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Brisbane remains defiant under regional pressure to build housing

"Brisbane, California" by Flickr user Shannon Hahn Darlin, cropped and used under Creative Commons license (http://bit.ly/2hsbH0e)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the web text and the current audio falsely states that SF BARF is mostly funded by "ordinary renters." In fact, over $86,000 of the group's funds were contributed by real estate and corporate groups. They also described the site as being "less than a mile" from the Bayshore Caltrain stop. In fact, the border of the site reaches all the way to the station. Lastly, we did not mention that the Baylands Site includes land that is not landfill. 

A few months ago, when it became clear that the small town of Brisbane was looking to build up a huge development that would not include any new housing at all, San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim floated the idea of basically annexing part of the town into her city, so that San Francisco could make sure housing got built. 

Annexing—yes, like the U.S. annexed Texas, or Russia annexed Crimea. 

In the midst of a regional housing shortage, where squeezing new units into San Francisco is a hard-fought battle, suburbs that refuse to build have become scapegoats for the housing affordability crisis. But the annexation idea did not go over well in Brisbane. 

Brisbane has been dealing with San Francisco's garbage for a long time

Much of the site of the proposed development—known as the Baylands—is actually San Francisco's old dump. The people of Brisbane objected to the intrusion of their neighbor’s trash back in the 60's, and now some of them object to San Franciscans intruding on their City Hall meetings to lecture them about density and development. 

"Tonight you will hear some elegant statements whining and crying for housing,” testified Tom Hynes of Brisbane before his City Council in September. “The bullies are thumping their chests!” Hynes cried, referring to members of the Bay Area Renters Federation, who’d mobilized a field trip to Brisbane to attend the hearing. "But let the locals speak first."

Brisbane borders San Francisco. It’s actually closer than the airport, nestled right into San Bruno mountain. The Baylands site is right next to a Caltrain stop that can get you to downtown San Francisco in 15 minutes. But to locals like Michele Salmon, Brisbane’s always been a world away.

“When I was a little kid,” remembers Salmon as we drive up the town’s main drag, “there were no sidewalks. Just these giant gutters that you had to just cross where you could or be swallowed up.”

Salmon points out her childhood home, built by her father. The one her grandmother built is across the street. Brisbane is no cookie-cutter suburb. The houses were cobbled together over time; the look is improvised but tended with care.

There are only 4,400 residents here. That means if Brisbane built as much housing on the Baylands as San Francisco and other neighbors want it to, the town’s population would triple. A lot of what’s stayed the same about Brisbane for so long, would change.

"It's toxic. That's what everyone keeps ignoring."

But that’s not why Salmon opposes housing on the Baylands. It’s because she doesn’t believe the landfill is safe to live on. “All my small town love... aside,” she says, “It's not the right thing to do, it's not the right place for it and it's not the right use of the land.” Her idea is to create a renewable energy plant on the site.

Everybody has their own vision for the Baylands.

The street lamps blink on as Salmon and I drive up San Bruno Mountain, leaving the houses snuggled down below. Salmon’s dad was one of Brisbane’s founding fathers. The town commemorated him when he died a couple years ago, writing “Brisbane would not be the community it is today, with its small town feel, had it not been for people like Jess who fought hard to protect the city’s natural resources, to protect it from the encroachments of the county and the avaricious developers and to preserve our special community.” 

From the top of the mountain, there’s a 360-degree view as far as the eye can see. Development covers almost every hillside, right up to the ocean, glittering under the dusky pink sky. Up here, the Baylands doesn’t look so big. 

But, for the city’s current Mayor, Cliff Lentz, there’s nothing bigger. 

Pressure from the region, pressure from within.

“It will be one of those things that will test the character of our community like no other project has,” he says.

Mayor Lentz steadfastly refuses to take an official position about the Baylands—except that he says there’s no way in hell it’s getting annexed. He says he can’t make a judgment about housing until he can be sure that the site isn’t poisonous to live on. It used to be a dump after all, and a lot of people think there’s no way to make it totally safe. 

But, hypothetically, Mayor Lentz likes the idea of building a “groundbreakingly sustainable” development. He’s actually spent a lot of time designing a proposal for a sort of eco-village, with shared cars, shared gardens, gray water systems— “something that you would not find anywhere maybe in the whole entire country.”

So if the community would embrace housing, says Mayor Lentz, “that's the type of housing that I hope we would incorporate into the sight.”

The Mayor knows his town is very divided about the Baylands Project. They don’t all want to block housing. One of his constituents wrote him a letter recently, saying Brisbane should do its part to help with the shortage. In the letter, she quoted former first lady Rosalynn Carter.

“It says, ‘a leader takes people where they want to go, and a great leader takes them where they ought to be,’” reads Mayor Lentz, “and that is very inspirational for me.”

But how do you inspire a town to do something they don’t want to do, just for the sake of the rest of the region? The pro-housing advocates from the SF Bay Area Renters Federation (SF BARF) tried to help make the case back at the City Hall meeting, but the group’s founder, Sonja Trauss, says she and the locals didn’t exactly have a productive dialogue.

“The feeling was ‘we're the citizens, we don't want this to happen and there are other people that want it to happen but don't listen to them,’” recounts Trauss. “So, we weren't even talking about the project, we were talking about who should say if there's a project.”

Trauss has advocated for housing in towns all over the Bay Area. Her group is even suing the suburb of Lafayette for failing to meet the housing construction targets set by regional planning agencies. She’s made a few enemies.

“People say, basically, that we're developer shills and we're lobbyists, that the developer paid us to be there—stuff like that.”

In fact, SF BARF has taken over $86,000 from corporate and real estate interests. She believes the region’s best interests are served by collaborating with the private sector, not impeding it. 

But it’s an unpopular position among city hall audiences. Pro-growth, pro-density advocates don’t seem to be winning the political battle to get the suburbs to build. 

Community preservation at odds with regional goals

Shamus Roller is a tenants rights organizer and he works on housing and homelessness policy at a state level. "So much of my job for the last nine years or so has been dealing with this question of who builds and will it be commercial or residential," says Roller. The objections to housing that he sees most often are "traffic, neighborhood character and environmental issues.”

Roller is not gung-ho about all development everywhere. He points out that there are other tools lawmakers can use to make housing affordable besides adding supply—like strengthening rent control. But when it comes to unused land like the Baylands, it’s an easy call for him.

“So much of the housing problem that you see in San Francisco and in Oakland is the failure of the outlying cities to build housing at all, to change their basic footprint at all.” 

Regional planners say the shortage is mostly driven by how many jobs the Bay Area is adding. The reason most planners want to stop displacement is because they say it’s important to keep people who are poor from getting pushed away from the city centers where all the opportunities and resources are. 

There’s also the environmental pay-off. “Putting people near where their jobs are is one of the most environmentally impactful things that you can do as far as climate change,” says Roller.

But places like Brisbane don’t necessarily see long commutes and high rents as their problem, so it’s hard to ask them to help big cities with improving those things. What do they get out of it? This is the question some regional planners are asking themselves. Some say we need to form something like an EU of the Bay Area—that can either force places to build or give something in return. 

It’s hard to see what would make it worth it to people like Michelle Salmon. She’s well aware of all the arguments for density development. But, she’s going to keep pushing for a renewable energy plant. Her anxieties are a lot bigger than high rises. 

“4400 units of housing—that’s a drop in the bucket, that's nothing,” says Salmon. “That will not solve any housing or energy crisis that we're facing.” 

Whether they decide it’s safe for residential, or just go ahead with commercial and office space—even if Salmon gets the energy plant—change is coming fast to Brisbane. “We are facing a crisis in this world beyond anything that’s been imagined,” Salmon reminds me. “Your future is going to be way different than mine.”

Brisbane’s not the only town fighting to protect its way of life. Recently state lawmakers tried to pass legislation that overrides local communities and streamlines development. It hasn’t happened yet, but don’t expect the fight to go away.

Liza got her start in radio with KALW's Audio Academy. Now, she is KALW's econmy reporter and a mentor for in the KALW Audio Academy.