Comprehensive Approach Needed to Solve Housing Issue in Bay Area

Unison Home Ownership Investors, San Francisco, Bay Area

By Jacob Bourne

A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley are working to better understand the root causes of the Bay Area’s urban displacement and gentrification issues through The Urban Displacement Project. Working in conjunction with community-based organizations and UCLA research partners, the team has funding through MTC, ABAG, Air Resources Board, and The California Endowment to analyze development trends and changes at the neighborhood level, in an attempt to help equip communities with tools to respond to displacement pressures.

In May, project director Miriam Zuk, Ph.D., and Professor Karen Chapple, principal investigator, authored Housing Production, Filtering and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships, which provides “A nuanced analysis of the relationship between housing, production, affordability, and displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

The research focused on impacts for low-income residents, defined as households with income below 80-percent of county medians. They found that for the Bay Area’s nine counties, both market-rate and subsidized housing production reduces displacement, though subsidized housing has more than double the effect of market-rate units. Further data showed that increases in market-rate housing supply lead to more rent-burdened low income residents but also results in lower median rents for future decades. The research brief also indicates that in places such as San Francisco where there’s a high demand for housing and low supply, the production of market-rate and subsidized units don’t provide as much protection against displacement as compared to the regional level. Among other deductions, the study concluded that in markets such as San Francisco, preservation strategies are vital, working alongside increased production of market-rate and subsidized units to curb displacement.

“The take away is that market rate housing is needed in this region due to the dearth of supply, but we can’t look at that solely,” commented Zuk. “Market-rate housing isn’t the only solution. We need to make sure that subsidized housing is available.”

Though not included in the publication, Zuk reanalyzed the data just looking at the impact of subsidized units on displacement instead of the impact of market-rate and subsidized units acting concurrently. The results were nearly identical—subsidized units have double the rate of reducing displacement. “I think it’s clear that subsidized units protect low-income housing and allow individuals to stay housed regardless of what else is happening in the neighborhood,” Zuk concluded.

Though they were funded to specifically analyze the effects of market-rate and subsidized units on displacement, Chapple and Zuk acknowledge that there are other factors at play across the region such as a variety of rent control measures and income inequalities.

“Much of this is about our inability to create housing that stays affordable,” said Chapple. “In many ways we don’t have a housing crisis but an income crisis. We’re overproducing luxury apartments that are sitting empty in New York and San Francisco. It’s so expensive to build. We are behind in supply but not nearly as much as we think. We’re over building in some areas.”

Chapple mentioned similarities between approaches necessary to combat the housing crisis and climate change. She stressed that a limited approach won’t solve anything and that all stakeholders and regional actors need to come together to enact broad, multi-faceted solutions. “You can’t count on the market to do the work for you,” Chapple offered.

According to Zuk, when looking at anti-displacement policies in the Bay Area, the major areas of focus are the production of market rate units, production of subsidized units, preservation of existing affordable housing and asset building. Somewhat tangential to housing issues, asset building involves looking at practices around hiring local workers and minimum wage policies, which though important, doesn’t sufficiently address housing issues, as even with a $15 per hour minimum wage, struggles with housing affordability will continue.

“We’re seeing the rise of renters, counter to the notions of traditional American homeownership,” said Zuk. “We need a shift in our thinking about renters as citizens, who’re just as valuable to communities as homeowners.”

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