Bay Area is not meeting its affordable housing needs

Article from the East Bay Housing Organizations

This week, Dr. Alex Karner and Dr. Chris Brenner published an op-ed piece that highlighted the need for policies and practices that promote the construction of new affordable homes in the Bay Area – and how the market alone does not provide enough affordable homes for low-income workers, families, seniors, people with disabilities, and others. It’s a worthwhile read that not only has the data to prove that the market is not producing enough affordable homes (despite supply-demand arguments that say otherwise), but that also lifts up the critical role affordable housing production must play in solving the Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis. We hope you enjoy it and share it widely!

Guest commentary: Bay Area is not meeting its affordable housing needs
By Alex Karner and Chris Benner
June 29th, 2015, Monterey Herald

The Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis will be solved only through policies and practices that result in the construction of new affordable units. These units will protect against gentrification and displacement, keep families in their homes and bring unexpected environmental benefits.

This issue has most recently attracted attention in San Francisco, where earlier this month the Board of Supervisors failed to pass a 45-day moratorium on market-rate housing construction in the Mission.

Opponents claim that there is an affordability crisis at all levels and that any housing construction is helpful because it relieves upward price pressure. But we’ve been analyzing the most recent post-recession data available on housing and jobs from the U.S. Census Bureau and the state Employment Development Department for the entire Bay Area and know that the market is already producing enough units for the region’s highest earners.

Since 2011, high-wage jobs in tech, finance, management and the professions have been growing in Alameda and Contra Costa counties at a rate of about 3,300 per year. But these high-wage jobs also require low- and mid-wage workers to fill cafeteria, janitorial and retail support positions.

About 9,600 of these lower-paying jobs were created each year over the same time period. These county totals translate into 800 new high-wage jobs and 2,400 new low-wage jobs per year in Oakland from 2011 to 2014.

Housing production has largely kept pace with the growth in high-wage jobs, especially when considering that households often have more than one worker. In Oakland, the number of rental units in the highest rent category tracked by the census (greater than $2,000 a month) increased by 770 a year from 2010 to 2013.

At the same time, the number of rental units affordable to a household earning less than $30,000 a year in Oakland didn’t change at all. Even when increasing income threshold to $60,000 a year, the number of affordable rental units did not increase from 2010 to 2013. Clearly, the market is not providing adequate housing for the low-wage workforce. This is true in cities across the region.

An important point that’s often missed in the passionate debates about housing is that the environment also suffers when affordable housing is not available close to important employment centers. For example, our research has found that a new low-wage worker employed in Oakland commutes about 41 miles while existing low-wage workers need only travel 21. We find similar patterns in Fremont, Pleasanton, Walnut Creek, Concord and many other large employers in the East Bay.

Some of these new low-wage workers will take public transit, but many will drive, straining already tight household budgets, and contributing to air pollution, climate change, and traffic congestion. Many would prefer to locate closer to work but simply can’t because the housing just isn’t available.

Our work is showing that the market already provides adequate housing for the Bay Area’s wealthiest residents. What’s needed are explicit policies and practices that increase the supply of truly affordable housing so that new low-wage employees can live close to work and existing workers will not be displaced.

With practical benefits for both families and the environment, these are win-win strategies that can and should be supported by the Bay Area’s elected officials.

Dr. Alex Karner is a postdoctoral researcher in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Professor Chris Benner is the Dorothy E. Everett chair in Global Information and Social Entrepreneurship at UC Santa Cruz.