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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Developer Goes Over City Council - City's Authority Stripped By New State Housing Law

47th Street Homes Project Ushers In New 'Upzone' Housing Boom In East Emeryville Neighborhoods

First Developer to Invoke New California Law to Override City Council

Flood of Housing Projects Will Bring More White People 

News Analysis

The desire of the people of Emeryville to plan their town as they see fit ran hard up against the power of the State Tuesday when the City Council, yielding to a new anti-planning state law that takes away local housing control, voted to allow a developer to tear down four affordable rental homes to be replaced with expensive rental townhomes.  Emeryville thus becomes one of the first Bay Area towns to test the new law, SB 330; a developer backed decree that seeks to increase housing density across California at the expense of citizen empowerment in their own city planning.

Emeryville residents watched in shock Tuesday night as the City Council voted unanimously to grant an out-of-town developer freedom to evict his multi-generational low income minority tenants in four contiguous homes he owns in order to demolish them and build unaffordable townhouses.  The net effect on 47th Street (and elsewhere after this precedent setting law begins to take effect) will be to make the neighborhood whiter, richer, less blue collar and generally less diverse.  It was shocking because neither the City Council or the Planning Commission wanted this to happen.  Shocking because the City Council is now seen as powerless to stop what will likely become a torrent of development, developers seeking their fortunes gentrifying the Triangle Neighborhood and North Emeryville, the last bastions of affordable genuine family housing left in our town.

SB 330, authored by our own local Assembly member Nancy Skinner, was advertised to overturn what was characterized by her as a state-wide culture of ‘NIMBYism’ that had contributed to California’s legendary status of being an epicenter of unaffordable housing.  Before it became law in January, SB 330 saw a powerful consortium of developer/lobbyists who glommed onto the legislation that sought to strip cities of their general plans, forcing them to approve virtually any housing project that would increase density.  Early on, some environmental groups signed onto the law (which would theoretically lessen pressure for cities to sprawl), an ‘eco’ seal of approval that lowered what would have normally been robust citizen involvement, adding to SB 330’s remarkably rapid legislative confirmation. 

Berkeley resident Assembly Member Nancy Skinner
(with mic) obtained Governor Gavin Newsome's
help in signing SB 330, the 'Housing Crisis
Act of 2019'.

Emeryville Is Not Guilty

Within SB 330’s pro-density zealotry, is a lack of recognition for towns that have behaved responsibly with their housing planning and building.  SB 330 lumps in towns that are not driven by housing NIMBYism with towns that have engaged NIMBYism that clearly do need to be reined in for the sake of the greater good.  It was against those irresponsible municipalities that Assembly member Skinner raised the specter of echelons of privileged and connected upper middle class town folk protecting their property values by stopping (lower income) development in a State that has seen property values skyrocket.  This kind of NIMBYism is a stereotype that certainly has a basis in fact when one looks to Bay Area towns like Piedmont, Tiberon or Atherton.  But SB 330 uses a sledgehammer to do its work and unnecessarily removes the people’s rights to plan their cities in areas that don’t need mandates from Sacramento - cities like Emeryville. 

Emeryville has shown itself to be a city not in need of SB 330.  NIMBYism, when it comes to housing, has not been in effect here.  Over the last 20 years, Emeryville has surpassed its market rate housing goals by triple digits as reported by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA).  With housing numbers like Emeryville’s, no plausible argument can be made for City Hall needing to hand over its Planning Department to Sacramento.

SB 330 simply sets to increase the density of California cities.  It doesn’t speak to affordability, except by use of a trickle down nostrum, invoking a facile supply and demand panacea that incidentally has many critics.  Emeryville serves as a convenient case study.  As the town has doubled its population and then doubled it again, housing prices here continue skyrocketing upward, unabated, far outpacing general cost of living increases.

Slumlords Love the New Law

The 47th Street Homes Project is a particularly egregious example of gentrification.  The development corporation, FE Forbes has operated as a landlord for many years in the Triangle neighborhood, acting in a classic slumlord modus operandi according to the tenants.  The City Council was particularly incensed after it was revealed that Forbes hadn’t even fixed a heater in one of the 47th Street houses it owns, forcing the tenant, a grandmother with children living with her, to go without heat for ten years.  Forbes CEO, Mark Forbes, before invoking SB 330, argued the City should disregard the City’s ‘Areas of Stability’ clause in the General Plan because he hadn’t maintained the homes over the years and the resultant state of disrepair should serve as reason enough to grant permission to evict all the tenants and raze the four craftsman homes.  He failed to mention he would make a lot more money in rents with the new townhomes it should be noted.

The City Council (and the Planning Commission) voted NO to FE Forbes' demolition request in January, the first time a home teardown developer had been rejected by the City of Emeryville.  Thus, SB 330 now curtails what might have been a budding Council ethos, looking to protect its existing affordable family housing stock. 

The fate, decided by Sacramento, of Emeryville’s existing (affordable) 47th Street homes becoming the fabulous 47th Street Homes will serve as a dinner bell to developers.  The eastern residential part of Emeryville that Emeryvillians sought to protect in the General Plan is now on the menu for developers far and wide.  So long as the market prices hold out and barring a large economic turndown, the last stock of detached single family houses in Emeryville, demonstrably the most family friendly housing, will be under greater and greater pressure to fall to the wreaking ball.  Sacramento has seen to it that what little planning Emeryville may have had over the years is now going to be relegated to the dustbin of history.  SB 330 promises Emeryville and other Bay Area cities will descend into a new wild west anti-planning period of unregulated housing development, the will of the people be damned. 

Here come the techie yuppies!
Emeryville to become whiter, richer, less blue collar and fewer families.
A scene that will become increasingly common
in the East Emeryville neighborhoods with the passage of SB 330.


  1. Families and poor people aren't going to be living in Emeryville and there's really nothing that can be done to change that. Our system isn't designed to "fix" what the market doesn't want. In that sense, maybe it's ok. You should learn to live with it. The council has.

  2. Please send an inquiry to Sen Skinner asking her to comment on your article's points and share with us.

  3. Really? You trust Skinner to do something? I'd shoot this all the up to Superintendent Charlmers!

  4. Replacing 4 homes with 6 homes. 6 > 4. 50% increase in housing. If this happened throughout the bay area and housing suddenly increased by 50%, rents and home prices would drop significantly. Basic economics. Supply and demand. Please write better informed articles.

    1. This article is quite well informed and I invite you to please point out any inaccuracies. Mistakes will be corrected and you’ll get an acknowledgement for correcting this or any Tattler story.
      Quoting the old supply and demand saw is facile and ignores housing realities in the Bay Area in general and Emeryville specifically.

      To your point, of course, if the region was carpet bomb saturated with new housing, eventually we would start to see housing cost reductions. An Empire State Building of market rate apartments built on every parcel, all existing housing and commercial development torn down to accommodate each 100 story apartment tower would bring down rents so low that everyone could afford to live here.
      But who would want to?

      As the Embarcadero Institute piece quoted in the story says, “For those who believe ‘trickle-down’ economics works in the housing market, and that more market-rate housing will result in more affordable housing, they need only look at the Bay Area to see the evidence that it doesn’t work that way. Decades of exceeding market-rate targets in the Bay Area has not reduced median housing prices.” This is especially true for Emeryville, who has exceeded by double digits, every Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) implementation period for over 20 years and all we have to show for it is vastly higher housing costs.

      With ever increasing density, at some point the quality of life starts to plummet. The less planning and the more a polity is given over to market fealty, the more instability is generated. Housing shocks are produced in the resultant boom and bust cycles. Real people are hurt in such a draconian and unnecessary market worshiping paradigm.

      To simply throw city planning utterly over to greedy developers chasing market ephemeralities is to invite a permanent disaster for livability for Bay Area cities. Once it's destroyed, a city’s existential nature, the characteristics that make it desirable, cannot be recovered. We plan precisely because the marketplace on its own, cannot deliver the cities we want.