman for California YIMBY, or Yes In My Backyard, said the debate cuts across party lines and scrambles established political alliances. Conservatives in the Central Valley, for example, find common cause with Bay Area liberals promoting more affordable housing.
At city council and planning commission meetings, the breakdown is often older, white residents opposing new development while younger residents with more diverse backgrounds are pleading for more construction, he said. “This really is shaping much more into a generational issue,” Lewis said.
Residents urging slower growth have amassed a strong lobby. Susan Kirsch, founder of the slow-growth group Livable California, said the Bay Area has always been high-priced — and residents are willing to pay the costs to be surrounded by natural beauty and career opportunities.
Kirsch moved from Portland in 1979, and raised her family in Marin County. Kirsch, who was not a poll respondent, said development is moving “at about the right pace” and hates the idea of Sacramento stripping local controls.
Kirsch said the heated debates over development reflect a fundamental change in attitude toward elected leaders. “Locally, and to the national level,” she said, “there’s just a real mistrust of government.”
Residents say they can see both sides — but many don’t think there’s much urgency to add housing.
“They’re not doing intelligent development,” said Carol Gillett, of San Mateo, who was interviewed for the poll. “I don’t think it’s a matter of too fast or too slow.”
Gillett, 70, favors a better balance between housing and commercial construction. The newest apartments in her city are filled with one- and two-bedroom units — hardly enough for a young family and home office, she said.
But she opposes new state efforts that could spread dense housing development into traditionally suburban neighborhoods. “The politicians,” Gillett said, “are trying to react too quickly.”
Others feel the problems could be solved with more development.
Anthony Cardott, a 34-year-old teacher with a wife and young son, rents a three-bedroom apartment in downtown San Jose for $2,000. He knows it’s a good deal, but he doesn’t know how long it will last. More development could help.
His father built a house in Cupertino in 1968 for $30,000, he said. Those days are long gone, and when it comes to his own families’ long-term housing, he said, “I try not to look.”