Affordable Housing and the Future of Our Region

Editorial Note: Today’s guest blog post is written by Gloria Bruce, Interim Executive Director at East Bay Housing Organizations and an alumna of The San Francisco Foundation’s Multicultural Fellowship. Today kicks off EBHO’s 19th Annual Affordable Housing Week, a 10-day-long celebration of affordable homes, the benefits they bring to communities, and the people who live in, develop, manage and support affordable housing. 

A friend recently told me that the only way he can afford to stay in his community is to build a home out of wooden pallets in his neighbor’s back yard. Sadly, this news didn’t shock me. Whether you’re a third-generation Richmond resident or you just moved to Walnut Creek, you or someone you know has had a personal, and likely painful, encounter with soaring housing costs.

At East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), we’ve spent 31 years educating people about the East Bay’s affordable housing crisis. But things are at a fever pitch now, as an estimated 1.5 million California households lack homes that they can afford. A wave of wealth pouring into a limited amount of highly desirable land is crashing against communities that historically were affordable, if only because of long-term disinvestment. The result? New businesses and residents are bringing a new energy; but existing residents are being priced out of their now “hip” neighborhoods. Lower-income communities of color isolated by discriminatory practices also became tightly-knit, but now those social bonds are ruptured as people scatter to more affordable communities.

EBHO doesn’t have to spend much time these days convincing people that the lack of affordable homes is a problem for just about everyone. The challenge is what to do about it. Our members – nearly 400 organizations and individuals – have diverse perspectives, but they agree that housing is a human right and public obligation that can’t be met by relying solely on market forces.

Places like Oakland which have historically struggled to attract investment do need housing and economic development targeted at all income levels. But unregulated private development alone will never serve people of very limited means. There is simply not enough profit to be made from housing seniors or disabled people living on SSI, or formerly homeless individuals who need intensive services. These people are integral parts of our communities, as are others who struggle to make ends meet in the low-wage jobs that are crucial to our economy. That’s why public-nonprofit- private partnerships to build permanently affordable homes are so important, and much cheaper than “housing” people in jails and hospitals.

While it’s clear that we need to produce more affordable housing, preserving current affordable homes is just as critical. Cities need more resources for code enforcement and tenant assistance so that people aren’t living in unsafe conditions or facing undue threats of eviction. We need to repeal the state law that forbids local jurisdictions from designing their own rent stabilization policies. And with foreclosures still haunting some neighborhoods, we need no-brainer policy fixes like Assembly Bill 244, which would protect widows and orphans of homeowners in foreclosure.

Finally, we need to understand how affordability is linked to regional issues of transportation accessibility, employment, and land use. The 6 Wins Coalition and the HUD Regional Prosperity Plan have been telling regional officials that quality transit, good-paying jobs, and affordable homes need to be located together, ensuring that low-income people have opportunity and that we can meet statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Our affordable housing shortfall is an incredibly complicated problem. What’s inspiring, though, is that so many people are taking action. Cities that shied away from housing debates in the past – from Redwood City to Lafayette – are openly discussing rent stabilization and displacement. Activists are forming regional and statewide tenant organizing networks; Oakland community members are insisting that affordable housing is built alongside any new stadiums for the A’s and Raiders; Assemblymember Toni Atkins is moving forward four bills that will increase funding and financing for affordable homes at the state level.

Even if my friend does end up sleeping outside, he has the resources to bounce back. But for those with children or aging parents, people with medical conditions, or those who can’t get a job after serving time – it’s not so easy. No one should be forced to leave the place that they call home.

During EBHO’s Affordable Housing Week from May 8-16, we’ll continue to make this call that housing is a human right. We’ll celebrate the advocates, non-profit developers, local government partners, and organized residents who are making a difference. Come join us. The future of a diverse Bay Area is at stake.