Special Sections » Year in Review

A Year of Development, Displacement, and Inaction

The East Bay's housing crunch reached crisis levels in 2015 — and the lack of new affordable units and proactive policy solutions has many worried that the inequity will only worsen next year.



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Throughout the East Bay, cities must rapidly build more low-income housing that the most vulnerable residents can afford if they want to curb the crisis, said Louis Chicoine, executive director of Abode Services, a nonprofit that helps homeless people find housing. "The equation is just getting more and more upside down in terms of how many people need affordable housing and how much stock is available," he said. "We're going to see more people on the streets for sure — and more desperation."

Policy Debates

According to the State Controller's Office, eleven redevelopment agencies in Alameda County allocated half a billion dollars for housing between 2001 and 2011 and built 10,207 affordable housing units. But Governor Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment in 2011, thereby ending the single biggest affordable housing program in California. The biggest housing policy shift in 2015 was probably the passage of AB 2, which Brown signed into law in September. It allows cities to establish Community Revitalization Investment Authorities (CRIAs). And another new state law that took effect this year allows cities to create Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs).

CRIAs and EIFDs will have the power to buy and sell land, issue bonds, incur debt, and build housing. According to Dan Carrigg, legislative director of the League of California Cities, no local government has established a CRIA or EIFD yet, but lots of cities and counties are talking to each other. "The tools of redevelopment are back in the basket," he said.

Another major housing policy development was the California Supreme Court's ruling in June that local governments can require homebuilders to set aside a certain percent of houses or condos at affordable prices. It's known as "inclusionary zoning," and San Jose's version of the law came under fire in court by the California Building Industry Association, which called inclusionary zoning an "uncompensated taking" of property. The court ruled, however, that it is within a city's police powers to ensure a broad mix of housing for all income groups. So as the single family and condo construction markets heat up in 2016, cities with inclusionary housing policies will be able to ensure some new housing is affordable.

Inclusionary zoning is still illegal for rental units, however, due to a 2009 state appeals court decision that said inclusionary zoning interfered with landlords' rights under Costa Hawkins, a state law that limits rules on rental units. Several East Bay cities have gotten around this by assessing impact fees on market-rate rental housing and allowing developers to forgo paying the fee if they include affordable rentals in their buildings. For example, in 2015, Emeryville enacted an impact fee of $28,000. Berkeley also has an impact fee of $28,000. And Albany, Fremont, Hayward, San Leandro, and Union City are joining with Alameda County to conduct a study, likely to be approved in 2016, necessary to assess impact fees of their own.

But the biggest East Bay city, Oakland, has been slow to adopt an impact fee. Oakland is also the only city in the county that doesn't have an inclusionary zoning ordinance. In 2015, affordable housing became the single biggest, and most divisive political issue in Oakland, partly because of the perception that the city hasn't been doing enough.

One battle in 2015 that encapsulated the divide between the city's affordable housing advocates and its development boosters involved publicly owned property on East 12th Street, near Lake Merritt. The city had planned to sell the parcel to a developer for construction of a luxury apartment tower, but activists battled against it, and even shut down a city council meeting to prevent a vote. The city council scuttled the deal after the Express reported on a leaked legal opinion written by the Oakland City Attorney's Office that stated that the property sale would violate the Surplus Land Act, which requires public land to be offered first to affordable housing developers. Currently, the city is negotiating with five development teams, all of which are proposing some mix of affordable housing on the site.

"The East 12th Street campaign created a really important conversation about what local governments legally and morally should be doing with public land," said David Zisser, a staff attorney with Public Advocates, a nonprofit public interest law firm.

But there is widespread agreement that the affordable housing crisis can't be solved entirely at the local level. State laws need to change, and governments need to cooperate regionally. But Governor Brown has not made affordable housing a priority of his administration. In 2015, he vetoed several bills that could have raised billions for affordable housing construction, including AB 35, which would have raised billions through a tax credit. AB 1335, meanwhile, would have raised $400 million a year for affordable housing by tacking a $75 fee on the recording of real estate sales documents. But that bill didn't receive the votes it needed to advance to the governor's desk. Also in early 2015, the East Bay region was abuzz with talk of governments joining forces to issue a regional housing bond to raise hundreds of millions or even billions, but nothing came of it. All of which means that the housing affordability crisis will continue to be the issue in 2016.

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