Mixed results for affordable housing

Here in our Bay Area “bubble,” we continue to reel from the national news — worried not only about what this shift means for people of color, immigrants, women, and LGBT community, but also about the direct impacts that will be felt in the coming months in federal funding for housing, health care, and other critical social programs.

Trump filled the void left by the mainstream Democratic Party in abdicating its role to provide both a narrative and solutions for the issues critical to the working class. The party platform barely touched on homelessness, affordable housing or income inequality.

Even here in San Francisco, mainstream politicians linked to the centrist party machine had little to offer in the way of real housing solutions that build broad progressive coalitions with the city’s working and middle classes. Scrappy grassroots measures beat the odds while well-funded efforts fell short. Building strong local progressive coalitions is now more necessary than ever to offer an alternative vision and effective policy solutions for the housing crisis.

The Good

The only measures that brought necessary new revenue came from grassroots efforts, with little support from the political establishment. Proposition C, an expansion of $260 million in previously authorized earthquake funds to rehab existing buildings, especially those with at-risk tenants, and preserve them as permanently affordable housing, won with an overwhelming 76-percent yes vote. Proposition W, a transfer tax on luxury properties to fund free city college for San Franciscans, got 62 percent. Another surprising grassroots win was Proposition X, to protect arts and light industrial spaces in The City’s working-class neighborhoods, with 59 percent.

The Sad

As a counterpoint, the administration’s housing measures in this election, the joint Propositions J & K, met with mixed results. San Franciscans voted overwhelmingly for the Charter Amendment to fully fund both transportation and homeless services, but rejected by a similar margin the companion measure to fund this through a three-quarter cent sales tax. Nor did Proposition S — which also would have dedicated funding toward ending family homelessness, as well as funding for community arts programs — garner enough voter support to pass. Those losses are real disappointments, and leave short our resources to seriously tackle housing for The City’s homeless populations. Had a broad progressive coalition campaign been forged, it might have been able to counter the false promise of Proposition Q’s “Housing Not Tents.”

Proposition Q was a real spoiler to the measures on homelessness. It offered no funding or real housing solutions, but was pushed by moderate democrats as a political attention-getter. And it successfully drew enough backlash against homelessness to narrowly win by 52 percent. The implicit message was, “Why should voters support a tax measure for housing (Prop K) when they can simply vote for Housing not Tents (Prop Q)?” This loss will cause an immediate crisis in the mayor’s budget, as their projections had already assumed the revenue from the sales tax measure to fund the new Department of Homelessness.

The Ugly

And then there were two other duplicitous measures, Propositions P and U, direct attacks on affordable housing developers and on The City’s inclusionary housing policies in the name of providing for the middle class. They both went down in resounding defeat, getting only 33 and 35 percent respectively. A scrappy grassroots opposition, complete with street actions and sidewalk press conferences, defeated the $1.3 million yes-campaign funded by the National and State Realtors’ Associations. Despite the passing of Prop Q, the defeat of the Realtors gives us hope that San Francisco can continue to fight the encroachment of Trump-style bigotry at the polls. We can address the needs of middle-income families shut out of the real estate market by building broad coalitions, rather than the Realtors’ approach of pitting San Franciscans against each other.

Local Solutions Work

What we saw around the state is the realization by voters that neither the state or federal governments are offering any real ways to address the housing crisis. All they have had to offer in the past year is the false panacea of deregulation of market-rate housing. Local folks understand that, yes, it’s about supply, but supply of real affordable housing for everyday low- and middle-income people. We need to look at comprehensive policies that PROTECT tenants, PRESERVE the affordable housing we have, and PRODUCE new affordable housing, both publicly subsidized and by requiring market-rate developers to build mixed-income communities. Looking at the landscape of successful local ballot measures across the state, we see a range of solutions that address each of these issues.

Grassroot efforts in Richmond, Mountain View, and Oakland passed rent control measures, despite tremendous opposition by realtor and big landlord interests. This marks the largest expansion of rent control in California in 30 years, and sets a precedent for other jurisdictions.

Alameda and San Mateo counties both passed significant affordable housing funding measures, and Santa Clara County is likely to pass one as well. Berkeley passed a business tax on rental income, capturing a portion of landlords’ “unearned” profits from increasing rents. East Palo Alto similarly passed a business tax on big landlords. These taxes directly link landlord profits with the funding for affordable housing.

In Los Angeles, the Mayor went all in to champion a $1.2 billion bond for supportive housing for homeless people, which passed with 76 percent of votes. And as San Franciscans last June expanded our affordable housing requirements on private developers, Angelenos this week voted for Measure JJJ, which will require a minimum percentage of affordable units for low- and middle-income residents in residential buildings that need special city approval and a prevailing wage standard for developments receiving upzonings.

While Trump may have won at the national level, locally our democratic leaders can be successful in developing real solutions by building center-left coalitions. We can look to the best in us, work together, and win. Protect, preserve, produce!

Peter Cohen and Fernando Marti are co-directors of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations.

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