Silicon Valley lawmaker says ‘missing middle’ can’t afford housing
Assemblymember Alex Lee talked about his social housing bill, AB 309, during a meeting on March 22, 2023 organized by California YIMBY. Screenshot.

    One Silicon Valley lawmaker wants the state to get into the housing market to assist residents who earn too much to qualify for low-income housing, but don’t earn enough to afford a market-rate home.

    To help these residents, known as the “missing middle,” Assemblymember Alex Lee introduced Assembly Bill 309 earlier this year. If approved, AB 309 would enable California to build and lease homes to residents of various income levels, Lee said. The buildings would be mixed-income, which proponents said would improve economic mobility for residents of lower incomes. Tenants also would have a say in how their buildings are managed and operated.

    “To embrace housing as a human right, we must think of it as a universal good,” Lee said during a Wednesday affordable housing panel discussion hosted by the Housing Action Coalition, YIMBY Action, California YIMBY and the Greenbelt Alliance. “No more means-testing, no more nitpicking, no more saying one person is more deserving than the other… Everyone deserves housing, and we should embrace that.”

    Because the state would develop the buildings, it could lease each home without needing to make a profit, lowering costs to renters, Lee said. He represents North San Jose and Milpitas in Santa Clara County, as well as Fremont and Newark in Alameda County.

    Social housing, as we embrace it, is about making sure people don’t lose their housing because their income level changes, down or up,” Lee said.

    In Santa Clara County, a two-person household earning between $106,000 to $161,000 per year qualifies as median- to moderate-income, according to last year’s affordable housing income limits—and therefore would not be eligible for housing targeted at lower incomes.

    Lee said California’s intention of targeting affordable homes to the state’s neediest residents is laudable. However, it has the unintended consequence of discouraging tenants from increasing their incomes.

    “You start creating ceilings on people,” Lee said. “You want more people to earn more money, to save more money… but you don’t want them to lose their housing.”

    Between 2014 and February of this year, San Jose issued 21,898 residential building permits, 5,519 of which were for affordable housing. With the issuing of these permits, San Jose met 115% of its market-rate goal for this time period, as specified in California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation. But the city has only met 26% of its goal for affordable housing, according to a memo issued by the housing department last month.

    The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, is $2,585, according to Zumper, an online marketplace for apartment rentals. San Jose is one of the most expensive places to live in the nation, and people looking to leave the region or the state is picking up steam. Past polls and annual city surveys have shown a growing discontent with housing costs in San Jose, while the wealth gap and other inequities grow. Experts say the region could be at a tipping point.

    Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, who represents Richmond and Berkeley, spoke on the panel with Lee and said the housing shortage is every city’s responsibility—and it’s the state’s responsibility to hold cities to account.

    “‘No’ is not an option anymore,” Wick said. “If we have to do state laws that make it easier to build affordable housing… then that’s the reality of where we’re at.”

    AB 309 is headed to the state Legislature’s housing and community development committee, though a hearing for the bill has not been scheduled, according to the state assembly’s website.

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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