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TriplePundit Sponsored Series

Tech Titans: Community Citizens?

The Bay Area's Affordable Housing Options: Band Aid or Panacea?

By Jan Lee
affordable housing San Francisco

The San Francisco Bay Area's housing problem is no secret. In fact, it's been around for so long that organizations created to incentivize housing options for low-income or impoverished residents more than 30 years ago have become an essential part of the fabric that supports incoming, idealistic new arrivals -- even ones with solid jobs.

These days, the challenge of finding housing in the Bay Area's nine counties isn't limited to the low-income family, the elderly resident on Social Security or the homeless, disabled veteran. It extends across all economic sectors and most neighborhoods of the Bay Area's burgeoning cities and suburbs. It includes the restaurant staff that services San Francisco's mid-city tech industry, the front office workers in Oakland and the part-time office cleaners throughout the area. It even includes those entry-level to mid-income salaried tech employees who don't earn enough to snag one of the few houses on the market each month.

And it isn't just in those communities where the tech industry is booming. As is so often the case in geographic areas where a growing industry has forced demand to outpace supply, the shortage is almost everywhere. The deficiency in affordable housing is even felt in East Bay suburbs an hour's drive away from the city. In places like Lafayette, the market demand for houses has pushed the median price above $1 million, far out of reach for the average worker. And it's done one more thing, says Sonya Trauss: It's eroded the rental market.

Trauss is the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF) -- an organization that, up until recently, received more attention for its odd acronym than its answers to the area's rental woes. But earlier this month, SFBARF did what many figured was the unthinkable: It announced it would sue Lafayette for allegedly going against its word and not building enough affordable housing. And it would go after others that it felt fell short on their commitment as well.

The way that Trauss sees the problem: Cities don't want to have affordable housing in their backyards.

"There's not enough political will to build," Trauss said earlier this month in an interview with TriplePundit. "Suburbs have the idea that housing doesn't pay."

It's easy to see why. In neighborhoods like Palo Alto and Mountain View, where the average two-bedroom, modestly-sized house can range as high as $3 million, rental neighborhoods are an endangered species. They figure large in Mountain View's North Shore Precise Plan, but are hard to find on its development map. 

SFBARF's answer for the region's housing dilemma has raised some eyebrows as well. It isn't, well, the kind of thing that residents expect to hear in the Bay Area, where stories of rush-hour gridlock extend back into the 1960s and the population already tops 7 million. But it speaks to the heart of the problem in counties like Solano and Marin, where single detached homes comprise as much as 70 percent of the existing real estate market.

More population density

There's room in the suburbs, Trauss argues. "I do understand that there are people in the that like the suburban form, and I think there is enough room in the Bay Area for there to be suburban sprawl -- for a while at least." But she feels there's also room for more density that would meet the needs of those who like city life and need better options for housing. And, contrary to many who move to outlying areas like Lafayette and Walnut Creek, she says she likes density. It affords more opportunities, cuts down on commutes and interconnects communities.

Gloria Bruce agrees that "suburban sprawl" offers at least part of the answer to fixing the Bay Area's housing crunch. She serves as the executive director for the East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), which advocates for improved housing options in places like Oakland, a city that doesn't have the sprawl but often tries to address its housing shortages. These days, Bruce says, mindset isn't a predominate problem in Oakland when it comes to building affordable housing. Money and resources are.

"It's not -- overall -- a NIMBY [not in my backyard] city," says Bruce, although she admits that there are "pockets of resistance" when it comes to building low-income housing. "The problem Oakland has now is that it just doesn't have sufficient money to build much more affordable housing."

But that doesn't mean other cities can't do more. "I do think it's important to shine a light on other places -- from Pleasanton to Mountain View to communities in Marin -- that have new jobs in various sectors but are generally resistant to building more housing."

She says EBHO has tried to work with outlying counties where lower-income individuals work and can't afford to rent, but it is difficult. "There is huge resistance to building more homes in many of these places; there's a feeling that it's a threat to a certain way of life. But when your traffic is snarled, and your adult kids or your aging parents can no longer afford to live in your hometown, and your first responders and your domestic workers are commuting two hours to get to work. What kind of quality of life is that anyway?"

Still, says Bruce, local governments aren't without tools to reduce the housing crunch. Impact fees, in which employers pay a small fee each time one of its newly hired staff rented a unit could help defray cost of building more affordable housing. So could "inclusionary zoning" laws that help ensure that low-cost housing is factored into the neighborhoods. But so far, it's been difficult getting support at city council meetings. She says cities "sometimes even fight the allocation given to them by the Association of Bay Area Government," a state-mandated allocation that ensures every city is taking affordable housing needs into consideration.

Jackie Jenks, who runs the Hospitality House across the bay from Oakland in San Francisco's densely-populated Tenderloin District, offers a similar take on what is fueling the crisis. And she doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to assessing the reasons that housing costs are unattainable by a growing sector of the population:

"Economic inequality and greed. Market forces and greed are driving up the costs of housing everywhere, and many property owners are interested only in how much they can get on a rental or a sale and not in how their actions impact others who are just trying to make it," Jenks says. Like Bruce, she has watched her neighborhood become transformed by the growth of companies like Yelp, Airbnb and Pinterest, with older, lower-income neighborhoods "being fixed up, priced up and marketed to tech workers who are willing to live in very small spaces with limited facilities because everything they need is provided at their workplace."

But Jenks says she isn't sure that imposing fees to pay for new housing in San Francisco isn't entirely the answer. With limited land mass, "impact fees can only do so much ... [We] need for developers to be part of the solution, to be exceptional, and to go beyond the letter of the law when it comes to inclusionary housing."

Trauss, Bruce and Jenks all agree, however, when it comes to private-sector options. "The tech industry could do more to build truly affordable housing," Jenks says.

And, adds Bruce, "They should engage positively with local government and advocates to find shared solutions, rather than just finding ways to work around local ordinances or throwing tons of money at ballot measures they don't like."

Trauss says her answer is "more of a long-term one ... The longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve realized there’s a lot of crossing paths of each other because people have different time frames for their solutions." She says she thinks cities, developers and the tech industry that invests in the area should look at the present housing shortage as an opportunity. "Money is interested in this place. It wants to do stuff here,” including build more housing. “And people need housing and people want housing."

As for Lafayette and other suburban areas with room to grow, Trauss says the city has the wrong message. "We’re not asking the government for a handout. We don’t want them to do anything for us. We just want them to let developers, private developers with their own money, ... build something so we can spend money to buy it.”

But affordable housing also won't happen until employers take an active roll in fixing the problem, says Bruce. "It isn't fair, healthy or sustainable to reap the benefits of high-tech office development without also building some homes for local workers. We all deserve to live where we work and work where we live, if we choose to."

Image credit: Brooke Anderson and Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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