Following up on a vow to find funding to help alleviate the housing crisis in San Mateo County, the county's Board of Supervisors on July 12 asked county officials to draw up a ballot measure to extend an existing half-cent general sales tax for 20 more years.
The unanimous vote to start the process to put the sales tax extension on the Nov. 8 ballot came after the supervisors heard from a pollster that a bond measure to fund affordable housing had little chance of passage. Polling showed that the sales tax extension, by contrast, received much more support than it needed to pass.
While the sales tax is a general tax and won't be specifically for housing, supervisors said they hoped it would give the county a stable, long-term source of funding that might be leveraged to finance housing projects.
At their previous meeting, the supervisors had heard a report from the 55-member Closing the Jobs/Housing Gap Task Force that had been meeting since November. The task force made up of representatives of every city and town in the county as well as business organizations and employers, nonprofit and for-profit housing developers, housing advocates, labor organizations and educators agreed that finding funding for more affordable housing in the county is a priority.
The sales tax extension was not the funding source the supervisors had initially wanted. They had asked about putting a $500 million housing bond measure on the ballot, and about passing an additional sales tax. But initial polling said the $500 million bond measure wouldn't gain the two-thirds majority needed for passage. Research also showed a new sales tax isn't possible because the county's sales tax rate is already the maximum allowed by the state.
So the supervisors sent pollster Brian Godbe of Godbe Research back to examine voter opinions again, this time on extending the existing half-cent general sales tax passed four years ago, and on smaller bond measures.
Mr. Godbe had good news and bad news for the supervisors on July 12. The good news is that more than 70 percent of voters said they would either definitely or probably support extending the existing sales tax for another 20 years. Because the tax is a general tax, which can be used for a myriad of county purposes, it needs approval of only over 50 percent of the voters.
Voters, however, were not so supportive of a bond measure that would go toward affordable housing, either at a $345 million level or a $295 million level. Slightly less than 63 percent of voters either definitely or probably supported the $345 million bond measure and just less than 61 percent either definitely or probably supported the $295 million bond measure. Earlier polling had shown not quite 58 percent supporting a $500 million housing bond measure.
The bond measure, because it is a tax for a specific purpose, housing, would require more than two-thirds approval.
Mr. Godbe said the margin of error on the polling data was about 5 percentage points in either direction.
Supervisor Adrienne Tissier asked Mr. Godbe if he had ever known of a bond measure that polled below the threshold needed for passage being passed after voters had been "educated."
"I think this is too low a number to feel comfortable recommending it," Mr. Godbe said. "That two-thirds threshold is hard to get to."
As at previous meetings, a number of speakers urged the supervisors to help with a housing problem that more than one said the word "crisis" is inadequate to describe.
Michael Lane of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California said some form of financing is key to making any changes. "Economic factors are fraying our communities. We're really starting to feel this now. The damage is being done to families," he said. "Now is the time for bold action commensurate with the scale of the problem."
The sales tax extension was not the first choice of the supervisors. "I was really kind of hopeful that we would be able to have a bond," said Supervisor Don Horsley. "But, it's really very clear, we could put it on the ballot and we would probably lose."
Supervisor Carole Groom said that even with funding, the county faces problems in trying to add affordable housing because of the strict land-use ordinances in many communities governing high-density housing. "The worst thing in the world would be to pass this, and then set aside 'X' amount of (sales tax money) for affordable housing, and then not have a place to build it," she said.
"We're going to have a lot of work to do," Supervisor Groom said.
Supervisor Dave Pine agreed. He said he thinks the big problem is it's "going to be like pulling teeth to find places to put this housing."
Supervisor Horsley reminded the supervisors that the housing doesn't have to be new, but can be existing housing that is protected so it remains affordable. "It could be buildings that are already existing," he said.
The supervisors will vote on approving a ballot measure at their July 26 meeting.