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Regional group exploring housing solutions

Metropolitan Transportation Commission forms CASA group to gain legislative traction, develop a regional policy compact

A new regional group exploring ways to build more affordable and low-income housing throughout the Bay Area is preparing to present its findings at a meeting this Wednesday in San Francisco following a four-city workshop series that ended in East Palo Alto last week.

The group, CASA -- the Committee to House the Bay Area -- is a blue-ribbon task force convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional land use, housing and transportation agency. The task force is seeking consensus from tenant, housing and environmental advocates; market rate and affordable-housing developers; labor groups; transportation officials; representatives from the business and technology communities; and public officials to develop a package of housing strategies and legislation.

They are focusing on three core strategies: to protect vulnerable populations from housing displacement, preserve existing affordable housing and create additional housing at all levels of affordability.

The MTC created the task force after the agency released its draft Plan Bay Area 2040, the region's long-range transportation and land use plan. The plan projects the region will see 2.4 million more people, 820,000 new households and 1.3 million additional jobs by the year 2040.

The CASA task force wants to have the region produce 35,000 housing units per year in that time period -- 14,000 of which are affordable to lower-income households and 7,000 for moderate-income households. They want to preserve 30,000 affordable units -- 28,000 market-rate affordable and 4,000 that are at-risk -- in the next five years. The group also seeks to protect 300,000 lower-income units for residents who are extremely rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

East Palo Alto, once a bastion of low-income and affordable housing, is now experiencing rapid displacement of its traditional community. Median housing prices in the city went up 21.7 percent in the past year and are expected to rise another 13.4 percent in the next year, according to real estate website Zillow's estimates. A median single-family home is now $949,000. Newer developments, such as Montage by Edenbridge Homes, now list homes at $1.4 million. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto is $2,973, according to the rental listings website RentCafe.

"It's clear that gentrification is running rampant," said Tameeka Bennett, executive director for Youth United for Community Action, which hosted the July 11 event in East Palo Alto.

Vikrant Sood, manager of the CASA program, said that the task force is a compact between often-competing forces to negotiate among themselves and develop policies and solutions to the housing crisis. This approach comes on the heels of a defeat on April 17 of Senate Bill 827, California's ambitious Transit Zoning Bill, which would have removed local control of some building restrictions for new construction near transit hubs, including parking, height and density under certain conditions. Cities were opposed to the bill, which died in its first legislative committee meeting.

Having a wide range of players at the table hammering out a joint approach would hopefully avoid the pitfalls that doomed SB 827.

"CASA is looking at something similar but more palatable. We may not be able to come up with solutions that everyone loves, but if everyone hates it a little, that is what we want to have," he said.

It's about the right mix of carrots and sticks and filling the needs of each community in ways that are still equitable, he said. For example, San Francisco is interested in more housing and can raise the money, but the city can't build fast enough.

"But how about giving some money to Oakland and near transit? We need to find some combination to do your fair bit," Sood said. San Jose has built housing but it needs more jobs, while other cities might not want to build the housing but can contribute money, he said.

"Can we rebalance that and get (them) compensation for more housing?" Sood asked.

About 50 residents from East Palo Alto, unincorporated North Fair Oaks, San Jose and Redwood City attended the July 11 meeting. They said cities should have funds exclusively dedicated to relocation and first- to last-month rental assistance. Residents also need new models for building credit. Paying rent on time could count as a way to build credit among many immigrants who don't have normal credit-building mechanisms, they said.

Other priorities include policies to better balance the jobs-to-housing ratio; finding or creating fees for cities to create more housing; placing a total moratorium on jobs until they build enough housing or requiring companies and cities that bring more jobs to create more housing; repealing the Costa--Hawkins Rental Housing Act, enacted in 1995, which limits municipal rent-control ordinances; replacing homes that are under rent control if they are demolished one by one and allowing the same families the first rights to move in; and having legal and other services related to housing, specifically for non-English speakers who need help with affordable-housing applications. Many programs require applying online but because of the digital divide, some don't have access to computers or know how to navigate the websites.

The workshop was the last in a series that included similar meetings San Jose, Concord and Santa Rosa. Staff will share information from the brainstorming sessions with the CASA technical committee, which will vet and vote on policy solutions. They will return for additional public meetings in the four cities in the fall for feedback on the strategies the CASA technical and steering committees develop. An additional four "listening sessions" will take place in Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa and San Francisco, Sood said.

A final compact would be negotiated by key stakeholders, adopted by the technical committee and then passed to the steering committee for final adoption. The compact would likely have three components: a package of Bay Area-specific legislation to be introduced in Sacramento; solutions for MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments; and solutions to raise funding for protection, preservation and production of affordable housing, according to MTC staff.

The compact is likely to pursue provisions to:

• Protect renters through rent-stabilization and an anti-gouging rent cap; stronger just-cause evictions; tenant services and right to legal counsel; short-term rental and relocation assistance and protection incentives for landlords.

• Preserve housing by developing a regional tracking and notification system for expiring deed-restricted and market-rate affordable units; creating a flexible housing preservation fund, including incentives for code compliance; establishing local preservation protocols that include a one-to-one unit replacement requirement and first right of refusal to nonprofit organizations and tenants; and a tax on vacant and underutilized units and parcels, especially in transit-oriented development areas.

• Boosting housing production by building more types of housing in different neighborhoods, including accessory-dwelling units, affordable housing in higher income neighborhoods and higher density housing; lowering net cost for new construction through use of technology and innovation, limiting impact fees and flexible green-building requirements; streamlining permits; and financial incentives and using public and surplus land for affordable housing production.

The technical committee will hold a public meeting on Wednesday, July 18, at 10:30 a.m., where it will hear about the public's input. The meeting is at Bay Area Metro Center, Yerba Buena Room, first floor, 375 Beale St. in San Francisco. More information can be found at mtc.ca.gov.

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