Bramson: Why the deepest affordability matters the most
FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2020, file photo, California Sen. Scott Wiener, left, shakes hands with a man after a rally for more housing outside of City Hall in Oakland, Calif. California lawmakers have failed to pass the most ambitious proposal yet to combat a growing housing crisis in the nation's most populous state, voting down legislation Wednesday, Jan. 29, that would have overridden local zoning laws to let developers to build small apartment buildings in neighborhoods reserved for single-family homes. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

The recent defeat of SB 50 – a controversial bill authored by Sen. Scott Wiener which ostensibly sought to increase residential density near transit corridors and job-rich areas – brought forth a somewhat troubling new dimension to an already complicated housing conversation.

Not only was the bill opposed by the typical cavalcade of single-family homeowners, but some affordable housing groups, equity partners and tenant rights advocates also joined the fray. In sending this piece of legislation to its grave, fears of losing the “character of a neighborhood” were strangely juxtaposed with the very real threat of displacement and a growing lack of real affordability throughout the state.

For those seeing the daily tragedy play out on our streets, the drive behind the push back against SB 50 was that it just did not go far enough to meaningfully address the needs of the most vulnerable residents. The reason that’s important is we’re seeing that our poorest neighbors are the ones who are at greatest risk for homelessness. Without direct and targeted efforts, many more of them will end up without a roof over their heads in the months and years to come. Any major housing policy that goes forward without taking this into account right now is simply missing the mark.

The truth is that while we’re all acutely aware of California’s historic housing catastrophe, we’re not all feeling it the same way.  In fact, it is extremely low income (ELI) households who are disproportionately impacted by the lack of affordable housing in our region — creating not only tragic results for these vulnerable residents, but serious consequences for our entire community.

ELI households represent the lowest-earning households in our community and are defined as those who make less than 30% of the area’s median income. In Santa Clara County, a one-person household making less than $30,750 or a four-person household making less than $43,900 would fall in the ELI category. With such low incomes in an extremely expensive region, ELI households struggle daily to cover the cost of housing and other basic needs.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2019 report, The Gap, looked at the number of affordable and available rental units at different income levels. They found that there were only 16,902 affordable and available rental units for the 55,591 ELI renter households in the San Jose metro area. This translates to only 30 affordable and available units for every 100 ELI renter households.

The lack of affordable housing also impacts ELI households far more severely than households in higher income brackets. Seventy three percent of ELI renter households in the San Jose metro area are severely cost-burdened and spend more than half of their income on rent and utilities. These severe rent burdens place ELI households at a much greater risk for not only housing instability, but a variety of other impacts, including poor health, reduced economic mobility, lower cognitive development and academic achievement among children.

With these significant issues out in the open, it’s pretty apparent that we must take immediate action to address the enormous deficit of ELI housing in our community and the myriad of serious impacts it has caused. To do this, we must shift our policy making lens from treating all types of housing equally to properly prioritizing and incentivizing the type of housing our community most desperately needs.

Locally, our elected leaders have stepped up to the challenge. In 2016, the county Board of Supervisors had the vision to dedicate $700 million of the Measure A Affordable Housing Board to build supportive and ELI housing. Last year, the San Jose City Council adopted a 45% ELI housing investment policy to ensure that a large portion of its funding will be set aside to create the deepest levels of affordability. And on the March ballot, Measure E will create an ongoing funding stream that will support the city’s newly-adopted investment policy.

But that’s still not enough. While we’re hearing about new initiatives from the state to combat homelessness weekly, the reality is that the housing market continues to push toward more units, as opposed to deeper affordability. This type of supply-based thinking will help, but it will never create the housing needed for disabled adults, senior citizens and working families who live in poverty. Any new legislation from the state that creates opportunity to fund, build or approve more housing needs to incentivize, cajole and demand that ELI units are a central part of the equation.

Without explicit requirements and interventions, this housing won’t get built and we will be continuing to perpetuate an inequitable system that pushes more people into the cold every day.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact 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 rbramson@sbcglobal.net or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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