Bramson: How we can get out of the way for affordable housing
Opportunity Housing would allow up to four units to be built on single parcels in single-family neighborhoods. File photo.

On the heels of an historic year that has hammered poorest people the hardest, I find myself thinking about the future of affordable housing. Even in the best of times, it’s a tough row to hoe.

From finding a place where it’s even feasible to build to navigating the complex innerworkings of the local land use approval process to securing the myriad financing tools needed to get the project to pencil, we make it very difficult in this country to build the type of homes that people need.

With thousands of people on our streets right now and many more on the brink, you have to ask yourself: Why don’t we try to make it easier?

The first answer, and maybe the saddest, is that a large number of people don’t really want things to go any faster. A full entitlement process — where a given city conceptually approves a specific project on a parcel — can take years even when things are going well.

And while the required plan reviews, environmental reports, traffic studies and public hearings all serve valuable purposes, they mainly just end up being misused by those who want to grind the development process to a total halt.

The bottom line is when a group sues an affordable housing developer or challenges a planning application at council, they usually aren’t trying to improve the project, they’re trying to derail it altogether.

Even new so-called “streamlining” tools such as SB35 — a law that was supposed to help approve projects in months by fast-tracking the local entitlement process and forcing decisions — get layers layers of additional processes added until the original purpose of the legislation is almost lost. It turns out that some cities, just like neighborhoods, maybe aren’t interested in ceding total control of the approvals, even if it comes at the expense of housing being delayed.

The planned study of San Jose’s affordable housing siting policy, which will be heard by the San Jose City Council Nov. 10, is yet another instance where even the best of intents might end up creating more blockades than pathways.

On its surface, the aim of the work is praiseworthy: to ensure that housing is built throughout the city and that high opportunities areas are prioritized for city investment. For my part, I completely agree that we should build as much affordable housing as we can in every district in the city. The problem is housing development doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

There is a web of complicated and interrelated needs such as zoning, transit access, proximity to amenities and a host of other factors that are required for housing to get the funding and approval to move forward.

If there are no bus routes near a site, it’s going to be hard to get state tax credit funding. If an entire neighborhood district prohibits multifamily use, you won’t be able to build affordable apartments there.

All of this will be looked at in the study, of course, but there’s a real threat if people start thinking that this new policy will have the power to stop the development of affordable housing in a certain place. It won’t and it shouldn’t.

With 94% of the available residential land currently restricted to single-family homes in San Jose and the remaining available land being sold every day at record prices, we’re already running out of options.

Couple that with the fact that only a miniscule percentage of the existing stock is deed restricted affordable and we are way behind in meeting our production goals for the lowest income housing, and you realize a simple truth: there isn’t enough affordable housing anywhere.

What could be of value, however, is that if this process helps everyone align and work together on the singular goal of getting affordable housing approved and opened as quickly as possible. We could use this policy to identify opportunity sites and say not just that the city will make an investment at a given location, but that instead every site, zone or region identified will get an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to making affordable housing happen there now.

Make no mistake, this would be a serious commitment of multiple departments to bringing a furious urgency citywide to each project, but given the alternative of more of our neighbors living out in the cold, it seems like the choice is obvious.

Given that it’s apparent we want to keep things local because we know what is best for our residents, let’s use our collective power to clear a path forward and show folks the fastest route home.

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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