Workforce Displacement at the Forefront of Bay Area Regional Planning Debate

Northern California, San Mateo, Peninsula Office Park, 2180 Sand Hill, Embarcadero Place, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Hudson Pacific Properties

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By David Goll

Finding common ground on how to plot growth and promote affordable housing in the Bay Area — with its nine counties, 101 cities, two major planning agencies and multitude of special interest groups — is proving to be a tough task in the famously disjointed region.

Efforts to update the state-mandated regional planning guideline, known as Plan Bay Area 2040, by 2017 are under way by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments. But in the nation’s costliest metropolitan area — where the median priced home was $650,000 in August, affordable to roughly 20 percent of local residents — regional planning has become politically contentious.

[contextly_sidebar id=”oMoTN2RrJ9HmYKwm9VEGOOMIqsiKoRMK”]Business and real estate leaders, ranging from the Bay Area Council to Building Industry Association Bay Area, say the lack of more affordable housing in the region for low- and moderate-income workers is mainly due to local city officials dragging their feet on approving new multi-family housing developments unpopular with their constituents.

Advocates for low-income communities contend the region’s stratospheric cost of housing and upscale redevelopment of poor and modest residential areas has never before put so many at risk of being priced out of the market.

“There is a general consensus that displacement (of low-income residents by gentrification) has been a problem in the Bay Area for quite some time, but it has really accelerated in the past two or three years,” said David Zisser, staff attorney for Public Advocates Inc., a San Francisco-based legal and advocacy organization specializing in poverty and racial discrimination issues. “We’ve seen a massive number of evictions.”

Zisser said a coalition of social justice, faith, public health and environmental organizations called 6 Wins for Social Equity Network — which includes Public Advocates, Working Partnerships USA, Urban Habitat, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the Council of Community Housing Organizations — is promoting a multi-pronged approach to tackle the problem. It encourages affordable housing, robust public transit, green-oriented jobs and environmental clean-up.

Coalition members are confident MTC and ABAG planners will incorporate their issues into the PBA 2040 update, as they did in 2013.

“There may be some disagreement on the causes, but data and anecdotal evidence is strong that displacement is happening throughout the area,” Zisser said. “It especially affects low-income people and people of color. We’ve seen an exodus of black residents from Oakland and numerous evictions of Hispanic residents in San Mateo County. Things like rent control may not be perfect solutions, but can still make a big difference.”

Business leaders tend to see the problem as demand far outstripping supply because of government inaction reflecting slow-growth attitudes among Bay Area residents.

“There is a proposal to add 68 new priority conservation areas to the updated document,” said Matt Regan, senior vice president for public policy at Bay Area Council, a public policy advocacy organization representing 275 large employers. “And that is great. Ninety-nine percent of those lands will not be developed within our lifetimes.”

“On the other hand, we’re failing miserably at providing adequate amounts of affordable housing in our priority development areas. We’re not focusing on providing enough transit-friendly housing development throughout the region,” he said.

In a letter he authored to MTC and ABAG, Regan criticizes them for considering carrying over references to displacement from the original 2013 document into the update. He said such measures as rent control, development impact fees and inclusionary housing ordinances are counterproductive to affordable housing development, and that the displacement focus takes away from the issue they see as the one most affecting our region — lack of supply of housing.

Miriam Chion, ABAG’s planning and research director, said her organization is supportive of densely built housing in priority development areas, but feels existing low-income residents of communities that have become attractive to affluent buyers also need protection from being displaced.

“We’ve had an affordable housing crisis in the Bay Area for years, but it never has been this serious,” she said. Chion cited figures from ABAG’s 2015 State of the Region report, which found while the tech-driven economic boom led to a 9.8 percent increase in employment and 10.7 percent growth in gross regional product from 2010 to 2013, population growth during the same period was 3.8 percent and housing stock expanded by 1.4 percent.

She added circumstances worsened because redevelopment was eliminated by state officials in 2012. Local redevelopment agencies were required to set aside 20 percent of their funding for affordable housing.

“We’re seeing housing prices shoot up 30 to 60 percent in some parts of the Bay Area,” she said. “At the same time, average wages are declining.”

Ken Kirkey, MTC planning director, said the region is reaping the results of decades of “underproducing lower-cost housing.”

“Current job growth, combined with factors like global investment in Bay Area real estate, while not necessarily a bad thing, is contributing to a loss of affordability. Other parts of the country can rely on tax increment financing to build housing, but that’s no longer an option in California,” Kirkey said.

Chion and Kirkey said ABAG and MTC officials are in the process of working out earlier disagreements over the continued inclusion of displacement language in the PBA 2040 update. And as part of a 2014 lawsuit settlement with the BIA over the original planning document, reference will also be made to try to limit the addition of “in-commuters”, or workers commuting to a given area from outside the region, in the revised plan.

What may prove a bit more contentious are plans by MTC officials to consolidate planning and research functions of both their organization and ABAG into a single unit under their control. Kirkey said it would bring the Bay Area in line with planning organizations nationwide.

“In every other part of the country, these (transportation and land-use planning) functions are handled by a single agency,” he said. “It would increase efficiencies and help us take advantage of synergies we’re losing out on with the current structure.”

Kirkey said there would be no changes made to the governing bodies at MTC and ABAG.

MTC officials recently approved funding for ABAG’s planning and research department for only six months, instead of the customary one-year period. Chion said ABAG officials hope to secure a full year’s worth of funding in the near future. She said ABAG leaders are concerned input on many regional issues from Bay Area city officials could be adversely affected by merging the two planning units.

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