Our best hope to fix the housing crisis

Casa Arabella plan and construction, Fruitvale Transit VillageBy most measures, the Bay Area has the worst housing crisis in the country. For decades we have been severely under-building housing. Too much of what gets built, especially near public transit, is for the wealthy. After years of redlining and economic segregation, low-income communities of color are being torn apart by displacement. Every day, the most vulnerable residents and are being pushed far from public transit, far from social networks, far from their jobs, and increasingly out onto the streets or to live in their cars.

So the title of this blog seems a bit laughable. Can we really “fix” the housing crisis?

For the past 20 years, TransForm has worked to increase housing choices by working with communities to create better plans near transit stations. We’ve supported local affordable housing bonds and helped developers build more homes with less parking. Many groups have been doing great work on housing for longer and with more resources than TransForm.

But here is the truth. We won’t solve this problem working city by city, developer by developer. We need all 101 Bay Area cities and 9 counties to be part of the solution.

On December 12, the Bay Area is poised to take a giant step in that direction. That is when CASA — the Committee to House the Bay Area — will be finalizing a set of recommendations for comprehensive regional solutions to the housing affordability crisis.

CASA was convened in Summer 2017 by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and is structured around a Steering Committee (on which I’m honored to serve) and Technical Committee composed of elected officials as well as representatives from business, social equity, housing, tenants' rights, labor, public health, and planning organizations across the region.

The CASA Draft Compact has been structured around the 3 “P”s:

  • Protecting tenants,
  • Preserving existing affordable homes, and
  • Production of both market-rate and subsidized affordable homes.

The draft compact released in early November had several elements we want to highlight. The first two will be essential to making the Compact work:

First, a new regional housing entity to provide technical assistance, help distribute grant funding, and track and report progress.

Second, money. Lots of money. The goal is to raise at least $1.5 billion in new annual revenue from a broad range of sources including property owners, developers, employers, local governments and taxpayers — a “share the responsibility” approach. This funding would support all 3 Ps, with the largest percentage focused on the production of affordable homes.

Tenant Protections would include three different elements implemented at a regional scale. Like most of the package, these elements would require state legislative approval.

  • Just Cause eviction standards to protect many more renters from arbitrary evictions.
  • There would be several exemptions, including situations where the homeowner also lives on the property, and where there are just 1 or 2 rental units.
  • An emergency rent cap to prevent extreme rent increases, with an annual maximum percentage increase (potentially 8%, or it could vary based on inflation).
  • Right to legal counsel for eviction proceedings. Free counsel would likely be available to all, given the complication and intrusiveness of means-testing and the fact that most wealthy people aren’t getting evicted and, in any case, would often hire their own lawyers.

For tenant advocates and groups like TransForm, these protections are vital to making the rest of the package work. We can’t just focus on production without immediately stabilizing communities.

The remaining five elements would help increase the capacity to build more affordable and market-rate housing and help speed the permitting process. These include:

  • Removing regulatory barriers to “in-law” units and tiny homes.
  • Instituting minimum zoning requirements for housing near transit.
  • Enacting good government reforms that bring predictability and transparency to housing proposals that meet zoning codes.
  • Providing certain CEQA exemptions for projects that have fully skilled and trained labor, and on-site affordable units.
  • Increasing production of homes on public lands, especially affordable homes.

Assuming the compact is able to pass the two CASA committees on December 12, it will then be voted on by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments. We need to act fast — the next legislative session starts in January, and the Bay Area delegation is eager to tackle the housing crisis.

CASA’s passage of the Compact will be an incredible accomplishment. Its development has been a tremendous lift, especially by the co-chairs and workgroup moderators.

Unfortunately, there are still many important details to work out. For example, whether or not the package is implemented in perpetuity or for an “emergency time frame,” say 15 years. Another serious sticking point is what special allowances should be made for low-income communities that are experiencing displacement. We need to ensure that the CASA Compact will support beneficial aspects of existing local plans. Similarly, they should not override those local policies, like strong Just Cause provisions, that are stronger than what CASA adopts.

While there is a scramble to get agreement on as many of these remaining points as possible, many of the details will likely be hammered out over the coming year in Sacramento. During that time it is critical that the tenant protections are passed alongside bills that may streamline development and increase densities.

I truly believe CASA’s recommendations are our best hope for fixing the incredibly broken housing system in the Bay Area. It will require all of the groups who have been involved to stay engaged for at least the next two years, at least through a potential regional vote on funding in 2020. TransForm is committed to staying engaged, with thanks to our many individual supporters and to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for the resources to make that possible.


About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.