Odd words from one of San Rafael’s council candidates

The campaign for San Rafael city council is starting to ramp up, with four candidates vying for two open seats. One of them, Randy Warren, has chosen to run on a platform of being a development conservative. Though not necessarily news on its own, his words on why he opposes affordable housing development shows that he doesn’t understand the politics and issues at hand. He still has a chance to catch up, but conservatives need a knowledgeable voice on the council, and right now he still has a way to go. From his announcement press release:

[Randy Warren] believes the city’s Housing Element is gravely flawed.  The proposed affordable housing could end up not going to needy Marin residents but instead to people relocating from other areas around the Bay whose vast numbers could shut out San Rafael’s poor. “We need good quality jobs to support a growing population, and there is no viable plan at present to do that. Wishful thinking is not enough. We need to avoid related increases to unemployment and homelessness, and the risk they present in wage deflation.”

Affordable housing

The purpose of affordable housing is to do what he says it will: help those who work in Marin but can't afford to live here find a home. I'm not a fan of the methods used by the state to promote affordable housing, namely the regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) process, but my problem with it has to do with its viability, not that it will do what it's advertised to do. Warren implies there will be a bait-and-switch, where we build housing for Marinites only to find them filled by folks from elsewhere.

There is a huge amount of demand to live in Marin. This is seen not only in recent price spikes in housing and rent costs, but in our massive in-commuting population. Marin gets 45,000 in-commuters every day, mostly from Contra Costa and Sonoma but also from San Francisco and Alameda. Studies have shown that they typically take lower-paying jobs, either as service workers (housekeepers, shop clerks) or other professions (teachers, low-level office workers). They simply can't afford a home in the county, especially if they're trying to move here now, and so they in-commute.

Affordable housing is designed to reduce that amount of in-commuting, decreasing their cost of commuting and reducing the pressure on our roadways, not just to support Marin's existing low-income residents who presumably already have homes.


Even stranger, however, is that Warren, while insisting we don't build affordable housing for non-Marinites, expresses concern that we aren't creating enough jobs for a "growing population." If we don't, he warns, we'll get increasing unemployment, homelessness, and wage deflation. I'm curious where this population growth would come from if not from beyond Marin, and why they'd come here if they didn't have a job. Perhaps he's talking about Marin's children, but surely he understands that Marin's demographics are such that it won't grow without immigration. But let's set this statement aside for a moment and focus on the jobs themselves.

First of all, Marin already has more jobs than it has workers. While 45,000 people commute to Marin every day, only 42,000 commute from Marin. In San Rafael itself, which is where Warren should concern himself, nearly 70 percent of jobs are held by out-of-towners. Marin, and especially his city, have more than enough jobs to support their own.

The problem, at least in the county at large, is that a great many of these jobs are not ones that many Marinites want or can afford to take. If we wanted to grow our jobs base, we would need to boost the number of high-paying professional jobs. That would mean drawing on the economic strength of San Francisco, developing places that are conducive to start-ups and innovation. Better transit connections for the predominantly car-free San Franciscans, as well as small housing units to keep Marin's young singles in-county, are needed to attract those high-paying businesses to San Rafael.

Alas, Warren, according to the IJ, wants to remove the Downtown San Rafael Planned Development Area (PDA), the place that would be most conducive to creating such an urban job center. By removing the PDA he would put at risk the targeted transportation investments the area desperately needs: a new bus terminal, better bike lanes, better connectivity from the rest of Marin, San Francisco, and the East Bay. At the same stroke, he would make the area less attractive to new businesses that may want to come.

But Marin doesn't have an unemployment problem. In fact, it has one of the strongest job markets in the state. Homelessness, while a problem, is not due to a lack of jobs. It's due to a complicated web of issues ranging from a lack of mental health services to the inherent instability of homelessness itself. A strong progressive shift in the zoning code in larger cities to allow more single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) as well as for-profit, sanitary bunking situations (think something like a more permanent hostel) would go a long way to fighting the "homeless" aspect of homelessness, while better investments in city services would help alleviate the underlying instability and poverty.

As for his last statement, that a lack of jobs in a single city of 56,000 would result in wage deflation, it is such a leap that it is beyond me. San Rafael is part of a much broader region and county, and its job market is deeply integrated with theirs. As we already established, it is so integrated that barely more than 30 percent of its jobs are held by locals. It would take forces far beyond the scope of the San Rafael City Council to depress the city's wages.

Not a promising start

These are odd and troubling statements from a serious candidate for city council. Development conservatives deserve a strong and articulate voice to represent their interests, someone who knows how cities operate in the region's context. Warren misunderstands the purpose of affordable housing, does not grasp the connection between land use and transportation, and does not understand San Rafael's job market.

Though I disagree with the development conservative position on a number of fronts, a knowledgeable councilmember could provide a needed skeptical eye to staff reports. He or she would be a valuable force and help shift the power of San Rafael from its departments to the council. I'm concerned, however, that Warren would be less of a check and more of a contrarian and populist, asking questions for their own sake and grandstanding instead of leading. At worst, he would isolate himself and bring discord to what is currently a collegial and effective body. I'd hate to see the problems of Sausalito replicated in Marin's largest city.

But the race is still young, and perhaps Warren is just getting his campaign legs. Over time, I'm sure he'll release more statements and say other things that will help refine our understanding of his views. But this is not a promising start.