Plan Bay Area: better, but it still gentrifies

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By Peter Cohen and Fernando Martí

Council of Community Housing Organizations

OPINION On July 18, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) adopted the region's first so-called "sustainable communities strategy," as required under new state environmental laws. Plan Bay Area will direct the largest share of the region's growth to the region's urban cores — two-thirds of the region's overall housing production is directed to 15 specific cities.

The vision is what environmentalists refer to as "smart growth" — shrinking the footprint of the region's future development as a more environmentally friendly and geographically efficient pattern to absorb ever-increasing population. San Francisco alone has a very tall order: Our city will absorb 25 percent of new urban development, which equates to 92,000 new housing units and a pace of housing construction averaging around 3,100 units annually (a rate that has been reached only twice over the last 50 years since the era of 1960s urban renewal development).

The question that framed debates through the three-year process in drafting and finally adopting the plan is how that amount of new growth can be "done right;" that is, without gentrifying working class and poor communities and ensuring that infrastructure, including affordable housing and transit service, will keep up with that pace of growth. Tim Redmond's feature article in the June 4 issue of the Guardian ("Planning for displacement") and a June 12 forum sponsored by the Guardian, CCHO, and UrbanIDEA very thoroughly laid out the issues and critiques of the Plan Bay Area draft that was released by MTC/ABAG earlier this spring.

With such fundamental flaws when the draft plan was released in April, how did the July 18 adopted final Plan Bay Area fare? First, there is no question this regional "smart growth" plan will make combating gentrification at ground-level harder. But second, the plan could have been worse if not for a tremendous final pushback by progressive advocates from San Francisco and throughout the region loosely united in a "Six Wins for Social Equity" coalition and the committed leadership of a small core of progressive regional leaders — including two of San Francisco's representatives, David Campos (MTC) and Eric Mar (ABAG) — who championed some final amendments.

Those "wins" (in reality, concessions by MTC/ABAG) achieved in this final push include: adding a public process to develop priorities for the Bay Area's $3.1 billion share of state cap and trade funding, such as to affordable housing and local transit operations; strengthening the $14 billion transportation block-grant funds program ("OBAG") to link it directly to local cities' affordable housing production and displacement-prevention policies; and adding a requirement for MTC to develop a comprehensive strategy to prioritize funding of local transit service and transit maintenance.

Though the details of those amendments are fairly squishy and do not alter the development trajectory of the plan, they are potentially valuable handholds to work with going forward as Plan Bay Area gets implemented (and updated in four years).

That said, San Francisco's front line working class neighborhoods and communities of color still stand to take the brunt of potential negative impacts from this regional "smart growth" plan. Theoretically they could receive the potential benefits of public infrastructure investments and stimulated economic activity. But while the risks are real, the potential benefits are still illusory.