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Pinot, Poverty and Politics

Voters reelect a supervisor who promises to use his position at ABAG to limit housing requirements in Napa—and the lawsuits fly

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NOT EVERYONE AGREES with ABAG's new practice of giving local officials a greater role in crafting the RHNA process. Last July, a group of lawyers, including Grabill, authored a response to the 2014–'22 method, critiquing the fact that most of the Bay Area's projected growth is placed in priority development areas, which, remember, are voluntary.

"This methodology is wholly inconsistent with the fundamental principle of housing element law that local governments all have a responsibility to accommodate their fair share of the regional need for lower income housing," the letter states.

When I meet with the housing lawyer and Olvera, on a Thursday afternoon at Starbucks in the city of Napa, he expresses frustration with a system that rewards voluntary compliance but, he says, doesn't do much to combat institutionalized NIMBY-ism toward lower-income housing.

"HCD doesn't have any enforcement capability," he says. "If a local government doesn't do it right, HCD can't go to court and say, 'Shape up.' There are some penalties that go along with it. Local governments can't apply for certain kinds of affordable-housing funding if they haven't complied with state laws, but that just makes it harder to do affordable housing in those jurisdictions that are reluctant. It's not a great system."

It's a system that, Luce will later point out in my interview with him, private lawyers like Grabill stand to profit from.

In 2003, Grabill and three other lawyers sued Napa County for failing to update its housing element. They won, and the settlement mandated that unincorporated Napa take part in the statewide process and zone for its allocation of low-income housing units. Luce points out that this was both costly for the county and ineffective, because no new housing has been built.

"We paid the private lawyer who sued us $400,000 to settle, and were required to zone rural lands in Angwin, Lake Berryessa and Coombsville for housing anyway," he says on his website.

Grabill contends that the settlement fee was $240,000, split between three of the four lawyers who instigated the case, for what he estimates to be 1,500 hours of work. Silva Darbinian with Napa County Counsel confirms that the settlement fee was indeed $240,000, saying of the $400,000 figure, "I don't know where that came from."

And Grabill believes that the lack of new housing in the county is less a fault of the zoning system itself and more of a pattern of discrimination on the part of county officials. He's said this in court, in a new lawsuit filed in 2009. A judge sided with Napa County on that one, and Grabill appealed earlier this year, part of a process that, needed or not, had cost Napa County $700,000 as of last August, according to local newspaper reports.

Meanwhile, although three new low-income developments have been approved in the city of Napa, two of them have been legally challenged by neighborhood groups—potentially leading to more legal fees and cries of NIMBY-ism, and, most importantly, no new housing for the farmworkers who power Napa's economy.

"Rent is very expensive here," Olvera says in hesitant English on the afternoon when I meet with him. "And many people have to share apartments or drive two or three hours to come here."

Since immigrating to wine country 22 years ago and working as a picker, Olvera says he's seen other farmworkers sleeping in tents, in their cars, under bridges and on church porches.

To corroborate this story, he pulls out a document created by Napa Community Foundation, which shows the long commutes and crowded living conditions farmworkers deal with just to work in the county, an entire segment of the population falling through housing element law's many holes.

When he pulls it out, he says something that I don't understand. He spells it out on his palm for me, with his finger.

It says: "I don't lie."

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