Bramson: A housing plan without a future
Residents takes part in a rally in San Jose to demand affordable housing. Photo courtesy of Athena Chow.

A few weeks ago, I was on a call with an elderly woman from Honolulu.

She had lived in Hawaii her entire life, but her husband had recently died and due to a set of really terrible circumstances near the end of his life, almost all of their entire life savings had been depleted. With only her social security income, she wasn’t able to keep up with the mortgage payments on her home.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of affordable housing on the islands, she really couldn’t find anything else to rent either. Now, pretty much alone and with little prospects, she was on the brink of homelessness at the age of 73.

This story is much more common than you might think. And in California, one in three households in our state don’t earn enough money to pay their bills and meet their basic needs. Decades of underproduction, coupled with exclusionary policies, have left millions of Californians without the housing supply necessary to keeping a roof over their heads.

Here in Santa Clara County, it’s at its worst. There are over 279,000 renter households locally. Fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,558, but a family at the extremely low-income level (30% of Area Median Income) can only afford to pay $1,135. That means all of those people unable to find affordable options end up extremely rent burdened, living paycheck to paycheck with no savings and one setback away from losing their homes.

What’s hard to comprehend is that we know very well the implications of this horrible financial equation. Throughout the country, we’ve seen that when people spend more than a third of their income on rent there is a direct correlation with a rapid increase in homelessness. If people aren’t being paid more or housing costs aren’t coming down, the areas most vulnerable become the epicenter of the unhoused crisis. We’ve all seen the evidence first-hand.

It’s clear that we need more housing now. California’s new Housing Plan is calling for 2.5 million homes by 2030, which is more than double the production goal from the previous cycle. But planned for and built are two wildly different things.

While many communities continue to meet their market production goals, affordable housing development is still left woefully behind. Restrictive land use policies, complicated and limited funding options, and severe community opposition have made it hard, if not impossible, to move enough housing forward in too many communities. There’s plenty of virtue signaling that we need to build more homes, but it just hasn’t translated to enough action on the ground.

There have been some gains. Over the past several years, legislation like SB 330, SB 35, and AB 2162, have all effectively sped up approval times and torn down walls that limit or prevent new affordable housing development. The state has even intervened in a number of cases where housing is being blocked, and now has a strike force to take action whenever need.

And, thanks to the work of elected leaders and the vote of the people, funding measures, like the 2016 Affordable Housing Bond (Measure A) and the San Jose Real Property Transfer Tax (Measure E) have provided hundreds of millions of dollars that will produce thousands of new deeply affordable homes in the years ahead.

But it’s all still not enough.

We need to elect leaders locally who put affordable housing on the top of their tickets and mean it. We need the state to dig in even deeper, putting more money, resources and legislative fixes into action to get housing built now. And we need actionable plans of how we are going to get this work done. Otherwise, we’re going to keep repeating the same sad story over and over again.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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