Solutions, Experiments to Create More Affordable Housing

KQED recently held several “open newsrooms” in Bay Area communities to find out about the issues that are important to residents. We found a recurring theme – concerns about soaring Bay Area rents and housing prices, and a lack of affordable housing for those with limited resources.

Last Friday, our new public affairs show KQED NEWSROOM aired a special report on the topic (see video above), part of our series “Priced Out.” The discussion looked at the current situation, and planning and policy solutions that may help. A recap:

Tina Marsalis lives in a hotel with her fiancée and son in San Jose. She spoke at one of the open newsrooms.*

“We go and look at rentals. There are anywhere between eight and 15 other families there looking,” Marsalis said. “I’ve also been applying for low-income housing. If the waitlist is even open, it’s two months to two years long.”newsroom-115x65

A resurgent tech boom has driven the median price to buy a house in the Bay Area to more than $500,000. The median price to rent an apartment is more than $3,000 in San Francisco and more than $2,000 in Oakland and San Jose.

“It’s a real challenge in this region just to get into the housing market,” said Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing in Hayward. “And if you think about it, how do you buy a house? You live in an affordable apartment, you save up enough money so that you can save for the down payment, so that you can buy the house. But if you can’t afford the rent, you can’t save for the down payment. So you’re stuck. You’re trapped in the middle.”

Mandolini said Eden Housing alone, which manages 5,400 units, has a waitlist of about 15,000 applicants.

Eden Housing builds affordable housing for very low- to moderate-income families, seniors, people with physical, developmental disabilities or mental illness, and the formerly homeless.

“It’s a huge challenge for folks just to get into affordable housing right now,” Mandolini said.

Addressing the problem

San Francisco Chronicle business reporter Carolyn Said puts it bluntly: More money is needed.

“Affordable-housing subsidies from the state of California have basically evaporated with the loss of redevelopment agencies,” Said noted. “A huge pot of money came from redevelopment, and there was some other money that was passed by voters in 2008 that is almost gone. So they desperately need a new source of revenue.”

To help recoup some of the lost funds, Democratic State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier has introduced SB-391, the California Homes and Jobs Act of 2013, which generates funds though document-recording fees and then invests the money in affordable housing. Mandolini said SB-391 would generate between $300 million to $500 million.

“It would create down-payment assistance programs for folks who want to buy their first house,” Mandolini said. “It would also create subsidies so folks like Eden (Housing), who need to build new housing for low-income families to rent, could actually use some of that subsidy to build new housing.”

Realtors oppose SB-391, but Mandolini said business groups, in general, support it.

“We actually think there’s a lot who do support it. Business groups from all over the state, from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group to the Orange County Business Council, are all in favor of this because affordable housing matters to job growth,” Mandolini said. “You can’t just employ engineers who make $300,000 a year in your companies. You have to employ the folks at the lower levels, and they need to live closer to their jobs.”

Affordable-housing consultant Carlos Romero said another way to advance county-level measures to fund affordable housing is through coalition building.

“I think if you get labor together with affordable-housing folks, with people who are interested in parks and open space, and actually come up with a coalition of folks to put a measure in your county — it might be a transfer tax that could be divided up among the various uses, it could be transportation. I think that those local coalitions can be very strong in getting you to the 66 percent threshold (to pass a tax),” Romero said.

Other options to create affordable housing

“San Francisco is trying a few creative things that might be able to be replicated elsewhere,” Said said. “One thing is a pilot project in the Castro District to try to legalize in-law units. These are existing units. So many places in San Francisco have a basement or a backyard garage that was converted into an apartment. They’re already there. If they could be legalized, they could be a better source of housing for people who can’t afford as much, and now we’re talking market-rate housing.”

San Francisco is also pushing forward with the development of so-called micro apartments, tiny units that are just over a couple hundred square feet in size.

“Sure, not everyone wants to live in something the size of a shoe box, but young, single people often are willing to make that trade-off in space to be closer to their job. And maybe they’d move out of a flat that they were sharing with roommates and that flat would be available for a family to rent,” Said said.

Romero was optimistic about Plan Bay Area, an integrated transportation and land-use/housing strategy through 2040,  jointly approved by the Association of Bay Area Governments and by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “Yes it has its flaws,” Romero said. “But it’s a trade-off for a quality of life issue.”

*CORRECTION: The speaker in the video was misidentified. Her name is not Maura Thurman. Her name is Tina Marsalis.

KQED NEWSROOM is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8pm on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6pm on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.

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