San Jose lawmaker proposes revolutionary social housing policy
Deborah Apartments in Santa Clara is owned by the Santa Clara County Housing Authority, but operated by a private company. In a true social housing setup, a government entity would do everything: It would own, operate, maintain and secure its own housing. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara County Housing Authority.

Housing advocates say an ambitious bill brought to the table this week in the state Legislature seeking to establish “social housing” is the right approach to California’s crisis, but it faces plenty of obstacles, too.

Assemblymember Alex Lee, whose district includes part of San Jose, on Tuesday introduced a bill asking the state to begin creating housing solutions that have succeeded around the globe, including social housing.

The concept of social housing is in many ways different than most public housing models in the United States. A government entity would own, manage and maintain a property, and preserve it for affordable housing forever.

Social housing also includes residents of varying income levels, and is not restricted to an area’s poorest residents.

“With the ultimate goal of housing as many people as possible of all incomes, social housing programs will invest in affordable living costs and maintenance of properties,” Lee wrote in a tweet. “In contrast to private developers, we can build without an inherent need to turn a profit.”

Some of the proceeds from rent or house payments can go back into upkeep for the property.

Housing advocates love the idea, but say a statewide initiative like this would require enormous state investment and lots of government oversight. Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County, said there’s “no question” that something akin to Lee’s idea will have to be done.

“The resistance is going to be political,” Perry said. “And it comes from the highest levels of government. The resistance is that it’s going to take a huge amount money out of the hands of the big banks.”

Perry said to get something like this done, “it would practically require a revolution.”

Ray Bramson, chief operating officer of Destination: Home, said the biggest hurdle would be funding, something the state is lacking right now.

“I think it comes down to the investment,” Bramson said. “This is a strategy that can and will produce large housing opportunities at scale, but it needs a deep financial investment and commitment from the state to make it feasible and a reality.”

Lee’s bill, AB 387, does not include a funding mechanism yet.

“While I really love and support the concept of social homes, they are most successful in countries where the tax structure is much more geared toward effective social programs,” said Bramson, who also writes a column on housing and homelessness for this news organization. “Funding is the beginning and the end of it.”

Perry said the savings and other benefits outweigh what a program like this would cost.

“Public housing is cheaper than private housing,” he said. “The point is it’s economical. What would you rather do, pay 40% of your income for housing or pay 5% in taxes and have your housing be free?”

Lee points to the success of programs in Vienna, Austria, and in Singapore as models for what could happen in California. In Vienna, 62% of residents live in social housing, while according to Singapore’s housing authority, about 81% of Singapore’s residents live in some type of social housing.

There are also smaller examples of social housing in the county’s own backyard. While Measure A, the $950 million affordable housing bond, addresses affordable housing, the Santa Clara County Housing Authority is even closer to the idea, Bramson said.

“They develop and maintain and operate buildings, and on top of the Section 8 program they have a portfolio of properties,” Bramson said. “(Lee’s) legislation talks about a state-run authority that would run and maintain all this, and it’s kind of similar in Santa Clara County where it’s a local government body that’s developing and maintaining the properties over time.”

Lee believes that instead of the pandemic being an unfavorable time to introduce the idea, it’s actually the best opportunity to do so.

“With stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, the pandemic has underscored the importance of access to safe, stable, and affordable housing,” Lee said. “Affordable housing will play a critical role in our economic recovery and moving toward a more equitable California for all.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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