Guest opinion: In tackling the housing crisis, cities are stronger together


The Bay Area's housing crisis is a regional problem. Cities can't solve it alone, and now they don't have to. We have the chance to fix the housing crisis by coming together at the regional and state level. We should seize the opportunity.

Let's review how bad things are. California used to build enough homes for its growing population, but over decades we've fallen short by a staggering 3.5 million homes. San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and Los Angeles are in the top seven highest-rent cities in the U.S. Here in Mountain View, median sale price of homes nearly doubled in the past five years; one-bedroom rents rose 35 percent in the past year. In Silicon Valley, a quarter of tenants spend more than half their income on rent.

Since 2010, the Bay Area has added seven times more jobs (722,000) than housing units (106,000). With nowhere to live near their jobs, Bay Area workers move further and further away. Hundreds of thousands suffer soul-crushing mega-commutes, and all of us suffer from traffic and car exhaust. Others pack themselves into residences in violation of safety codes or become homeless, sleeping in cars and RVs.

Cities have wielded their power over land use to say yes to jobs and no to housing. They believe it's in their own interest, because offices and stores boost local tax coffers, while residents consume costly services like schools. Each city wants some other city to be the bedroom community for its workers. This is irresponsible and unfair. When Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Mountain View add tens of thousands of jobs without housing, they drive up rents in East Palo Alto, where one in four students is now homeless.

How do cities restrict housing? First, they've actually made it illegal to build anything other than single-family homes in most residential areas, even next to the North Berkeley BART station. Second, new multi-family homes are delayed and downsized by years of discretionary reviews, burdensome fees, and frivolous objections, like a four-month study to confirm that a laundromat does not merit historical preservation.

The individual actions of hundreds of cities over decades got us into this mess. If we leave it up to individual cities, it would take them decades to fix it. And that's assuming they'll even try.

Fortunately, there is a way forward. After 18 months of deliberation, the blue-ribbon Committee to House the Bay Area produced the Casa Compact, "A 15-Year Emergency Policy Package to Confront the Housing Crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area." The compact's three pillars are produce, preserve, protect -- produce more housing, preserve existing affordable housing, and protect residents from displacement. Specific provisions include tenant protections, funds for affordable housing, streamlining regulations that inhibit new housing, and focusing growth near transit to reduce traffic.

If enacted by the state Legislature, the compact will provide affordable housing opportunities for hundreds of thousands of our Bay Area neighbors of all income levels. Unlike the status quo of sprawl and mega-commutes, it will protect natural lands and save energy and water with walkable neighborhoods and green buildings -- critical measures in California's fight against global warming. Unlike the status quo of local control, it will actually work, and it will be fair -- each city will be held to the same standard and follow the same best practices.

Understandably, some local leaders are uncomfortable giving up even an ounce of direct control. Some residents support some provisions but feel uncomfortable about others. But if we wait for solutions to this systemic housing shortage that don't make anyone uncomfortable, we'll be waiting forever. And waiting is something that our neighbors paying half their income on rent cannot afford.

Jeremy Hoffman is a Mountain View homeowner.

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9 people like this
Posted by SP
a resident of another community
on Mar 9, 2019 at 3:26 pm

You bring up some great points about how local responses create regional problems. Unfortunately, the increased regulations you describe are not likely going to help.

You didn't mention the sweeping changes to the building code in 2013. New housing has to pass very stringent requirements on heating, ventilation and insulation. Houses have to be practically air-tight to reduce energy use, but then they discovered that an air tight house traps in unhealthy toxins released from building materials, gas stoves, etc. and so you also have to have special ventilation. You have to have a special energy compliance study. The smallest change in plumbing now triggers a replacement of all fixtures, faucets and toilets to pass low-water use requirements. You even have to get a lighted number on the house, and then a permit from the fire department to check that it works. Living rooms must have dimmers and bathrooms must have electronic sensors to turn the lights on and off.

All of these things might be great ideas, but they come at a significant cost.

A year or two ago, East Palo Alto had a significant number of people removed from garages and "illegal aditions" to their homes because the aditions were not up to code. When home owners discovered what they needed to do to bring properties up to code, they discovered that all of these new regulations had to be met, even if the property was old. The regulations do not differentiate between safety issues, comfort issues, or someone in Sacramento's idea of the latest technology (I remember having to install can lights with built-in fluorescent balasts to meet code . Then LED lights came out and that all had to be ripped out to be able to work with LEDs). All of that code must be met, and its all very expensive, and so those residents simply had to leave. The EPA city council said their hands were tied by the code.

So, its no wonder that developers shifted to building offices rather than housing, and that low-income housing is scarce. Even if you are building in a low-cost area, just the cost of meeting all of these regulations is so prohibitive that building a low-cost home is no longer possible in California.

46 people like this
Posted by more crowded than Hong Kong
a resident of another community
on Mar 9, 2019 at 11:37 pm

Gov. Newsom and the state say California needs 3,500,000 more homes by the year 2025? Which means that by 2025 the number of people in these new homes will be at least 10 million. In 5 years that would be a growth rate of 25%. Yikes!

7 people like this
Posted by An Interested Observer
a resident of another community
on Mar 9, 2019 at 11:38 pm

An Interested Observer is a registered user.

It's ironic that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MYC), which is the transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, developed the CASA Compact that does not promote or mandate anything about improving and/or expanding public transit options. The compact does recommend/mandate building near transit stops but nothing about improving public transportation infrastructure. This is very strange and a major omission!!

113 people like this
Posted by Yikes
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2019 at 6:48 am

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

2 people like this
Posted by Jeremy Hoffman
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Mar 10, 2019 at 8:10 am

Jeremy Hoffman is a registered user.

@SP, thanks for the interesting information about the costs of construction, especially the discrepancy between residential and commercial building.

But that wouldn't seem to be an argument for preserving the status quo of cities using zoning to forbid housing! If it's the expense that keeps property owners from building housing on their land, then it wouldn't matter whether it were legal or illegal to build.

That said, people are definitely looking into ways to reduce the cost of construction while still preserving physical and environmental safety.

For example, when a city requires mandatory parking spaces, they add greatly to the cost of construction. Each surface parking space costs $5,000 to $10,000 to construct, including the value of the land they occupy. It costs about $30,000 to create one parking space in San Francisco! Web Link

Similarly, when a city enforces minimum lot sizes, minimum unit sizes, maximum floor area ratios, or setbacks, they reduce the supply of housing that can be built for the same cost.

Finally, when a city requires property owners to go through a Byzantine, arbitrary approval process, most small property owners cannot afford the uncertainty. Only the largest developers have the expertise and the deep pockets to attempt to run the gauntlet. This especially hurts non-profit affordable housing developers.

2 people like this
Posted by Jeremy Hoffman
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Mar 10, 2019 at 8:30 am

Jeremy Hoffman is a registered user.

@Yikes, Reagan certainly got a lot of mileage out of that line. I wonder if Reagan would have said it to victims of Hurricane Katrina or the California wildfires. The rescuees might agree with Lyndon Johnson, who said, "Does government subvert our freedom through the Social Security system or does government government undermine our freedom by bringing electricity to the farm or by controlling floods or by ending bank failures?"

But in a way, Reagan's quote is appropriate here. It is the local government who has said, "I don't care if you own the land; I don't care if that family needs a place to live; I say it's illegal for you to build a townhouse for that family on your land. And while I'm 'helping' by blocking housing, I'll just go ahead and 'help' some more by approving a 12,000-worker office building over here."

92 people like this
Posted by Historian
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 10, 2019 at 10:25 am

Jeremy, are you getting your perception of history from Google searches? You have anyway implicitly highlighted one of their weaknesses: they capture numerically frequent references, but not settings or history essential to them.

"I'm from the government, and I'm here to help" as a parody phrase long predated Ronald Reagan's presidency; Reagan just alluded to its then-recent popularization in the late 1970s (within recent memory of most people in Reagan's time) by Joseph Califano: Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under (Democratic) President Jimmy Carter, referring to the dangers of unlimited gov't programs. Many other people have also re-used it since.

So any rhetorical distancing from the phrase is a distancing from Carter's (not Reagan's) social policies, to those who either recall or are aware of the phrase's popularization and its context.

57 people like this
Posted by Love my City
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 11, 2019 at 7:04 pm

I continue to stare at the elephant in the room: Too many jobs being added with more offices and housing needed for those jobs. Google, Apple, Facebook, etc. etc.too many too fast.

The Bay Area can not support all these jobs! Housing is only part of the problem. We are hopelessly lacking in services and infrastructure. We have to say "NO" to more jobs. We have no idea how many people currently work for these industries or how many subcontractors they employ. Where is the matrix illustrating how many homes we will actually need and why do we continue building still more offices? I've been told because offices apparently pencil out.

We must stop being job hogs. Future jobs should be pushed out to job-poor cities with infrastructure already in place. The high rents and displacement are caused by a too hot job market and a shortage of land and resources. I support in-fill dense housing near transit. What I don't support is this insane growth with government and industry having no idea how to manage it.

4 people like this
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2019 at 12:49 am

Jobs grow where the people are. A company that moves out to a cheaper area far away from an existing jobs hub isn't going to be very successful because they're going to rely on people moving their to work for them, which also means moving away from other job prospects and locking yourself into that one company. The fact is that the only solution here is that the Bay Area needs to build tall and denser housing, especially near jobs and mass transit.

65 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of another community
on Mar 12, 2019 at 7:50 am

If you want to solve the problem then you need to first stop the bleeding. That means stopping all office construction and expansion. Not another square foot. Once developers get the picture, they will move on to other cities like the parasites they are.

2 people like this
Posted by Darin
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2019 at 11:41 am

Darin is a registered user.

Of course, a moratorium on office construction isn't without cost. The price of office space will increase, and only the big corporations with deep pockets will be able to afford it. The small startups will have to find alternative accommodations. Either that, or they'll die. And everyone will figure out how to pack more employees into less office space.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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