Bramson: Finding affordable housing in the desert 
At least four separate homeless encampments sit along the sidewalk just outside William L. Sheppard Middle School in East San Jose. File photo.

    You’re probably familiar with some version of the story of a lost man wandering through the desert in search of water. In the distance, he sees palm trees, birds flying overhead and a shimmering pool below. Sadly, as he approaches, the water vanishes. Convection currents created by the extreme heat – coupled with the maddening distress of the thirst – led him hopelessly to what turns out to be nothing more than an illusion.

    What makes this story so devastating for the traveler is that oases do exist. Irrigated by natural springs and other underground water sources, these reserves occur in dry places all over the world. So when you need water, and there’s nothing around, it’s easy to understand why anyone might believe that the thing that looks like a lifeline from afar might actually be what you’re looking for when you get up close. The problem is that when you get there and all you find is sand, you’re left exhausted, hopeless, and in an even worse state than when you started the trek for salvation.

    This sad tale of drought and despair shows up even today in our own backyards. While far from the literal desert, our poorest residents endlessly scour the desiccated streets for rents they can afford. But for every 100 families earning less than 30% of the area median income, there are just 32 available homes they can truly afford. For the majority of families that means an increased risk of being pushed away from the communities that they have called home for generations.

    And for those that think this is to be expected in expensive markets like ours, consider the impact for a moment. Displaced families, who are primarily people of color, end up having increased physical and mental health problems, along with educational deficiencies for their kids. They face longer commutes, move to areas with fewer economic opportunities and lose the critical social networks that they have built over years to keep them and their children stable and safe. Amplified even further by COVID-19, displacement is now a very real and detrimental force that is destroying the fabric of so many California cities.

    That’s where affordable housing comes in. A real oasis of affordability, this housing is funded through public dollars ensuring that the rents stay at fixed levels that the lowest income-earners can pay without facing severe rent burden over time. Without putting more money into people’s pockets, it is the only way to ensure folks aren’t pushed out of their homes.

    The problem is there’s never enough of this type of housing – despite hard work locally to produce as much as possible – meaning that thousands of people apply for affordable units the minute they come on the market. And, due to a complex set of existing fair housing laws – when these homes become available in your neighborhood, it doesn’t mean you will necessarily get a chance to live in that unit, regardless of the terrifying struggles you and your loved ones are most likely facing.

    But it doesn’t have to be this way. One tool many cities have started to use is local tenant preferences to help stabilize neighborhoods and to keep people from being uprooted from their homes, families and networks. In fact, some jurisdictions have been looking at new anti-displacement and neighborhood tenant preferences that set aside a portion of new affordable apartments for people in a given geographic area or those who are more susceptible to displacement pressures.

    There have been some legal challenges with implementing such measures in recent years. That’s why a new bill — SB 649 — proposed by California Sen. Dave Cortese this year is so exciting. The bill creates a state policy that supports greater access to affordable housing for those populations facing displacement. By aligning tenant preferences with Internal Revenue Code requirements and fulfilling the demands of state and federal fair housing law, the bill offers a clear and legal path to enact these preferences for new affordable housing developments across the state. Supported locally by a coalition of government and nonprofit partners, there’s now real hope that this could become law in the months ahead, opening doors for so many.

    There’s no question that we still don’t have nearly enough affordable housing for all those in need. But when advocates, neighborhood leaders, nonprofits and those struggling with high housing costs themselves all come together to support new affordable housing in their own backyards, the solution it promises can finally be something more than just a mirage.

    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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