The Landscape of Unaffordability, And What We Can Do About It

By the CCHO Team (Maya Chupkov, Fernando Martí, and Peter Cohen)

Cities across California and the country are grappling with a wide breadth of affordability challenges. We’ve identified some of the biggest issues, and followed each one with a recommended next step to get towards solutions.

1. Building for the upper income, but failing on affordability.

Many cities are struggling to meet affordability goals even with streamlining mechanisms in place. In San Diego, for example, the production of new affordable housing units continues to fall despite the streamlining regulations. The city is nearly meeting its state-mandated goal for upper income residents, but leaving it dramatically short of meeting its goals for low-income and moderate-income residents.

Next Step? A Data-Driven Approach.

San Francisco recently passed legislation to require the Planning Department to report on the City’s Jobs-Housing Fit on a yearly basis. Cities should consider following suit to better understand what is happening on the ground in their communities.

2. The shrinking construction industry.

In a Marketplace.org interview, correspondent Amy Scott talks about how workers leaving the construction industry after the 2008 real estate crash impacted the affordable housing shortage. This has been one of the most important under-reported stories so necessary to understanding the failures of market-based housing policies.

Next Step? Re-imaging the Suburbs.

CCHO will be releasing the next part of our essay series on “Rethinking The Suburbs” over the next few months, that seeks to tackle the issue of a shrinking construction industry, while advancing the public understanding of housing conditions in the Bay Area suburbs, and exploring housing strategies in the context of the post-recession period.

3. Jobs-Housing Imbalance.

San Francisco’s Jobs-Housing Nexus Study found that for every 100,000-square-foot office development, at least 81 new affordable housing units are needed just to house the lower wage workers in those offices, not counting all the contract employees such as janitors, or other population growth factors. CCHO’s communications director Maya Chupkov and Jobs with Justice Campaign Director Tracey Brieger co-wrote an op-ed titled, “We Work Here, But Can We Live Here?,” on the importance of building homes that are accessible for those who work and serve in San Francisco.

Next Step? Jobs-Housing Fit.

The Jobs-Housing Fit framework is key to ensuring all of our workers can live where they serve. In order to provide accessible housing to all ranges of income levels, we need to put forth policies that directly meet folks where they are at, starting with the most vulnerable. San Francisco passing Proposition A and E last year is a positive and a huge step forward in providing affordable homes to our city’s workforce and unhoused residents. And on the ballot this next March, Proposition E begins to address this directly by linking the rate of office growth to meeting our goals for housing our workers.

4. Vacancies and global investors.

The New York Times followed up on its IPO story, reporting, “developers who had fought the odds of regulation and zoning to build their glass residences in the sky had timed their units to the I.P.O.s. But…interest was mostly coming from overseas buyers, young heirs to foreign fortunes and older executives looking for city pieds-à-terre, they said. Also in time for the wave that was not a wave are more luxury towers: The Avery, The Harrison, 181 Fremont, The Mira.”

Next Step? A Robust Housing Inventory.

Mother Jones editorial fellow Marisa Endicott reported on the issue of vacancies, and the lack of sufficient data to get a clear picture of what the housing landscape looks like on the ground. “I can’t stress enough the importance of having a current database of all vacant and abandoned properties, because then you will know where they are, what condition they’re in, what the ownership is,” said Joseph Schilling of The Urban Institute. “Then, based on that, you want to have a range of strategies, a portfolio of policies and programs, in order to adjust and respond to all these different characteristics and circumstances.”

Next Step? Vacancy Tax.

We have been talking about the need for a tax on vacancies and pied-a-terres for years now, but this may be the year that the stars align to make it real. But having a successful vacancy tax depends on having the right data, which is why passing a robust housing inventory ASAP is key.

5. Real estate speculation in working class neighborhoods.

The New York Times published a story on rents outrunning pay in California. A community advocate in Inglewood attributed displacement of Black and Latino residents to speculation pressures. “What’s causing displacement here in Inglewood is corporate speculation and increased perceptions of desirability. Real estate has actually appreciated faster in working-class sections of Los Angeles than in the city over all. That trend translates into sharp rent increases in those areas.”

Next Step? COPA and Rent Control.

Addressing the rampant speculation of housing requires two things. One is enacting real rent control, that keeps rents and communities stable even as tenants move in and out. This may finally be possible after this November with a statewide ballot measure to repeal Costa Hawkins. The other is taking housing out of the speculative market and putting it under community control. The successful small sites program is doing just that citywide, and our COPA right to purchase legislation passed in 2019 creates a pathway for these acquisitions. Now all that’s needed is a well-funded permanent source.

6. Income inequality driving rents.

The Washington Post touched on a core underlying driver in housing unaffordability — rapidly increasing income and wealth inequality. “A severe shortage of homes for working-class and low-income families is pushing up house prices and rents across the country, putting homeownership increasingly out of reach for many Americans and making rents so high that it is all but impossible for renters to save. The widening gap between the growth of wages and the cost of housing has put homeownership out of reach for more and more families, particularly families of color. The homeownership rate for African Americans has fallen to a half-century low.”

Next Step? Addressing structural inequality.

While we often think of programmatic housing solutions to housing problems, the deeper questions underlying housing affordability tie to larger political issues around the inequality of incomes and wealth and control of land. There are no easy housing answers for the growing divide in incomes, the disappearance of middle-class jobs and working-class jobs that once offered upward mobility, the increasing concentration of wealth, and the disappearance of the role of progressive income taxation on moderating markets. While doing everything we can do address the crisis-level needs in the moment with the affordable housing and anti-displacement “toolbox” we have developed, these questions challenge us to seek longer term structural/transformative solutions beyond the housing programs we are already familiar with.

Sources:

Bernstein, Jared, Jim Parrott and Mark Zandi. “The conundrum affordable housing poses for the nation,” Washington Post.

Bowes, Nellie and Kate Conger. “Where Are the Tech Zillionaires? San Francisco Faces the I.P.O. Fizzle,” New York Times.

Cowan, Jill and Robert Geneloff. “As Rents Outrun Pay, California Families Live on a Knife’s Edge,” New York Times.

Endicott, Marisa. “The Rent in the Bay Area Is Too Damn High. So These Moms Occupied a Vacant House,” Mother Jones.

Garrik, David. “New analysis shows San Diego housing construction remains weak despite incentives,” San Diego Union-Tribune.

Scott, Amy. “The decade in housing,” Marketplace.org.

Leading San Francisco’s affordable housing movement since 1978, fighting for funding & policies to make SF affordable.