By John Kalil, Contributing Writer
// In 1971, the social scientist John Rawls explained what he called the Original Position thought experiment. If we knew what societies looked like, but didn’t know what place we would inhabit in society, what kind of society would we like to live in? How different does our view of the world become from behind the “veil of ignorance”? It is from this mindset of egalitarianism and fairness that I invite you to consider what I wish to say.
Developers first proposed the Terraces of Lafayette, a 315-apartment project overlooking Acalanes High School, in 2011 – yes, nine years ago. The city deemed the project satisfactory and approved the final environmental impact report by late 2013. But during that process, as they often do, Lafayette’s merry band of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) partisans cried foul, citing a veritable smorgasbord of complaints. And so the city and the developers, acting like the adults in the room, struck a compromise: Homes at Deer Hill, with a mere 44 single-family homes. But of course, the NIMBY-ite complaints were never really about traffic – another 44 cars on Lafayette’s roads would not inconvenience anyone too much – and so, in a clever bit of legal hullabaloo, the group “Save Lafayette” successfully sued to have Measure L placed on the ballot in 2018. True to form, Lafayette’s housing vigilantes voted down Homes at Deer Hill.
And so the developer, the O’Brien Land Company, sallied forth to seek reapproval of its earlier Terraces of Lafayette project. Once again, the project passed through an environmental impact review, the Transportation & Circulation Commission, and just recently the Planning Commission. The development will include 315 apartments, 63 of which are designated for low-income renters. 9 thousand people commute into Lafayette to work every day – this development will allow at least some of these workers, particularly our teachers, to live where they work and decrease traffic in Lafayette. But the NIMBY zealots are still around, pushing back against the Terraces, for reasons addressed by Homes at Deer Hill.
Step back, and take a look at this battle from a wider angle. Lafayette residents frown and feel miserable for the homeless population living in tent cities in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. See, homelessness is a problem in the Bay Area because we simply don’t have enough housing. Shortages drive up costs and price out low-income people, even the 11 percent of homeless people in San Francisco who maintain a full or part-time job. Lafayette can’t house everyone, but our obstinacy in building apartments directly exacerbates the housing shortage in the Bay Area. To be clear, there are a fair number of recently completed or ongoing developments in the city of Lafayette, and those efforts should be commended. But it’s not enough.
Consider: 37 percent of San Francisco’s homeless population is Black. As of 2010, 85 percent of Lafayette residents are white. These two statistics testify to the lasting implications of redlining, segregation, and “white flight” to suburbs. So it makes no sense for us to declare “Black Lives Matter,” as we did a month ago at a well-attended protest, if our housing policies indirectly harm low-income and people of color. I’m not trying to say that Lafayette’s NIMBY-ites are racist bigots – rather, it would behoove us all to examine the way in which our lifestyle disadvantages those around us. Indeed, it’s patently absurd for Lafayette (or Moraga, Orinda, Danville or Alamo, for that matter) to arbitrarily declare itself a “semi-rural” community and reject developments while people are dying in the streets just 15 miles away. We teach our children that character counts. But are we also teaching them that they, most of them born of relative wealth and privilege, are the only ones worthy of green hills and great schools? Whether we like to admit it or not, our single-family suburban sprawl, so close to a major urban center, directly hamstrings the Bay Area’s housing supply. Building more apartments will both increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of our own community and alleviate burdens on people we may never have the good fortune to call our neighbors. Indeed, Lafayette should build wherever and whenever possible.
And so we return to consider the Terraces at Lafayette. The City Council will have the final say, and I sincerely hope it makes the right decision. No development is perfect, and Lafayette residents may experience discomfort and displeasure as a result. But we rejected the watered-down compromise. So whatever bed we have made for ourselves, we must lie in. Yet by accepting our proverbial accommodations, we ensure that someone sleeping outside tonight will one day have a real bed to call his or her own.