As we close the books on 2019 and look forward to 2020, let’s take a moment to look at some progress that has been made in addressing our housing crisis. Let’s go beyond the shouting matches and the rage-tweeting and hear the thoughts of some people who have been very involved in working on solutions. They have reason to be optimistic. Are they correct?
Here are some comments made by a few of the speakers at a Nov. 4 panel discussion about what happens in the wake of a number of laws passed recently addressing tenant protection, homelessness, and creation of affordable housing.
The speakers at the Commonwealth Club program include Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation; David Chiu, State Assemblymember (D-San Francisco); and Gina Dalma, senior vice president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Additional panelists also participated, but we don’t have room to include them here; you can find the entire program on the club’s podcast.
LARRY KRAMER: I’m president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. A few years ago, we . . . undertook an 18-month listening tour. We spoke to all of our fellow funders in the region as well as mayors, city managers, county managers, community leaders and more. We asked all of them basically what is the most significant problem in the Bay Area that a foundation like Hewlett might be able to do something about.
There was a huge amount of variety in terms of what everybody saw as the second most important problem in the Bay area. Some people said education, others said criminal justice, still others pointed to immigrant needs or food insecurity, domestic violence, police, community relations, and so on.
But there was actually total unanimity on the most important issue. Every single person with whom we spoke identified the housing crisis as the most important challenge and the biggest threat facing our region. It’s not hard to understand why. The Bay Area’s soaring housing costs affect everything. Many people have been forced into homelessness, others have too little money left after paying their rent to afford food or medical care or other necessities. A huge number of low-income residents have been forced to relocate to the outer edges of the Bay Area, where few of the services they need are available. Commutes that seem to get longer every week disrupt family life and strain the region’s transportation systems. Steeply rising housing costs and the commutes have made it difficult for employers to recruit and retain employees.
It’s really not too much of a stretch to say that the housing challenge poses essentially an existential threat to the vitality and future of this region. We have found a partner for our housing work in the San Francisco Foundation, and are awarding them a $7.5 million unrestricted grant. San Francisco Foundation is dedicated to improving life in our region by building strong communities and advancing racial equity and economic inclusion that would allow every individual in the Bay area to have a chance to attend a good school, get a good job, and yes, to live in a safe and affordable home.
Last month, California took a big first step in that direction when Governor Newsom signed into law what might be the nation’s most far-reaching package of bills on the issue. What does the new law actually mean? What does the road ahead look like?
FRED BLACKWELL: I’ve been working on housing stuff for a long time, and I’ve actually never seen the dynamic of the work that we’re experiencing right now, whether it’s new laws being passed in Sacramento or different kinds of conversations that are happening at the city council level, funds are being pulled together for all kinds of different purposes. Recently just huge announcements from the corporate side around them bringing private money to the table that kind of augment what’s happening on the public sector side and the nonprofit side in order to address the problem.
It just feels like there’s a different kind of mood and a different kind of willingness for people to work together on these issues.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much action in Sacramento around housing. What happened this year?
DAVID CHIU: The Bay Area has been the epicenter for the state’s housing crisis. We were the first region in the state where we saw the skyrocketing prices, eviction rates, homelessness levels. When I went to the legislature five years ago, I asked, what are we doing about the housing crisis? My colleagues — most of them would say [they were] not sure what you’re talking about.
From San Diego with Hepatitis A outbreaks to Orange County homeless encampments to skid row to farm workers sleeping in fields to kids who are sleeping on their couches rather than in dormitories — the crisis is everywhere. So I think a lot of what happened in California is the rest of the state kind of caught up to where we were, but the Bay Area was also really instrumental pushing forward solutions. . . .
This year . . . we passed the strongest tenant protection law in the country addressing rent gouging as well as predatory evictions. As the author of that bill — among a number of Bay Area authors — I want to thank everyone who came together on that. It was incredibly difficult, but . . . when it came to preservation, we were able to move this year an unprecedented $2.5 billion dollars in the budget, which was significantly assisted [by] new Gov. Gavin Newsom, who really leaned in on this crisis and made sure that we’re investing in affordable housing and homelessness services and home ownership and have a wide variety of housing needs that we need for a good preservation agenda.
But let me end with production [of new housing]. It’s fair to say we didn’t get that much done in this area. We were able to move forward a number of bills to move forward production of accessory dwelling units.
[East Bay Democratic State Senator] Nancy Skinner had a great bill that would essentially prevent local jurisdictions from backsliding [on allowing] the production they had committed to do. I had a small bill to move forward more production around affordable housing with increased density bonuses, but by and large, we weren’t able to take major steps in that area.
The most notable [effort] that we made was around SB 50, my colleague Senator Scott Wiener’s bill, that would have significantly increased production in single-family home zoning, as well as around transit-oriented areas. We have a long way to go when it comes to figuring out how we build more, but as they say, a long journey takes those first few steps. And I think it’s fair to say we took some major steps this year.
FRED BLACKWELL: Gina, you’ve been working on these kinds of issues for a long time with a real keen eye on what’s happening at the local level. Obviously things can happen in Sacramento, but if it’s not really implemented in the right way it could have negative or unintended consequences.
What are the challenges ahead of us and the opportunities ahead of us when you’re thinking about local-level implementation of these things, and how do we make sure that things are implemented in the spirit with which they would pass?
GINA DALMA: We’re so proud and inspired with a package of bills that were signed into law last month. It’s huge. It’s meaningful. But we started seeing the consequences really play out throughout our region.
Days after the package of bills was signed into law, we started seeing a spike in the amount of evictions. We started seeing a spike on rent gouging, and we also started seeing cities step up and set emergency local ordinances to protect renters. A change of this scale is going to really require that we’re vigilant at the very local level.
What we’re seeing and what we hope to see is that we need to build the capacity at the very local level to make sure that our folks are tracking what implementation looks like. They’re advocating. Sometimes they’ll have to litigate in order to make sure that the implementation of the bills actually achieves its intended outcome.
There’s sort of three core areas of work that we’ve been looking at. The first one is we need to make sure that we’re building the legal resources on the ground, making sure that we are having organizations at the local level that can educate tenants, that can protect tenants.
We also need to make sure that we’re building community-based organizations, grassroots organizations so they’re able to facilitate folks participating in these local processes. And we have to make sure that we are supporting that there’s a groundswell to change at the local level, right? We need to make sure that we’re electing more people of color, more low-income people, more young people; that we have city councils that really reflect who we are as a community and the needs of our community.
The truth is that if we’re able to build the capacity at the local level to really make sure that implementation achieves its intended outcomes, we have to build the muscle at the local level. I keep saying at the local level, because that’s where we’re going to see the change, but we need to ensure that our cities and our communities are actually the watchdogs of these laws getting into our communities.
FRED BLACKWELL: I think things that are happening at the local level are undermining new development, which I would imagine is part of the reason why the state has been kind of stepping into this a little bit more. What is the balance though between a state-level intervention and instincts versus what needs to happen at the local level?
DAVID CHIU: That is sort of the heart of the discussion right now — the degree to which the state should come in and essentially try to move forward through this crisis, because local jurisdictions have enacted [roadblocks].
My perspective on this is if local jurisdictions were building enough housing, if we weren’t in this housing crisis, there would be no reason for us to step in. But just as you have, for example, state public health laws because you need a standard so that folks don’t get sick, when you have folks who are dying on the streets every day in every city, double-digit increases of homelessness, we have to do something.
When you have an entire middle-class that’s being hollowed out and pushed to drive two to three hours a day, which creates congestion issues, environmental issues, health issues, risks of people falling asleep at the wheel — we’ve got to do something.
We are at that crisis state.