"Six Ways the Bay Area Can Help Its Housing Affordability Problem"

KQED News Fix, November 29, 2013

In nearly every Forum show on Priced Out, KQED's series on affordable housing in the Bay Area, many listeners and commenters opine, to paraphrase, "Build Baby Build." That is to say, San Francisco simply needs to accept its popularity and booming economy and build more housing.

So Forum decided to take up the question, "Can the Bay Area build its way out of a lack of affordable housing?" The answer, to paraphrase again, is "It's complicated."

While Forum guests agreed that building needs to be part of the solution, they also agreed that creating housing is a complex problem, requiring a multi-pronged, nuanced approach.

If you're a person who enjoys listening,  the full Forum show is online here. But if you're short on time and just want the highlights, this post's for you:

1. Work backwards

There are so many places for a new housing development to start — a plot of land, a vacant building, heck, just the need for housing itself is a starting point. But according to Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organization, the best way to ensure affordable housing is to first consider who will live in a given building, and then take the steps necessary to achieve housing for that population. If Bay Area officials are serious about providing housing for the middle class, they need to start with that in mind.

“Affordable housing is typically built for a very specific income-level of household and also for a particular population. Maybe it’s built for seniors, maybe it’s for families, and maybe it’s for transitional-age youth. So the calculation at the front – of how much those rents or those ownership prices will be — is already known, and then that works backwards into operating costs and construction costs, and the subsidy is calculated from there. But it’s very intentional about who we are building for."

2. Prioritize regional solutions 

Too often San Francisco gets all the attention. But unfortunately a lack of middle-class-friendly housing is not unique to San Francisco, and the solution won't be found within its 49 square miles.

“The rest of the region has not done its share," said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, a San Francisco-based urban planning organization. "It has not either permitted enough affordable housing or simply has not created walkable places. So the pressure on San Francisco is all the greater. We need help from the rest of the region to solve this.”

'That’s the problem – the places where it’s good to build a lot of new housing for the regional growth is also where you have the greatest degree of gentrification.'

Cohen points out that some regional planning does take place, specifically at the hands of the Association of Bay Area Governments.

"The state on a regular basis, every 5 to 7 years, comes up with some calculations of projected housing needs based on the growing workforce in every part of the state of California," said Cohen. "The Bay Area gets what is called a 'Regional Housing Needs Allocation.' Those, in turn, are distributed to each county and city as their share of the housing production that they need to produce over the next 5 to 7 years. And that’s broken down by affordability level. San Francisco has its share, Burlingame has its share, Concord has its share. The crisis we’re in on a regional level is not a whole lot different from San Francisco, except the factors are different. We are dramatically underproducing low-income housing and middle-income housing across the region, and from a numbers standpoint, overproducing market-rate housing. So there is a structural problem with the market relative to need."

But often, despite a region's good intentions, local officials have a hard time getting their communities on board with such plans. And that brings us to our next point.

3. Drop the NIMBY-ism

"[NIMBY-ism] is probably the biggest problem we face," said Karen Chapple, associate director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley. "We don’t have an easy solution. I think it’s changing over time as people see that their own kids can't live in their cities. Eventually they come to their senses, but they’re still going to fight the apartment building on their block."

4. Consider public transportation when planning and pricing

In an October discussion on the state of the Bay Area real estate market, Carolyn Said, who covers economics and real estate for the San Francisco Chronicle, made the point that Solano County is a great place to live if you can work an off-schedule or work from home. In other words, if you don't have to commute. Some of the least affordable (or should we say "less expensive") areas in the Bay Area remain that way because a lack of transit infrastructure makes them less appealing.

According to Chapple, public transit needs to be part of the affordable housing discussion.

"Our cost of housing is not just how much we pay for rent and utilities, or mortgage and utilities," said Chapple. "It’s also location, and how much that is costing us. How efficient is the location?

"We need to think of transportation costs as part of this overall affordability question, which is where the regional issue becomes so salient... We think we’re adding affordability out in Antioch, but in reality, we’re actually adding more transportation costs.

“We need to be very strategic in thinking about where we’re going to put this housing," Chapple continued. "So let’s look at our corridors, because that’s where there isn’t that much community objection. Let’s look at El Camino Real, let’s look at San Pablo Avenue, let’s look at Telegraph Avenue, and let’s incentivize building on these corridors.”

But Peter Cohen warns that vulnerable populations often live along those transportation corridors and he cites concerns with Plan Bay Area, a regional transportation and housing plan aimed at accommodating growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Plan Bay Area is essentially a growth vision for all the population of the region over the next 20 years or so, and 75 percent of it goes into those El Camino Real corridors or those urbanized neighborhoods," said Cohen. "Which, from a land use standpoint and an urbanism standpoint, is good. ...  [But] if you overlay that with where there are communities that are actually vulnerable for displacement – gentrification displacement – it’s a very close match. That’s the problem – the places where it’s good to build a lot of new housing for the regional growth is also where you have the greatest degree of gentrification."

5. Show affordable housing the money

Cohen also goes on to criticize Plan Bay Area for its lack of monetary teeth:

"There’s no funding source for the affordable housing that’s necessary to make that kind of vision work," he said. "It’s just basically a numerical game plan and then the market builds. But the market only builds for a segment of that need and without the money, what you have is a recipe for displacement.”

Just how much does it cost to build affordable or subsidized housing? A lot.

"It probably costs, depending on who you’re building for, a few hundred thousand dollars in subsidies per unit," said Gabriel Metcalf. "And maybe a third of that [comes from local sources]. So call it a $100,000 in subsidy, locally, per unit. You can kind of multiply that by how many people you want to help, and you can help thousands of people, but there will still be hundreds of thousands of people who are not going to get one of those units.”

6. Think beyond the single-family unit

“We did a study on the East Bay of the potential for building in-law units, and compared it to the potential for building multi-family buildings, and we found that about half of our in-field developments should be coming from in-law units," said Karen Chapple. "In many of our larger lots it’s very hard to assemble, it’s very expensive.  It can cost one quarter the amount to build an in-law unit in the back of a single-family home. That said, it does need to be price controlled."

San Francisco city officials are starting to recognize the role that secondary units can play in easing the housing crunch.  San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener has proposed allowing in-law units to be built in his district and Board of Supervisor President David Chiu introduced legislation that would legalize existing secondary units that were built illegally.