She’d fought the developer through a group called the Freeman Park Neighborhood Association. It morphed into a larger organization called Friends of Mill Valley, then a group called Citizen Marin. In 2016, having raised her profile through activism, Ms. Kirsch ran for the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She lost with 42 percent of the vote.
"We’re all getting clobbered"
In retrospect, 2016 was a turning point of a different sort. It marked the beginning of a blitz of state legislation that would force cities to accept higher density neighborhoods in the form of backyard units and duplexes that could no longer be prohibited by local governments, and even higher density in the future, after the state reformed a longstanding planning process to increase the amount of growth cities have to plan for. To make sure cities actually comply, Governor Gavin Newsom recently created an "accountability and enforcement unit," a sort of NIMBY patrol that monitors whether or not localities are approving new housing.
When you ask a planner or policy wonk how this happened, they point to a series of dull but important bills that were modest in isolation. Stacked together, however, they’ve shifted power over housing away from city councils to state bureaucrats and local planning and building departments — a move intended to prevent activists like Ms. Kirsch from having so much influence over whether new housing gets approved.
They also got comparatively little press coverage or debate, because most of the attention was consumed by a more extreme series of bills proposed by Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco, from 2018 to 2020. The bills had various forms — none passed — but would have forced California cities to allow four- to eight-story buildings within a mile of rail stations and bus stops, regardless of local rules.
"I’m a former local elected official and former neighborhood association president — I am a huge believer in making decisions at a local level and people passionately tending to their community," Mr. Wiener said in an interview. "But we’re going over the cliff, and whatever the benefits of local decision making, and there really are benefits, it has failed to produce the housing we need."
One afternoon in 2018, after traveling to San Francisco to hear Mr. Wiener talk about his plans at a police station, Ms. Kirsch and a group of furious attendees left the meeting for a nearby restaurant, where they founded a organization called Livable California. Its aim was to take the fight for local government to the statehouse.