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February Forum Jumpstarts Conversation on Housing Policy

Participants worked together to brainstorm solutions to alleviate the housing crisis during small group break-out sessions.
Kingmond Young

How do you begin to talk about housing affordability in a region with increasing wealth as well as areas of intractable poverty and skyrocketing costs of living? MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) teamed up to host a forum on this very topic, “Calling the Bay Area Home: Tackling the Housing Affordability and Displacement Challenge,” at the Oakland Marriott City Center on Saturday, February 20, 2016. The event brought together some 300 Bay Area residents, social justice advocates, developers, local elected officials, and regional transportation and land use planning agencies, and featured compelling personal accounts from Bay Area residents at risk of losing their homes due to sky-high rents and lack of affordable housing options. The agenda also included a panel with representatives from the faith community, the building industry, academia and local government, as well as break-out discussions organized by sub-region that asked participants to identify their top ideas for alleviating the housing crisis. Lunch-time speakers from Washington, D.C. and Seattle helped to shed light on how other parts of the country are grappling with the challenge of rapidly rising housing costs.

“This is not just a housing issue” was a theme of the conference. Oakland Mayor and MTC Commissioner Libby Schaaf opened the forum saying, “This imbalance of explosive economic growth without providing for workers — the backbone of the economy — has put unbelievable stresses on infrastructure and transportation and has caused the cost of housing to spiral out of control.” Schaaf along with The San Francisco Foundation’s Executive Director Fred Blackwell, ABAG President and Clayton City Councilmember Julie Pierce, and San Francisco Supervisor and MTC Commissioner David Campos called for policies beyond housing construction. Suggested strategies included changing our development practices, finding funding sources for housing, increasing tenant protections and creating policies to bridge the wealth gap.

Attendees also heard first-hand accounts from people struggling to stay in the Bay Area. Melissa Jones from Forestville is a single mother raising a 12-year-old son in a tiny, illegal basement unit. Reyna Gonzales from San Mateo told her story in Spanish of how her family is being separated because of high housing costs, which have forced her children to move to Manteca. Theola Polk from East Bay Housing Organization said that communities of color are the ones most at risk for displacement and emphasized that housing issues are race issues.

Participants also heard insight and potential solutions from a panel of housing experts: UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation Faculty Director Carol Galante, Oakland Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio, Building Industry Association Executive Director Bob Glover and Faith in Action Bay Area Executive Director Jennifer Martinez. MTC Chair and Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese moderated the panel and outlined the problem. “It’s hard to build infrastructure this fast. That’s in response to the fact that we’ve only created one housing unit for every 10 jobs in the last five years,” Cortese reported. “There is no room for resignation. We must find common ground and solutions that move the needle.” Panelists agreed that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Proposition 13 and the loss of state redevelopment funding were state policies that have stunted housing production and that CEQA reform and tax reform are needed. Other suggested solutions included commercial linkage fees (in which commercial developers are assessed a fee that goes toward affordable housing), employer taxes, support for politicians who advocate for housing, and increased tenant protections.

Participants were encouraged to brainstorm their own solutions when they broke off in smaller group sessions by sub-region to tackle more local issues. Although San Francisco, the North Bay, the East Bay, the South Bay and the Peninsula are very different in terms of geography, population and types of employment, their subgroups came up with similar policy changes, including improving tenant rights, preserving existing housing stock, improving the jobs-housing link, finding new sources of funding and expanding MTC’s One Bay Area Grant (OBAG) funding to incentivize local governments to build more affordable housing.

At lunch, speakers from outside the region offered their perspectives. Nela Richardson, chief economist of Redfin, a national real estate brokerage, flew in from Washington D.C. and pointed out how the Bay Area’s housing economy affects the whole country. “Wealth creators born in the Bay Area are moving to places like Austin, Charlotte and Boston and having an effect on housing markets there,” Richardson reported. She also stressed how important affordable housing is in creating economic growth, economic opportunity, income equality and wealth for the middle class. Robert Feldstein, director of Seattle’s Office of Policy and Innovation, shared how his city worked with a coalition of interests to look at ways of generating revenue for affordable housing. They eventually came up with 65 different ideas, from taxing Seattle resident to build affordable housing to their most recent idea of letting developers build additional floors in exchange for new requirements: inclusionary zoning and commercial linkage fees. “For the first time we had developers and affordable housing advocates on the same page after two decades of fighting,” said Feldstein. Since then, the city of Seattle has expanded the coalition to include labor unions, environmental groups, the tech community and homeowners, and continues to invite new voices to the table. “The breadth of this coalition is really important. There is a challenge of getting all the neighborhood to agree,” he said. “Building trust with residents is a part of getting affordable housing.”

“The level of conversation, the level of interaction, the diversity of the audience and their perspectives really served us well,” said MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger. “What we hope to do as a result of the conference is present the first draft of a proposed policy response to the affordability and displacement questions raised at the upcoming Commission workshop in San Jose at the end of April.” The input from the conference will help inform some of the funding decisions before MTC as it works with ABAG to develop Plan Bay Area 2040, the long-range transportation and housing road map for the Bay Area. --Stella Yip



Frank Konarski Rios:

Even under such a goal, in the housing market, you have to go back to the economics of supply and demand. And, in this case of staving off displacement and promoting integration, I find that the key is a close partnership between the local government and private housing developers in which the private housing developer are incentivized to build enough affordable housing units to alleviate housing demand. (Incentives can come in the form of tax credits, property purchase switches, etc.)

Frank Konarski Rios, Housing Developer & Landlord
Tucson, AZ & Nogales, AZ

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