Stacking the Deck: How Public Comment Entrenches Bad Housing Policy

September 01, 2022
CAY HW 1 - 8.30.22

California regularly makes national headlines for the outrageous things said at public hearings about housing and related issues. But do these hearings matter? Do the people and interest groups speaking at these hearings reflect the broader public? And are their comments successful at shaping policy? 

A new paper by political scientist Alexander Sahn pulls data from 963 public hearings in San Francisco between 1998 and 2022—including 9,701 agenda items—to shed light on these questions. 

Key takeaways:

  1. People who make comments at public hearings are demographically and economically unrepresentative of the broader community. Commenters are disproportionately likely to be non-Hispanic White and, on average, are 21 years older than the median resident. They are also much more likely to live in a single-family home assessed at 25% more than the local median.
  2. People are more likely to make comments regarding projects near them, and such comments tend to be negative. Comments made on projects not near the person commenting tend to be positive or neutral.
  3. The preferences of those who make public comments seem to be broadly aligned with the action taken by the Planning Commission. This suggests that comments made at public hearings may play an important role in guiding planning outcomes.
  4. However, not all public comments have equal weight. Neighborhood and business group preferences correlate with outcomes more so than housing and pro-development groups. The preferences of non-Hispanic Whites correlate with planning outcomes more so than the preferences of all other races combined.

What the research strongly suggests: Comments made at public hearings do matter, but tend to be made by unrepresentative voices, resulting in planning outcomes that entrench elite preferences. In this regard, Sahn’s study of San Francisco comports with recent work by Einstein, Glick, and Palmer (2019) on Boston and Yoder (2020) on Palo Alto and Houston.

Sahn concludes: “[T]he very nature [of] the politics of development, where the mismatch between concentrated costs and diffuse benefits that benefit future hypothetical residents, may be fundamentally unsuited to a participatory process with many veto points.” Combined with other recent work, the findings suggest that policymakers and planners should closely examine the role of the public hearing in planning, and how to improve the process to achieve more democratic, representative, and equitable outcomes.