The hearing on the Housing Element was not as bad as I anticipated. Eric Angstadt, Deputy Director of CEDA and Jeff Levin, CEDA’s housing policy coordinator presented the draft statement. They noted that the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) would like to see most of the new housing in the central cities, namely San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. This is environmentally sound and consistent with a megatrend in housing preferences. These three cities got the lion’s share of the next round of housing allocation.
Furthermore, the City of Oakland prevailed on ABAG to consider the various cities’ previous low income housing development in allocation this round of low income housing allocation. Historically Oakland had responded to the mandate and built its share of low income housing. Other cities have simply ignored this aspect of the Housing Element. ABAG continued to ask Oakland to build these, because other cities weren’t. With this round, ABAG reduced in relative terms the Oakland’s low income housing allocation (PDF), assigning higher percentages to San Francisco and San Jose.
The chart below illustrates the percentage of units in select area cities that ABAG has assigned to each affordability level.
However, city staff heard plenty of pleading for low income housing at the hearing. About thirty community members attended the hearing. One of the attendees sits on the West Oakland Redevelopment PAC. I sit on the Central City East Redevelopment PAC. Every other person at the meeting either lived in low income housing or represented an agency that developed low income housing. The two PAC members were the only two at the meeting who did not have a direct economic interest in low income housing.
Staff encouraged these people and told them how important it was that they show up for hearings and meetings, that their voices are certainly powerful. They also contended that private (for profit) developers always showed up where their interests were concerned and made their voices heard. Staff made no note of the fact this meeting had no developers, and aside from the two PAC representatives, nobody who spoke for homeowners or market rate renters. They can record that their hearing showed strong, nearly unanimous, support for low income housing from this (unrepresentative) group.
If private developers always show up where their interests are involved, why were none at the Housing Element hearing? Could it be that their interests are not really involved here? Staff noted that the entire allocation of market rate housing for the upcoming period is either under construction, through the permit process or through planning. If the economy allows, it will all be built. Whether more will be built depends on political and economic factors beyond the Housing Element. On the other hand, deed-restricted affordable housing takes huge subsidies. If housing money from Redevelopment is restricted by declining property taxes, the City will be limited in the amount of low income housing it can build.
Does the Housing Element matter at all? It may have been a factor in Oakland developing a disproportionate share of low income housing in the past. Other cities ignored it with impunity. I suspect that Oakland’s enthusiasm for low income housing stems more from liberal politicians than from ABAG mandates. Carlos Plazola of the Oakland Builders Alliance contends that in Oakland, like most other cities, housing decisions are based on politics, not policies. In his 6 years of working with the City of Oakland, he never saw the Housing Element invoked by any policy maker, though sometimes it would be used by advocates to further their agenda. I also suspect that if needed, some low income housing advocate will trot out the policy to support their point. So there may be a value in trying to keep the policy balanced. As Our Obama says, words should mean something.