Local Government's Role in Community Development Should be Respected, Not Eviscerated

Posted on 04 February 2011

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By Shane Brinton
Arcata City Councilmember

In these tough economic times, nothing is more important than continued public investment to stimulate growth, create jobs, and provide greater stability for communities. In California, we are lucky to have redevelopment agencies to help us meet this need at the local level. These unique agencies provide municipalities with the necessary funding structure to invest local property tax revenues directly in their communities.

Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies has shocked local government officials and left a lot of us wondering how serious he is about his campaign pledge to “get California working again.” Across the state, local plans for affordable housing projects, cleanup of blighted areas, infrastructure improvements, and business development efforts now hang in the balance.

Brown and other critics claim that redevelopment agencies unnecessarily take money that should be spent on other programs and services. This dismissive attitude is not only frustrating to those on the front lines of community development work, it is a concerning indication that the Brown Administration may not fully understand the important role public investment plays in the health of local economies and the communities that depend on them.

As a councilmember for the City of Arcata, I fear what the theft of local redevelopment monies could mean for my community and for hundreds of others. City plans for affordable senior housing, transitional housing for the homeless, and streetscape improvements in an underserved part of Arcata are among the projects that could be impacted if Brown’s plan goes through. Other communities throughout the state are in the same boat, waiting to find out whether they will have to delay, scale back or scrap projects.

Like other socially conscious communities, Arcata has gone above and beyond state requirements in our efforts to expand housing opportunities for residents of modest means. Using redevelopment funds, our staff works with local developers and nonprofits to create affordable housing, both for renters and first-time homebuyers. These are new housing opportunities and construction jobs that would not exist without financial and planning assistance from local government.

Unfortunately, redevelopment has not been such a positive experience for all communities. Some redevelopment agencies have wasted public money, helping to bankroll luxury housing and commercial developments that are incompatible with existing neighborhoods. Even worse, redevelopment efforts have spurred gentrification in some areas, displacing low income people and minority populations.

This complicated history makes redevelopment an easy target for critics on both the right and the left, as well as politicians seeking to balance the state budget at all costs. Yet even the most valid criticisms fail to provide a basis for the argument that redevelopment is inherently wasteful or useless. Most problems can be traced back to the management practices and policy decisions of certain redevelopment agencies. Such problems could be addressed by carefully reforming the program to minimize waste and abuse, but doing away with it entirely would be a mistake.

Evidence that redevelopment works is available and compelling. In 2006-2007 alone, redevelopment activities in California generated $40.8 billion in economic activity and more than 304,000 new jobs. Redevelopment also provides environmental and social benefits. It reduces sprawl by focusing development in already urbanized areas and sets aside 20% of agency-generated property tax funds for affordable housing. Redevelopment agencies have helped to build or rehabilitate 98,000 affordable housing units since 1993.

Voters have repeatedly approved measures to keep local funds local. In November of last year, Californians passed Proposition 22, which protects funding for redevelopment agencies and other local government projects and services. Even if the legislature agrees to Brown’s plan, Proposition 22 may put a stop to it, although legal opinions vary.

Brown has been more honest about his approach to the budget than his predecessor was, but unfortunately his general methodology is very similar. Rather than having the courage to significantly cut California’s bloated prison system, proposing bold revenue measures aimed at the wealthy, or pursuing creative ideas like a government-run bank to keep money from leaving the state, Brown is seeking to balance the budget at the expense of vital programs that help working families and struggling communities survive.

This, of course, is the problem with the idea that austerity is the path to stability. The Brown Administration and the legislature should tread carefully when cutting programs that are important for the long-term health and prosperity of the state. Redevelopment is only one of these programs, but it deserves to be recognized as such and preserved.


Shane Brinton is a member of the Arcata City Council and a California Democratic Party Delegate representing the 1st Assembly District. At 24, he is one of the youngest elected officials in the state. He can be reached at shanebrinton@gmail.com.

Now that's a statement! Bold revenue measures! Wow. Confiscation, anyone?

With all due respect to Councilmember Brinton in Arcata, who seems like an earnest young man, state taxpayers have been footing the bill for revelopment agencies for quite some time now, and the collective results have been dubious at best.

As reported recently in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, most municipalities in Southern California have treated these agencies as mere extensions of their political patronage. Here in Pasadena, the agency appears to have spent more on staff salaries than on actual redevelopment.

If California cities like their redevelopment agencies, then by all means, let their local taxpayers fund them. But as of right now, I'm hard-pressed to place agency needs ahead of public safety and education when it comes to the distribution of state revenues.

These projects are approved by the city councils or boards of supervisors without the vote of the people. The money could better be used elsewhere.

I agree with the Councilman that although I generally respect Jerry Brown, I don't understand this wholesale disbanding of an entire class of agency--especially when those agencies have more local ties than state, it seems to us.

A few unfortunate incidents of luxury spending or inappropriate economic development subsidies sour the pot, of course, and apparently this must have happened in California.

But it's actually fairly easy to develop common-sense screens for such projects. Factors to consider could be:

1. Whether there is any indication that the private market will address the property or area in question,

2. The rental or sales prices of any proposed housing,

3. The types of stores of companies anticipated to be lead tenants in commercial developments,

4. The general prosperity of the area (redevelopment agencies need to help the least prosperous areas, not those who are doing fine),

5. The existence of brownfields, considering that the proper use of the term includes properties even suspected of some type of pollution,

6. A qualitative assessment of the public good to be gained

7. The need for jobs in the surrounding area

There could be a number of other good screening tests, but it's pretty easy to figure out that when someone wants to redevelop, there's no automatic need for government subsidy or intervention. In those cases where redevelopment does have its fair share of difficulties, which will be frankly many cases, redevelopment is more cost-effective for government in the long run than greenfields development and therefore deserves government technical assistance, if not outright subsidy.

Perhaps if the governor is so concerned, he can set up some of these easy litmus tests that will be standards that the state can audit to expose fraudulent or irresponsible uses of taxpayer money. Make the penalties for questionable deals stiff and financially punitive for the redevelopment agency.

Then perhaps the draconian measure of disbanding all redevelopment agencies and their many good projects can be abandoned.

The theft is the theft that under-funded schools suffer because RDA's have taken that money instead.

This form of "state stimulus" is not neccessary when property values are going down. Ask Obama to spend the remaining 2/3 of the federal stimulus money instead. That will create jobs just like FDR did.

And I do like the substitute 55% vote for the local voter for tax and bond developments. That certainly is more control over local development then what exists now over RDA's, which is no respect at ALL.