Is Silicon Valley's housing crisis reaching the point where dire action is needed?
At a housing summit last week, a panel of experts and policymakers discussed the need for sacrificing some "sacred cows" to address the South Bay's lack of housing and skyrocketing prices. Among the ideas, speakers suggested repealing Proposition 13's property-tax protections, rescinding cities' independent authority to reject affordable housing development and passing a countywide $750-million bond in November to help fund subsidized housing.
The suggestions came at the start of a housing summit in Mountain View on Friday, May 13, organized by the new housing-focused nonprofit, SV@Home. Coming at the start of Santa Clara County's Affordable Housing Week, the event served to promote the new advocacy nonprofit as well as its road-map of suggested actions to alleviate the area's housing shortfall.
Year to year, Santa Clara County is seeing a widening housing gap with tens of thousands of new jobs are being created each year, but there's not nearly enough housing for those workers. Just last year, the South Bay added 64,000 new jobs, but only 5,000 new housing units, according to Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a regional think tank. To fully meet the area's demand by 2022, about 93,700 new low-income and moderate-income units would need to be built, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments.
Some of these suggestions might not seem particularly novel or new. At the top of the SV@Home's list is to build more housing, pretty much in any way possible. Their strategy boiled down to "land, money and changing the conversation on housing," said SV@Home Executive Director Leslye Corsiglia.
"This really is the need to deal with a lack of housing supply for all people, whether they live on the street or work for our highest-paying employers," she said.
Described as the South Bay's first advocacy group focused solely on housing, SV@Home is joining the political discussion at a particularly challenging time. With a transportation tax already expected for the November ballot, county supervisors are also investigating bringing a $750 million bond measure to voters to pay for a spree of new affordable housing. Corsiglia said her new advocacy group could serve a powerful role by helping push that measure as well as encouraging the various South Bay cities to also do their part.
Mountain View praised
Mountain View was picked to host the SV@Home event, which was held at Microsoft's La Avenida campus. Showing a map of North Bayshore, Corsiglia touted the city's long-term vision to create about 10,000 new housing units in the office-heavy neighborhood. She said her group is encouraging Vally Transportation Authority officials to guarantee that when it redevelops its North Bayshore bus yard, it will be some type of housing.
Mountain View received a string of praise from housing advocates for the city's recent turn toward promoting housing growth. Invited to speak at the start of the day, Mayor Pat Showalter pointed out the city had built 1,200 below-market rate units since a local ordinance was passed in 1999, and she promised that plenty more are on the way.
"The people who have these units have been given the dignity to live within their means," Showalter said. "That's so important to the quality of their life and the quality of our life, to still have them in the community."
As many speakers pointed out, this pro-housing outlook wasn't shared by many other South Bay communities. In a panel discussion, several experts blasted the mindset of some of the region's affluent cities for buckling to local property owners demands and rejecting affordable housing projects.
Gabriel Metcalf, president of SPUR, a Bay Area urban-planning nonprofit, called for a "culture change" in local governance. City leaders should be pressured -- or compelled -- to address regional needs in their decision-making, he said. To gasps from the audience, Metcalf suggested cities should be restricted in their land-use powers if they flouted the area's housing needs.
"It's fine if you feel that you don't want to be inconvenienced by a new building or new housing, but it should be shameful to be like that as a citizen," he said. "It's not acceptable to say other people don't have a chance to be part of (your area)."
Some influential policymakers seem to agree. As part of the his proposed state budget, Gov. Jerry Brown recently unveiled a proposal to make housing developments with 20-percent affordable units automatically be approved for construction permits, as long as they meet local general plan and zoning requirements.
Every city has its own history of housing developments being shot down due to the complaints of neighboring homeowners. But at the housing summit, the city of Santa Clara earned special opprobrium for its February decision to gut a proposed 450-home apartment project across from a Caltrain station due, in part, to neighbors' concerns over a lack of parking.
In the short term, some experts suggested the best way to speedily provide more affordable housing would be to encourage cities to facilitate homeowners in building so-called granny units -- smaller, secondary homes on their properties. If just 10 percent of Santa Clara County's homeowners built secondary units, that would provide 50,000 new units without the need for the drawn-out public review needed for an apartment project, said Matt Regan, senior vice president with the Bay Area Council. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it was a quick and easy fix, he said.
"This is not a silver bullet; it's a piece of silver buckshot," he said.
For the long-term, Regan and other speakers suggested remedies that could prove hard to swallow. Proposition 13, the 1979 ballot measure that capped taxes for property owners, has created an unfair system where long-term residents and commercial property owners are leaving it up to new home-buyers to shoulder the tax burden, Metcalf said. He and other speakers suggested repealing or amending it, even though such efforts in the past haven't succeeded.
"Some of these sacred cows, about local control and making new people pay for government and not the long-time residents, we have to question that at this point," Metcalf said.
Other relief could be coming at the state level, pointed out Aime Fishman, executive director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. Current state legislation being considered would allow cities that previously had redevelopment agencies to reclaim their lost property taxes for affordable housing projects. A separate state Assembly bill would help empower cities to require developers to add affordable housing to larger housing projects rather than pay an in-lieu fee.
The experts were asked whether Silicon Valley's non-stop jobs growth was beginning to seem more a burden than a boon. In some ways, Regan said, it felt that way, with service workers, teachers and even many tech workers finding the area unaffordable.
"Growth without any objective is the ideology of a cancer cell," he said. "Right now we've got a lot of people at the top and a lot at the bottom, and we've chopped off social mobility."
Email Mark Noack at firstname.lastname@example.org