Desperate Bay Area Voters Tax Themselves to Ease Traffic, Build Housing
By Patrick May
Along with the slew of propositions on this week’s California ballot to legalize pot, do away with the death penalty and ban plastic bags, there were also measures of desperation: Bay Area voters were asked to perform a sort of electoral CPR on their gridlocked, high-priced and increasingly frenetic metropolis.
And in an indication of just how fed up they are, voters declared they were willing to open their wallets to fund a host of affordable housing and transportation proposals.
Many of the decisions they faced were seismic, and some of the proposals were seemingly contradictory: Gilroy voters approved an urban-growth boundary to limit sprawl. And voters in Milpitas overwhelmingly decided to keep the city’s strict restrictions on building in the hills.
And with gridlock fatigue taking its toll on everyone, voters in Santa Clara County agreed to raise the sales tax to improve roads and bring BART to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara, finally creating a rail loop around the bay. Voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties approved a bond measure to upgrade BART’s strained and aging system.
The underlying theme: The Bay Area’s fabled quality of life is seriously threatened — and voters are concerned enough to reach into their wallets to make sure it remains a great place to live.
“There has never been an economy as highly productive, innovative and impactive as this one in the history of our planet,” said Russ Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. But “we’re adding all these jobs to a fixed land mass, surrounded by water on three sides and by protected open space. That’s the problem.”
Russell took heart that Santa Clara County voters agreed to use bond financing to address the problems of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, saying the vote for Measure A to provide $950 million for housing was “significant because it cuts against the dysfunction we’ve seen around here for a very long time.”
But he worries that proposals for the sort of dramatic increases in housing needed to handle the region’s red-hot job growth will be “fought in city councils throughout the region for years to come.”
“You have people elected to make sure their city never changes,” he said. “So I’m not hopeful about the underlying dynamic, which is that existing homeowners don’t want to see change.”
In Mountain View, home of Google and ground zero of Silicon Valley’s tech boom, Councilman Lenny Siegel struck a more hopeful note. He said “people are starting to realize we have a deep double-crisis in the Bay Area in housing and transportation.”
Siegel said Mountain View is a leader in striving for the jobs-housing balance that now eludes most of the region, pointing to the city’s plans to increase its housing stock in the coming years by 50 percent, with as much as 20 percent of it affordable housing.
“People have blamed us — because of Google’s expansion — for being the root of the jobs-housing imbalance, but we’re not,” he said. “We are trying to do our share in bringing more housing units online in a way that will benefit both our residents and our companies.”
As evidence, Siegel points to the North Bayshore project, where the city hopes to add more than 10,000 new homes just a short walk from the local tech giants that call the city home. And he sees more and more support for new housing from people who have “been against solving the housing problem, the ones I call the Drawbridge People — who already have bought their homes and now want to pull up the drawbridge behind them.”
“These people are now starting to see that the people living in their cars are mostly employed and can’t afford to live here — and they also wonder where their own kids and grandkids will live,” Siegel said. With the North Bayshore project, he said, the city is adding transit options and designing neighborhoods in such a way that “people don’t have to drive to get coffee or buy groceries.”
Part of the affordability challenge is the sky-high rents many parts of the Bay Area have experienced. And while rent-control measures failed in several other Bay Area cities, Measure V in Mountain View passed, limiting annual rent increases to between 2 percent and 5 percent in most multifamily units built before 1995.
With San Francisco in crisis mode, having served as a beachhead for the ongoing high-tech invasion and now being loved to death by startup armies and marauding millennials, other cities are grappling more and more with the jammed streets and crowded transit buses and trains created by the jobs-housing disconnect that played out in local polling places on Election Day.
“San Francisco is a harbinger of what’s coming to the East Bay and other parts of the Bay Area,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who represents Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro. “We all want more jobs and economic stimulus. But sometimes these come with unintended consequences like a lack of affordability.”
And he doesn’t necessarily see voter support this week for things like urban boundary lines as contradicting a widespread support for more affordable housing. Those boundary lines, he said, “are maybe a resistance to sprawl — what voters are really saying is that infill housing is a better approach in urban areas.”
But even as cities around the Bay Area try to navigate their way through all the bad things wrought by the region’s good fortune, this week’s election showed that there’s no clear path forward.
Confusing the voter-sentiment picture were several seemingly contradictory measures that showed just how tricky so-called “smart growth” can be.
In Cupertino, for example, voters faced two measures with different approaches to redeveloping Vallco Shopping Mall, a near-empty mall. In an apparent show of pro-growth fervor, they voted down Measure C, which could have excluded offices and homes from the site and set a 45-foot limit on buildings. But they also voted down the dueling Measure D, which would have allowed the city to move forward with a plan to transform the site into homes, offices, commercial spaces and a community center.
Matt Vander Sluis, program director at the nonprofit Greenbelt Alliance, said Bay Area voters seemed to be saying they want growth but in the right places — and not at the expense of the region’s quality of living.
He noted that Albany voters passed Measure D, effectively reducing the minimum number of parking places required for a new housing unit from two to one. It was a smart-growth decision, at least the way Vander Sluis saw it, as a way for Albany residents to not just build homes easier but “to have places for people rather than for cars.”
“We have the opportunity in the Bay Area to be a model for the rest of the country if we can grow smartly and in ways that strengthen the economy and protect the environment,” he said. “The voters have said that’s the sort of future they want. Now’s the time to double down and get to work.”
This article was originally published by the The Mercury News.