Everyone seems to agree that the housing situation in the Bay Area has reached a crisis -- but what to do about it remains as polarizing as ever.
This week wrapped up the nonprofit SV@Home's second "Affordable Housing Week," a series of panels and events to address one of Silicon Valley's -- and the state's -- most intractable problems.
For the South Bay, this might seem like a golden time to be aggressive about rapid housing growth. Santa Clara County is gearing up to use $950 million made possible through the voter-approved Measure A tax to boost low-income housing. Meanwhile, cities across the area are seeing increasing public pressure to be part of the solution.
Data shows that the problem won't be solved anytime soon, as it has been brewing for decades. Just between 2010 and 2016, Santa Clara County added 166,800 new jobs, but only 25,440 new housing units, according to the state Department of Finance.
Many state lawmakers say cities can't be allowed to ignore this problem any longer, and many are pledging to take a hardline approach. This year there are more than 130 housing bills in the state legislature, many to compel cities to sanction more housing growth.
"We need accountability for housing across all income levels; it's no longer tenable to believe each city exists in a vacuum," said state Sen. Scott Wiener. "Local control should be about how you're meeting housing goals, not whether."
Wiener was speaking last week as part of a panel organized by SV@Home that ended up demonstrating the challenges inherent in trying to mandate more housing. Wiener's own bill, SB 35, would obligate cities, especially those that have long resisted residential growth, to streamline approvals for housing that otherwise meets local standards.
But sitting right next to him at the panel was one of the bill's chief opponents, Carolyn Coleman of the League of California Cities. Echoing the concerns of many of her member cities, she said the state shouldn't be putting all responsibility for solving the housing crisis on cities, especially when the state helped create the problem. Instead, she backed SB 2 and SB 3, bills that would raise money for affordable housing by levying a new $75 real-estate transaction fee and floating a new $3 billion state bond.
"Accountability is great, but accountability without resources leaves our communities holding an empty bag," Coleman said. "These local cities are doing what they think is the will of their people and their communities."
She wasn't alone. Representing private developers, Paul Nieto of the Building Industry Association said many legislators' favorite tools for fixing the housing crisis were actually making it worse. He took aim at a litany of fees and inclusionary housing rules -- which mandate that a certain percentage of new housing be set aside for low-income households. Those rules resulted in less housing, he said, since it became so cost-prohibitive to build.
"We tax housing, and we think we're going to get more of it -- that's simply not a good policy," he said. "We've spent 40 years digging this hole, and as developers, we don't have a monopoly on land or capital."
Taking the example of San Francisco, Nieta estimated it would cost about $50 billion to meet that city's Regional Housing Needs Allocation quota to build around 1,000 homes. Other Bay Area cities were more or less the same, he said.
Nieta agreed with the state lawmakers on the panel that many cities routinely abused their land-use powers to curb unpopular development. Parking restrictions and the California Environmental Quality Act were often invoked as a pretext to halt housing projects, they said.
The policy discussion was just the beginning of a week of events focused on the housing crisis. On Tuesday, Mountain View played host to another discussion centered on the lack of housing for the "missing middle" -- moderate income households that earn too much to get subsidized housing but not enough to buy a home.
Speakers on the Tuesday panel blamed the shortage of mid-market housing on a mix of issues, including outdated zoning rules, financing hurdles, land costs and consumer demand.
Sitting right outside the Civic Center was one prototype for the future of dense housing in the Bay Area. The San Francisco firm Panoramic Interests set up a modular "MicroPAD" at the corner of Mercy and Castro streets. Interested visitors squeezed inside the tight confines of the tiny 8-foot by 20-foot domicile that could easily be stacked up with other units up to 12 stories high.
If built in large quantities --say, 100 units or more -- the Panoramic mini-apartments could be leased out at a cost of just $1,000 a month, said Panoramic spokesman Patrick Kennedy. The biggest hurdle is getting cooperation from a city and a stretch of land to give it a try, he said.
"We want to give people something easy to understand and easy to budget for," Kennedy said. "Many cities are interested, but they're taking a wait-and-see approach."