The top official of the small and affluent East Bay city of Lafayette last week announced his resignation because of residents’ intransigence on building more housing, saying he could not stay in the role he has held for three decades when his views diverge so sharply from the community’s.
City Manager Steven Falk is the latest Bay Area official to air his frustration at housing shortages and policies that slow development. He said Lafayette has an obligation to take regional needs into consideration in its city planning.
“All cities — even small ones — have a responsibility to address the most significant challenges of our time: climate change, income inequality, and housing affordability,” Falk wrote in his resignation letter. “I believe that adding multifamily housing at the BART station is the best way for Lafayette to do its part, and it has therefore become increasingly difficult for me to support, advocate for, or implement policies that would thwart transit density. My conscience won’t allow it.”
Lafayette Mayor Don Tatzin is among those who oppose state legislation that would require BART to zone its vacant property — such as empty parking lots — for housing and retail. The bill by Assemblymen David Chiu, D-San Francisco, and Timothy Grayson, D-Concord, would limit cities’ ability to delay the projects.
In recent years, Lafayette has failed to meet about a third of its housing goals set by the state and divvied up within the region by the Association of Bay Area Governments. From 2007 to 2014, the city didn’t come close to hitting its target for permitting very low, low or moderately priced housing units, defined as a percentage of median income in the area.
In the same period, the city exceeded its target for “above moderate” housing, defined as within reach of those making 120 percent or more of area median income.
Reaching two-thirds of its overall goal is better than the regional average but still unacceptable, said Matt Regan, a senior vice president of the Bay Area Council who focuses on housing and land use. He said Falk has long been an advocate of policies that would change the appearance of the “bucolic” suburb by constructing additional housing downtown and around the train station.
“If you go to the Lafayette BART station, Highway 24 is right there, every morning, bumper to bumper headed to the city,” Regan said. “I think he got a little tired of looking at all those single-occupancy vehicles. One could argue he was in the perfect job. To walk away takes a lot of courage and principle.”
Tatzin said Friday he was pleased with the city’s record on housing development.
“We support housing around the BART station, but turning the power over to people who by and large don’t represent Lafayette ... isn’t the right way to go about it,” he said. “Yes, we have opposed the BART bill but not because it would create dense housing. It’s because we think the city should be the one to approve the project, not BART.”
The mayor added that it’s unclear whether the City Council will promote someone from within to be the new city manager or conduct an outside search. Falk, a Lafayette employee for 28 years, said he will stay in the position through December.
In his resignation letter, Falk pointed to two recent ballot measures he spearheaded that voters quashed. One, in 2016, would have enacted a 1 percent sales tax to pay for downtown parks, restoring a historic theater, protecting open spaces and increasing police patrols, among other services. The other would have authorized a project with up to 44 homes and new recreational facilities. Voters rejected that plan in June.
“Elections have consequences,” Falk said, “and one is that Lafayette residents deserve a city manager who is better aligned with their priorities.”