Affordable housing hangs in the balance

Deia de Brito

The Bay Area is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases in California, making up 41 percent of the state’s emissions and three times as much carbon dioxide per capita as the average world resident. A large portion of that pollution is caused by the region’s commuters driving to work from more affordable homes in outlying communities.

With insufficient affordable housing, jobs, and transportation options, people often have little choice but to pollute. Advocates say lack of affordable housing is bad for the environment, and so they are working with local and regional governments to map out smart growth principles championed in Senate Bill 375 (Steinberg).

The California Air Resources Board is scheduled to present a draft of regional emissions targets for 2020 and 2035 in June of next year and the finalized targets in September. By January of 2012, the regions are required to complete the final drafts of their Sustainable Communities Strategies, the new regional planning document required by SB 375 that outlines how they will meet their targets.

“We’re in foundation building time for SB 375,” said Stephanie Reyes, policy director at Greenbelt Alliance, an organization that works in the nine Bay Area counties to create open spaces and infill development. “It’s kind of getting off to a slow start here in the Bay Area because we’re not going to get our targets until next year,” she added, but said leaders and advocates are currently holding meetings to discuss how to best involve local groups and governments. Reyes said her organization has been working on building a grassroots base and reaching out to jurisdictions that are subject to gentrification.

At the forefront of anti-sprawl planning for decades, Greenbelt Alliance has seen recent victories that represent the shift toward smart growth that could flourish under SB 375. Pittsburg, a bedroom community located along the commute-heavy Highway 4, recently approved a plan for a new BART station and 2,500 new homes, 30 percent of them affordable. And in October, a judge ruled in favor of Greenbelt Alliance in a lawsuit against massive development plans for thousands of acres of prime farmland in Oakley.

“Under 375, when the region is putting together a region-wide plan, there’s no doubt that there will be more plans like these,” said Reyes.

The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) is among the groups fighting for smart growth and carefully following the movement of SB 375.

Ann Gressani, policy director for NPH, though optimistic about the changes proposed, is concerned about the difference between housing law on paper and in practice. She says only a small percent of the Bay Area’s housing elements have been filed and accepted this year, and they were due in June. In addition, a handful of cities and counties fail to meet the affordable housing needs outlined in their plans, and each year, the Bay Area falls behind on fulfilling its affordable housing need.

Advocates say affordable housing is inherent to smart growth, but whether an increase in affordable housing is inherent to SB 375 remains to be seen. Gressani hopes SB 375 will hold cities more accountable and push them to fulfill the growing need for affordable housing. It is still unknown “whether the mix of housing under the Sustainable Communities Strategy will contain more affordable housing than we’re currently building now,” she said.

Brian Augusta, staff attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said up until SB 375, housing law was silent on making sure cities rezoned as they were supposed to. Now, there’s a clear obligation to rezone within three years of submitting the housing element plan.

As it stands, SB 375 has a few consequences for failure to submit a housing element or rezone. Any local government that does not adopt a housing element within 120 days of the deadline misses out on the housing element’s new eight-year cycle and must adopt a housing element every four years. And this is something local governments don’t like to do, Augusta explained.

The consequence for failure to rezone is that anyone can sue the city, forcing it to rezone within 60 days, and seek sanctions on development if it fails to do so. The “builder’s remedy” for a local government’s failure to rezone makes it legal for a housing developer proposing to build at least 49 percent low- to moderate- income housing to develop on any site set aside for rezoning, as if it had been rezoned.

In addition, an annual check-in report to be included in the annual report for Housing and Community Development will chart local governments’ progress in meeting the housing element deadlines and rezoning.

Augusta is hopeful about the increase in density and the affordable housing development that could result from SB 375. He foresees a scenario that could result from the bill’s amendments to housing element law that requires plans to meet an eight-year housing need rather than the five-year housing need in place today. The longer time frame means more land set aside for housing, and thus more land for affordable housing developers.

“This could provide an immediate boon for affordable developers who often have a hard time finding a good site for development,” said Augusta.

The downside to the eight-year cycle is that things change. For example, even the past five-year housing element cycle saw huge changes with the building boom and crash, and then later with frozen funds.

Augusta also cautioned that more density could mean more competition.

“The risk is that the drive to shrink the footprint of development ends up putting too much land off-limits for development, leaving affordable developers scrambling for sites in competition with market rate developers,” he said.

In addition, there is no assurance that local governments will follow the Sustainable Communities Strategy, Augusta said. But consequences like one that will refuse cities transportation funding if they don’t comply with the strategy are carrot sticks for good comportment.

“We are trying to make sure affordable housing doesn’t get squeezed out,” said Augusta.

Linda Couch, deputy director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said the community has to be on their toes when governments and developers start to talk about affordable housing, as affordable housing is not always affordable.

“What do you mean by affordable? Affordable to whom? Does it mean they get the basement unit in every property? These are the questions they need to ask,” said Couch. Her organization helped pass the National Housing Trust Fund last year, which will most likely get $1 billion from sources yet unknown by the end of the year, to be dispersed to the states by the spring. Seventy-five percent of the fund will go toward very low-income housing, and the coalition’s goal is to infuse the fund with $15 billion every year from permanent sources.

The relationship between the national funds and SB 375 is still unknown, but one thing is clear: affordable housing goes hand in hand with smart growth, and perhaps it is time to start thinking about housing as Linda Couch suggested: “We need to right size our homes, we need to be happy with housing as a shelter and not see it as an investment that will pay for multiple generations to go to college.”

And as density increases, affordable housing is something that city dwellers need to accept. While affordable housing development has a history of working alongside the environmental movement toward smart growth, people still have misconceptions about affordable housing. For now, one of the struggles of smart growth advocates is to get the public to accept that density — and not just for those with San Francisco’s annual median income of $96,000 — is a smart public investment.

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Bay Area Monitor

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