Addressing Affordable Housing at the Structural Level: Calling out the Elephant in the Region

This week Enterprise Community Partners in Northern California released a new report -- The Elephant in the Region: Charting a Path for Bay Area Metro to Lead a Bold Regional Housing Agenda -- co-authored by Heather Hood and Geeta Rao with MZ Strategies, LLC, that recommends creating a new regional housing entity to address a housing affordability crisis that feels insurmountable to many.

The Bay Area region is challenged by the inability of its many local jurisdictions to work across the nine-county region to better coordinate, grow investment and build capacity on delivering and preserving affordable housing. A regional housing entity can fill this void and while that may sound simple, bureaucratic and perhaps even a bit uninspiring, the reality is that despite the many considerable assets and talents that exist in the Bay Area there is no adequate structure to address a housing crisis that is regional in nature. Its impacts are felt on the transportation system, and threaten the long-term economic competitiveness of a region where workers travels hours daily to find an affordable place to live.

Homelessness, displacement and housing unaffordable to all but the wealthiest can be seen in virtually every community but these impacts are not equally distributed. Communities of color, low-income communities, smaller communities and older communities often bear a greater burden and have fewer resources to respond. Job growth in San Francisco and San Jose have been explosive in recent years, but housing production has lagged. As noted in the new Enterprise report, between 2010-2015, 6.8 and 5.5 jobs were added for each housing permit issued over this period, respectively. While the region has permitted 99% of the housing need projected for above moderate-income household, less than 1/3 has been permitted for low-, very-low, and moderate-income households.  A regional housing crisis cannot be addressed without a myriad of solutions that are also regional.

The good news is that the Bay Area has a strong regional foundation to build upon. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is one of the nation’s leading metropolitan planning organizations and for the past decade its long-range transportation plans and investments have included an ever increasing focus on housing. State climate legislation (SB 375) requires the MTC to focus on the intersection of housing, transportation and land use. Community advocates pushed the MTC to go further and ensure that the region’s sustainable communities plan maximized climate benefits that also strengthen social and environmental justice goals. (MZ Strategies detailed a number of transportation innovations advanced in the Bay Area by public agencies and community advocates in the 2014 report., “Transportation Transformation”.)

The City of San Francisco has seen a major demographic transition as affordable housing has been lost and many people of color have been displaced as a result of rising housing prices. (Photo: M Zimmerman)

The City of San Francisco has seen a major demographic transition as affordable housing has been lost and many people of color have been displaced as a result of rising housing prices. (Photo: M Zimmerman)

The resulting Plan Bay Area 2040 lays out a strong vision and strategic plan for how the region can accommodate more than 2 million new residents, 1.3 million new jobs and over 820,000 new households in the next two decades. Increasing the supply and preservation of affordable housing is a cornerstone of this work. Yet, we know from experience, a good plan does not ensure good implementation. This is particularly true in the Bay Area where a regional housing structure is lacking that can support the many different public and private partners involved in housing production, preservation, land acquisition and advancing tenant protections for both renters and small business owners and other community social service providers.

The MTC is currently in the process of integrating with another Bay Area regional partner, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), to form Bay Area Metro (BAM). BAM’s creation provides a once in a generation opportunity to fill the regional housing gaps and structural voids. It is already bringing together a diverse set of partners to think strategically about how to address the region’s escalating housing crisis through CASA – The Committee to House the Bay Area. This is an important, but temporary step. A longer term, and more bold solution is required.

This could include Bay Area Metro significantly consolidating and expanding its current functions and authority to fill the specific gaps in the housing delivery system, i.e. in funding, financing, land coordination, and staffing capacity. New capacities can be grown focused on housing production, but also to support capacity building and performance on housing preservation and tenant protection issues. Some of these relate to policies issues that ABAG and MTC policy and planning staff are already working to address.

The Elephant in the Region: Charting a Path for Bay Area Metro to Lead a Bold Regional Housing Agenda report identifies a set of actions for this new proposed regional entity to undertake. These include:

1. Build and resource regional housing capacity with a focus on local implementation - Develop a deep bench of expertise in real estate, housing production, preservation and tenant protection that can be deployed as high-touch technical assistance to jurisdictions and build in-house capacity to ensure a regional pipeline of affordable housing projects is delivered.  

2. Establish, capitalize and manage regional land coordination - Develop a comprehensive real estate strategy and create viable housing opportunities by working across sectors to activate public, surplus, and private land.

3.       Develop and implement new regional finance tools— Create new finance tools to complement existing tools with a focus on a new dedicated source of regional housing funding.

These actions are further described and tailored to address the challenges and housing ecosystem unique to the Bay Area within the report but they also have application in many other regions. The Enterprise report includes case studies of innovative housing structures, financing tools and approaches to land coordination being deployed in New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Washington and Pennsylvania regions. Every community is different and the types of solutions being advanced reflect the local and state political, financial and cultural differences. Yet, no place is alone in having an affordable housing crisis or disparities in its housing policies; nor has any community solved these problems. However, new tools and strategies are emerging.

Certainly the changes anticipated at the federal level (which is a major source of affordable housing funding in many communities) to reduce tax tools that have been essential to engaging the private sector, and to reduce overall funding for a myriad of housing programs will put gas on the fire of the nation's growing housing crisis. These threats require new strategies, new partnerships, and new tools that can be tested, scaled and adapted across a range of different kinds of regions and housing markets. Hopefully, The Elephant in the Region report will help catalyze bold thinking in the Bay Area on how it can create a new structure to address the systemic challenges that threaten the region which may inspire other regions to also take a deeper look at existing and future tools and structures they may need to tackle complex  housing issues.

NOTE: While writing this blog I learned of the sudden death of San Francisco Mayor Lee. He was a vital champion of affordable housing, civil rights and equality who leaves an important legacy. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, and with the City.