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Eye on the State: Labor can bargain for broader housing needs

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California needs more housing, at a variety of household income levels, around job hubs across the state. (Courtesy photo)
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The housing affordability crisis continues to be a defining issue for maintaining stable, diverse communities, not only in the Bay Area but also statewide. Throughout California, many communities also lack housing opportunities for the growing workforce of union members and other working families who keep California’s economy strong. Labor unions and worker organizations can and should play a constructive role in comprehensive solutions to our local and statewide housing crisis in partnership with affordable housing and tenant rights groups and other stakeholders.

We need more housing, at a variety of household income levels, across the cities of California around job hubs. For example, Brisbane is in the same workshed as San Francisco and is considering a massive commercial development project, but lacks commitment to facilitating new affordable or even market-rate housing for their growing workforce. This puts extra pressure on San Francisco housing prices, already out of reach for so many low- and middle-income workers.

But the crisis of exclusion from the real estate market and displacement from homes and hometown neighborhoods is an equivalent crisis. This is a particular problem in urban “hot-market” communities, where development has been concentrated in recent years, and caters primarily to wealthier, white-collar workers. We need increased affordable housing to close the gap with the tremendous boom in market-rate development — a dramatically improved “affordable housing balance.” Just as importantly, we need stronger anti-displacement and housing preservation measures to combat speculative behaviors of the over-heated real estate market. These include expanding rent control, restricting evictions, regulating Airbnb, funding legal defense for tenants and public funding for homelessness services.

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Solving for these two problems simultaneously is the challenge, and labor is situated to advocate and bargain for both, while also ensuring good wage standards from the construction of housing. This is particularly the case when it comes to the prospect of the state imposing “by-right” development on all California communities. It might be an opportunity for more construction jobs, and with a strong wage standard, as was recently negotiated by the State Building Trades with state Sen. Scott Wiener on Senate Bill 35, but this shouldn’t be the end of labor’s leverage to ensure that this sweeping bill protects vulnerable communities.

Labor must continue to advocate for the housing that is built to be affordable to low- and middle-income workers and, in the process, for protection from gentrification for the communities where construction is booming. It’s a tall order, but labor can and should see housing policy “solutions” from both those perspectives in addition to ensuring fair labor standards for housing construction. The increasing strain to stretch incomes farther to afford housing demands that labor and community rally together in support of working households struggling to survive in today’s speculator-driven real estate market.

We agree with the Dec. 5 statement signed by more than 40 community and labor organizations statewide — under the banner of Californians for Affordable Housing — that the dual agenda of affordable housing and protecting against displacement are clear:

• We need policies at the state and local level that combat displacement and ensure that residents in our California communities are safe and stable in their housing.

• We need state policies to strengthen and enforce existing laws designed to make sure each community is contributing its fair share of affordable housing. In addition, we need to ensure that all California communities have the resources and policy tools to perform and to succeed as “good actors.”

• Policies to solve the affordable housing crisis must be cognizant of a jobs-housing “fit” — that is, both incentivizing housing in California communities that is affordable to the actual workforce of those communities and promoting jobs that pay a good wage.

Labor unions, worker organizations and all our allies in the affordable housing, social justice and environmental movements need to stay together and bargain for the broader good. If the state intervenes in local communities with housing policies like by-right development — which means intervening in our places of work, places of community and places of play and worship — then let’s make sure it is done truly in the interests of all our workforce, not a trade-off pitting our labor brothers and sisters against each other, or pitting our labor interests against the communities we serve and work in.

Gordon Mar is the executive director of Jobs with Justice San Francisco. Ken Tray is the political director of United Educators of San Francisco. Eye on The State is a monthly column that examines the local implications of housing proposals brewing in the Capitol from the perspective of community, housing, labor and environmental advocates representing everyday people.

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