The Housing Crisis in California: Many Solutions, Few Compromises

BY JACOB GANZsan-francisco-bay-area-homes-and-housingThe housing crisis California faces can be visually comprehended atop Bernal Heights, a neighborhood in southern San Francisco, which can be reached by a short hike. If you look north from the top of Bernal Heights, you can see downtown San Francisco, its skyline filled with large cranes working on new high-rise luxury apartments. If you look west, you can see the sprawling and diverse neighborhoods of San Francisco, crowded with housing as far the eye can see. If you turn east you can see the Bayview district, the last low-income neighborhood in a city that no longer has room for low-income families. Lastly, if you turn south you will be shocked to see the empty space and open marshland of Brisbane, which has developers and city planners’ mouths watering. However, this open marshland could be a key part of the solution to the housing crisis that has plagued San Francisco. It is generous to call Brisbane a town. Comprising only 4,828 people and 3.1 square miles, Brisbane, an afterthought just south of the San Francisco city limits, barely qualifies as a neighborhood. But Brisbane’s one major asset is its space for housing – something the Bay Area desperately needs.

San Francisco is the crown jewel of Northern California. Its beauty and location have led the city to flourish and grow. Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, San Francisco’s growth has become untenable. San Francisco has always been an expensive city to live in, but the prices have recently skyrocketed. In the last year alone, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment increased by 21 percent. In June 2016, the median price for homes and condominiums reached $1 million for the first time in San Francisco’s history. These record prices are far too expensive for most Americans; the lack of affordable housing has forced many low and middle-income people out of the city.

The government of San Francisco is desperate for more space for housing, and so it was optimistic when the developers at Universal Paragon Corp announced their plans to build 4,434 housing units in Brisbane, which would more than double the town’s population. It would also significantly alter Brisbane’s small-town feel, and so the Brisbane Planning Commission rejected the plan and instead proposed the construction of commercial properties and open spaces.

Brisbane’s rejection and proposal have infuriated many San Francisco city officials who saw the need for more housing. Thus, these officials came up with a creative and controversial solution to the problem: city supervisors, led by Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin, have called for annexing the town of Brisbane to build housing there, after which the board of supervisors could approve Universal Paragon Corps’ plan for more housing.

This unprecedented proposal has caused anger in Brisbane. Brisbane’s mayor pro tempore, Cliff Lentz, called the idea “sad” and “an unthinkable act of bullying.” Many of the residents were scared by the idea of annexation. KPIX Channel 5 recently interviewed Julie Banks, a long-time Brisbane resident, who said, “I don’t like it at all. It wouldn’t be Brisbane, it wouldn’t be a town. It wouldn’t be small and I don’t think our kids would be safe.” The people of Brisbane are not the only ones who are resistant to the idea of increased housing in their area. Many suburbs throughout California have resisted approving new housing projects, fearing that the influx of people will change the makeup of their cities. Resistance can be seen in the suburbs of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where local city councils refuse to increase the amount of affordable housing available in their cities. This resistance has forced many low-income people, who work in cities, to live far beyond the suburbs and commute multiple hours to and from work every day.

Tension can be seen at the state capital as well. Last summer, Governor Brown proposed a major bill meant to ease the housing crisis in California by sending an additional $400 billion toward affordable-housing projects while also streamlining the approval process for developers. His bill attempted to please both developers and low-income housing advocates. However, this compromise proved to be too much of a tightrope walk as neither side was willing to give an inch. In August of last year,  Brown’s bill was defeated.

Looking to step into the void left by Brown’s defeat is John Chiang, California’s current treasurer and candidate for governor, who has announced his plan to add a ballot measure in 2018 regarding affordable housing. He has not gone into details nor has he shown any creativity regarding the issue, but he has promised more action and success than Governor Brown. Conversely, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the early front-runner for the gubernatorial race in 2018, does not even have housing as one of the key issues on his official website.

So far, none of the proposals that have emerged from Sacramento have come close to tackling the housing crisis in California. However, a solution would be for both state and local governments to aggressively push for more affordable housing throughout California’s major cities. Currently, most California cities require that developers set aside 10 to 15 percent of housing for low-income residents. However, if Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego increase the percentage of housing set aside for low-income residents, more low-income residents would be able to stay in these cities. Also, the effect on developers, who are doing so well in the current booming housing economy, would be minimal. Another solution city governments could implement is buying open land for the purpose of building low- and middle-income housing, allowing more low- and middle-income residents to live closer to their jobs in the city. These solutions would have a minimal effect on the overall makeup of a city while managing to retain some level of income diversity.

The housing crisis in San Francisco and other major cities is the natural result of a booming economy, but the government can get involved in an aggressive yet controlled way to ensure some low- and middle-income housing remains in the cities. A good way to tell if California still has a housing crisis in ten years would be to climb to the top of Bernal Heights and look south. If you see new housing rather than open marshland, then you will know that the solution succeeded and the housing crisis has been eased. The question remains whether the government has the will to make necessary changes.