Tackling housing affordability may return as a national priority next year, with President-elect Joe Biden’s plans calling for zoning changes and sizable federal investments — assuming he can get the latter through Congress.
Biden’s presidential transition and impending cabinet picks will start the ball rolling on plans to enact zoning reform, provide legal assistance for tenants facing eviction, boost the housing stock, expand housing vouchers for low-income residents and invest $640 billion over a decade.
Just the fact that Biden has a detailed plan has been described as a breath of fresh air by Bay Area housing players.
“It’s a nice feeling to read a real housing plan,” said Sarah Karlinsky, senior advisor at urban think tank SPUR. “The Biden administration is talking about radically beefing [funding] up.”
Karlinsky said she was also struck by hearing an incoming president talk about housing as a human right.
The Trump administration’s major housing accomplishment was undoing an Obama-era rule to crack down on predatory lenders and enforce fair housing laws established by the 1960s civil rights movement. The outgoing president repeatedly warned that low-income housing would “invade” suburbs, lowering property values and increasing crime, if Biden was elected.
Biden, on the other hand, vowed to reinstate the rules and enact a new law requiring states receiving federal community development or transportation grants to develop a strategy for inclusionary zoning, which requires a share of new development to be designated affordable. The plan also calls for the spending of $13 billion over five years to combat homelessness and a $100 billion fund to construct and rehabilitate affordable housing, a sorely needed venture, particularly in cities like San Francisco.
State Sen. Scott Wiener, often praised for bold housing proposals, said the Obama-Biden administration was pretty good on housing, particularly because it provided a blueprint for cities. But the proposal to invest deeply in housing represents a positive shift.
“That is so much better than anything we’ve seen from the federal government in a long time,” said Wiener of the proposed $100 billion affordable housing fund. “The Democratic Party rallied around progressive housing policies and that’s fantastic. It’s not just the Bay Area or California, housing is a problem in big swaths of the United States.”
Since the Reagan administration, federal investment in low-income housing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has been slashed; the reduction in funding is often pointed to as a cause of homelessness in cities of all sizes.
Though zoning reform — changing zoning to allow for a greater amount of density or variety in housing types — tends to be bipartisan, the amount of housing that gets funded under Biden will depend on what makes it through Congress. Democrats in November held onto the House of Representatives with a slimmer majority while Senate control depends on Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff election.
And that’s what worries the Council of Community Housing Organizations, as well as incoming District 7 supervisor and former Planning Commission President Myrna Melgar. Upzoning for density without public or nonprofit resources to help pay for affordable housing development doesn’t ensure that subsequent housing is affordable, they warn.
“Is it just going to fuel gentrification faster than the new money is going to be able to mitigate it?” said Peter Cohen, CCHO co-director. “We have to be cautiously optimistic that Biden is going to have really smart people around him who are housing advocates.”
Who Biden picks to replace Ben Carson as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development will also matter a great deal in how these priorities are carried out. Cohen feels it should be someone who understands the local impact of housing policies, while Karlinsky said it would be “powerful” to have someone who can combat housing unaffordability and climate change at the same time through developing housing near public transit.
People who Biden is reportedly considering for the position include Los Angeles Rep. Karen Bass, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and one of Obama’s former HUD leaders, Diane Yentel.
Wiener said the Bay Area has many, many qualified people for the job, but named Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf as a great contender.
Melgar floated the name of Mercedes Marquez, a San Francisco native who worked in the Clinton administration and later led Los Angeles’ housing department, as a qualified candidate. She noted that whoever is appointed must have political savvy as well as policy expertise, and will need to work to fill many vacated but key positions at HUD to regulate for things like lead poisoning in homes.
“We’ve been on our own in some of the worst crises,” Melgar said of affordable housing investment. “More than anything, having a partner at HUD who understands policies and working to solve the problem and not warm a chair is already a 100 percent improvement. I feel like it’s a new day.”