August 15, 2016

Mountain View Voice: Housing Advocates Turn to the Ballot Box


SV@Home’s executive director, Leslye Corsiglia, recently spoke to the Mountain View Voice about the increasing popular support for action to resolve the region’s housing crisis as part of the newspaper’s “Out of Balance” article series.

See the original story at the Mountain View Voice.

Housing advocates turn to the ballot box

Part 3 of the Voice’s Out of Balance series on the job growth driving Silicon Valley’s housing crisis

By Kevin Forestieri and Mark Noack

Like other North County communities, Cupertino is a city at a crossroads. Carried for years by explosive tech-sector growth, the city’s employers have created about twice as many jobs as the city’s housing inventory can support, meaning Cupertino is effectively outsourcing much of its residential needs to other areas.

The imbalance is unlikely to end any time soon. Later this year, Apple’s new “spaceship” headquarters will open for business, adding an estimated 14,500 new workers.

And there’s plenty more in the pipeline. A short walk from Apple’s campus, the cavernous Vallco Shopping Mall is being pitched for a metamorphosis into a mixed-use district with shops, restaurants, housing, and a massive new office development. Up to 2 million square feet of office space has been provisionally approved by the city, which is expected to create 7,000 to 10,000 more jobs, depending on how you calculate it.

Sitting inside a coffee shop on a recent morning, Cupertino resident Liang Chao sipped a cappuccino as she watched a logjam of traffic inching along Stevens Creek Boulevard, one block from Vallco. A former software engineer who is now a full-time political activist, she was sitting with a group of like-minded residents who are waging a campaign to slow down Cupertino’s momentum for tech-fueled development, calling themselves Cupertino Residents for Sensible Zoning.

While office expansion is providing a windfall for Cupertino’s tax revenues, Chao and others described those gains as being outweighed by the long-term costs to the area’s services, roads and quality of life. Unlike surrounding cities, Cupertino has no mass transit other than buses, so nearly all of the office workers streaming into town are being funneled into the same overcrowded roads. Saying yes to more offices is simply “crazy,” Chao said.

“Property taxes simply aren’t enough to pay for all these costs,” she said. “With every new office project we end up borrowing money from our future.”

Unlike the typical debates that swirl around development, this controversy is one that will be decided by voters in November. Chao’s group has drafted a ballot measure that would force the Vallco project back to the drawing board and restrict what its members see as a City Council too eager to appease developers. Meanwhile, officials at Sand Hill Property, the firm behind the Vallco project, are taking their own countermeasure to the ballot, asking voters to approve the Vallco project as submitted.

Cupertino is just one example of how the regional challenges and pressures of tech development, job growth and housing shortfalls are influencing a wave of local ballot measures across Silicon Valley cities. In Milpitas, voters will decide on an urban growth boundary to prevent housing development in the local hills. Farther south in Morgan Hill, residents are wary of being a bedroom community and are looking into a population cap that would last through 2035.

And in Mountain View and several other cities across the Bay Area, residents are throwing support behind rent control as a way to prevent tenants from being priced out of town.

Part 1 of the Voice’s series “Out of Balance” examined the widening gap between job growth and housing construction in Santa Clara County and the impact on Silicon Valley’s economy. Part 2 looked into the failure of nearly all cities to meet targets for low- and moderate-income housing development. The frustration caused by those two thorny issues is coming to fruition in the upcoming election.

Leslye Corsiglia, executive director of the housing advocacy group SV@Home, said there’s a clear groundswell of support by residents throughout the county to do something about the lack of available housing in the region. Local elected officials are following suit, approving higher housing impact fees for developers and finding new ways to finance affordable residential development projects.

“People are becoming more aware of the need to act,” she said.

Spurring housing growth at the ballot box

The November ballot is going to be packed this year, but housing advocates are zeroing in on one measure in particular — Santa Clara County’s proposed $950 million affordable housing bond — as the big-ticket item that could provide relief in an overheated rental market.

County officials say the money would go a long way toward easing demand for affordable housing in the region. A vast majority of the bond revenue — over 80 percent — would fund residential projects for extremely low- and low-income families, which is exactly the kind of development cities have failed to provide over the last decade, according to reports from the Association of Bay Area Governments.

The spending plan for the bond measure, which the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors devised two months ago, is heavily weighted toward the most needy county residents. Of the $950 million, $700 million would help build homes for “extremely low-income” families (households of four people making less than $33,500 a year, for example), as well as permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing projects that would accommodate some of the estimated 6,500 homeless people in the county. Of the remaining revenue, $200 million would be split evenly for homes for low- and middle-income households, and $50 million to help first-time home buyers.

If passed, the housing bond would be an absolute boon for boosting affordable housing funds in the county, Corsiglia said, providing much-needed money for residential development for the county’s homeless and low-income families.

The bond proposal is coming from an unusual source — it wasn’t too long ago, Corsiglia said, that county officials said publicly that housing was not a core part of their vision. In recent years, the Board of Supervisors has doubled down on affordable housing and homelessness prevention efforts.

“It would be a game-changer, particularly for homeless people,” Corsiglia said. “There’s no way that we’re going to respond to our affordable housing needs without money — it just won’t happen.”

Estimates from the California Housing Partnership show that over 67,000 new homes would need to be built in order to meet the demand for low-income families renting in Santa Clara County. The need for more housing also coincides with rising home prices that reached a median level of $900,000 across the county over the past year, according to real estate analytics used by the county.

At the same time, the county’s Community Plan to End Homelessness found that it would need to build 3,600 supportive housing units to meet the needs of chronically homeless residents, as well as 2,400 rapid rehousing units aimed at providing short-term housing for people coming out of the foster care system and victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.

County Supervisor Joe Simitian told the Voice that the housing would go a long way toward solving the county’s homeless problem, and finally help the county make significant progress toward a “Housing First” solution to end homelessness. Projects to be funded, Simitian said, aren’t geared toward workforce housing; instead, they could help as many as 4,000 of the most needy county residents.

“This bond is essentially focused on the folks who really are at the lowest end of the ladder in terms of their income,” Simitian said. “We were very explicit that those funds will be available to dedicate towards tackling homelessness.”

Simitian noted that there’s a clear financial incentive to approve the bond measure. Homelessness costs an estimated $521 million each year in countywide services including criminal justice, health care and social services, which could be greatly reduced by housing and helping the county’s neediest become self-sufficient, he said.

“It’s a little hard for folks to get squared away when they’re worried about where they’re going to put their head down at night,” he said.

The housing bond isn’t the only thing on the ballot designed to address the region’s growing pains. The Valley Transportation Authority is pitching a half-cent sales tax initiative to provide about $6.5 billion for transit improvements.

Grassroots efforts for rent control

While some ballot measures aim to increase housing, others are intended to stabilize the cost of living in existing homes. In response to skyrocketing rents and high levels of tenant displacement, residents in several Bay Area cities have put rent control measures on the ballot this November.

Mountain View, San Mateo, Alameda, Burlingame and Richmond have measures on the ballot that propose some form of rent control. Community organizers have said there’s a clear popular sentiment that more needs to be done to protect renters.

Jennifer Martinez is the executive director of Faith in Action, formerly Peninsula Interfaith Action, and has helped spearhead the rent control measure in San Mateo. She said faith-based communities have traditionally been involved in efforts to support affordable housing and get out the vote in low-income and minority neighborhoods, but heading a campaign for rent control is a change of pace for Faith in Action.

The rent control measure in San Mateo, which glided through the signature-gathering process, comes after four years and thousands of conversations with local residents about evictions and rent increases, Martinez said. In one instance, a family had totally paid off a building they were renting out to tenants, but decided to raise the rent by $1,200 a month in one fell swoop. Tenant advocacy quickly became the No. 1 issue, prompting a real change for Faith in Action.

“It’s not an isolated incident, it’s not one building, it keeps happening again and again,” Martinez said. “It became very clear that, though our organization has always supported building affordable housing, it isn’t happening quickly enough to address the need.”

A poll conducted by Faith in Action earlier this year found that 72 percent of San Mateo residents and 68 percent of Mountain View residents support some kind of rent control measure, Martinez said.

“I was surprised to see how many people said ‘thank you, thank you for doing this,’ and told us their stories about how they were evicted, or how they were afraid of being evicted,” she said.

A statewide override for affordable housing?

Perhaps the most radical attempt to increase affordable housing in California is a bill proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would streamline the approval process of housing developments, making it much easier for developers to get the green light for new residential construction — as long as affordable units are included.

Proponents of this “by-right” housing bill say it will spur affordable housing development in cities that have traditionally blocked or delayed dense housing projects by allowing developers to sidestep the local approval process. The projects still have to be consistent with the general plan and local zoning and design review ordinances.

The by-right housing proposal began as a trailer bill attached to this year’s state budget, with an incentive of $400 million in affordable housing subsidies that were contingent on the bill passing. The budget has since been signed and adopted without the by-right housing bill, but Brown has continued to push hard for the policy in the current legislative session. The language of the trailer bill remains virtually unchanged.

Brown’s proposal comes after a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the high cost of housing is caused, first and foremost, by the lack of housing to meet the demand. As of 2015, the average home in California cost $440,000 — about two and a half times the average national home price — and average monthly rent is 50 percent higher than the rest of the country, at $1,240, according to the report.

Corsiglia said that SV@Home supports Brown’s proposal, with a few amendments asking for greater affordability requirements and assurance that there would be community outreach. She said many cities in the Bay Area have zoned for housing and could support residential growth, but it isn’t happening because of hurdles at the local level — something that by-right housing seeks to fix.

“If your housing element and your general plan says you can build housing in an area, you should be able to build it.” Corsiglia said.

The League of California Cities has come out strongly against the by-right housing bill, calling the governor’s plan a misguided attempt to revitalize affordable housing development following Brown’s own decision to dissolve redevelopment agencies in late 2011. Redevelopment agencies routed roughly $1 billion annually to affordable housing projects across the state prior to dissolution; that amounted to $65 million in Santa Clara County.

City agencies aren’t the only ones with a bone to pick. A statewide coalition of more than 60 organizations, including community development groups, tenant advocacy groups, faith-based organizations and unions, released a statement earlier this month slamming the governor’s proposal.

The coalition asserts that the bill will do nothing to truly address the housing crisis in California. Under the proposal, it says, a mostly market-rate development could avoid local review by having a small number of units reserved for affordable housing, and city governments would be unable to control a potential influx of high-cost units that could push out existing residents and further gentrify cities.

“Policies that deregulate market-rate housing development have proven in all of California’s major urban areas to cause displacement of lower-income communities,” according to the coalition’s statement. “High-priced housing developments are already destroying existing diverse neighborhoods, displacing residents, small businesses, and jobs.”

Concerns over initiative overuse

In some cases, local elected officials have expressed concerns that making decisions on complex issues by popular vote is a poor way to craft policy. Mountain View officials have criticized the citizen rent-control initiative for being drafted as a charter amendment, which requires another ballot initiative to make any major policy changes.

In the case of Cupertino, Councilman Rod Sinks said he was dismayed that both local activists and developers were using ballot initiatives to circumvent the normal government process on the Vallco project. He predicted both measures would fail.

“Doing land-use planning at the ballot box is not smart, it’s not wise. If anything needs to change with the Vallco process, then we have to go back to voters,” he said. “I don’t like this process — you have a small group of people fiercely in favor or fiercely opposed, and then you have a huge pool in the middle.”

But many opponents of the Vallco project are well past the point of politely laying out their grievances at public meetings. Already, the citizens’ group has filed a lawsuit against the city for allegedly mischaracterizing its initiative in the brief write-up that would appear on the ballot.

Many members of the same group are also working to recall Cupertino Mayor Barry Chang, who is perceived as having too cozy a relationship with Sand Hill Property and other office developers.

Sand Hill officials did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Read the entire Out of Balance series:

Part 1, Acres of office space

Part 2, Regulations, residents often hamper affordable housing

Part 3, Housing advocates turn to the ballot box

Photo by MidPen Housing’s Fair Oaks Plaza in Sunnyvale.