Fighting for a Better Future

Activists are driven by a sense of urgency to strengthen a new regional plan for housing and greenhouse gas reductions by 2040.


Activist Stevi Dawson said that without affordable housing, she would "be homeless or in another state."

Photo by Carl Posey

A draft plan to guide Bay Area housing and transportation development for the next two decades would do little to tame the region’s affordable housing crisis or traffic congestion, according to the planners’ own projections.

That’s why a coalition of social justice, environmental, housing,  and community organizations is pushing to add more aggressive measures. “If they can see these outcomes, they need to do something to change them,” said Alia Phelps of the social justice group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE. “My brain can’t understand how they would allow these things to happen when they have all this money,” she added, referring to  the billions that regional planners have at their disposal.

Plan Bay Area 2040 merges regional planning for housing and transportation, as mandated by a 2008 state law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. The One Bay Area program, run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, is responsible for the plan, which is expected to come up for a vote in July.

Plan Bay Area predicts a 15  percent per capita drop in carbon dioxide emissions from cars by 2040 and success in keeping new development inside current boundaries. But “the equity targets are moving in the wrong direction,” said David Zisser of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. In fact, planners expect low-income households to pay even more for housing and transportation—up from 60 to 67 percent of their income (experts say people should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing). And displacement of low-  and moderate-income people from job centers is predicted to rise by  7 percent. Planners forecast more affordable housing in job-rich areas—but only 3 percent more.

Transportation predictions are also disappointing: Only 3 percent of travelers will switch from cars to other transportation, and there will be no increase in the percentage of jobs that are “accessible” (in 30 minutes by car or 45 by transit in rush hour). Jed Holtzman of the environmental group 350 Bay Area also pointed out that the predicted drop in carbon dioxide emissions is not nearly enough to meet the state’s climate goals.

And even the disappointing predictions by Plan Bay Area are “optimistic and probably unrealistic,” said Zisser, because they assume all cities will comply with regional housing-construction goals. “That never happens,” he said.

Critics are driven by a sense of urgency. “People are being displaced or turning homeless,” said Phelps. “If you drive down the street in Oakland, you see tent cities.” Even if the plan’s predictions are correct, Zisser said, “tens of thousands more people will be displaced.”

As rents and housing prices soar, “cities are not producing enough affordable housing,” said Adlemy Garcia of the nonprofit East Bay Housing Organizations. To meet the need, she said, about half the housing built in Oakland should be affordable. Instead, “Ninety-eight percent is market-rate and only 2 percent affordable.”

EBHO activist Stevi Dawson, who lives in the St. Patrick’s affordable housing development in West Oakland, said she was on numerous waiting lists for two years. “Now, waiting lists are five years long,” she said, and many are closed. Even homeless shelters have waiting lists. “I’m living on Social Security,” she said. “Without affordable housing, I’d be homeless or in another state.”

Ken Kirkey, planning director at the MTC, said the One Bay Area program has limited power to achieve its goals, because it doesn’t control decisions about what to build where—that’s up to local governments. The only leverage MTC has comes mainly from the various transportation funds that it controls. In the last few years, One Bay Area has tried to “incentivize” housing production by attaching conditions to some of its grants, but results are unclear.

The basic problem, Kirkey said, is the pattern of housing and transportation in the region. “There’s a tremendous disconnect between where people can afford to live and where they work,” he noted.

That’s why the plan is trying to steer housing development to job centers. It’s difficult to build much affordable housing, though, because state and federal housing funds have dropped drastically in the last 10 years. Regional planners give each city a target for how much housing they should build for people at each income level, but these plans are often ignored.

Activists with the organizations that make up the 6 Wins Network for Social Equity have given One Bay Area a list of stronger actions they say it could take. To start with, Zisser said, MTC controls $75 billion in funds from now through 2040. Only a small amount of that money goes to a grant program that rewards cities for building affordable housing. The coalition wants MTC to review all its funding sources and attach affordable housing requirements to as many as possible.

MTC could also require cities receiving transportation funds to follow the state Surplus Lands Act, which says affordable housing must be a priority use when public land is leased. Last year, using that law, Oakland activists won a commitment that 30 percent of the units in a housing development on East 12th St. will be affordable.

The coalition also wants One Bay Area to take leadership in raising money for affordable  housing at the regional level.  That could include ballot measures like Alameda County’s recently passed Measure A1, a $580 million bond measure for affordable housing. A “regional infill infrastructure bank” could also help with financing.

It’s not just about construction, said Mashael Majid of Urban Habitat. Anti-displacement policies can protect existing affordable housing—policies like rent control and a bar on evictions without “just cause.” One Bay Area should take cues from recent local victories, Majid said. Richmond, Alameda, and Mountain View passed rent control; San Jose, Union City, and Alameda passed “just cause” ordinances; and Oakland strengthened both policies. “Those things happened because of local tenant organizing,” Majid said. “The communities have the solutions to address displacement—and the  political will.”

Activists also want MTC and ABAG to start immediately taking more leadership in the state Legislature, for example, by pushing for a permanent statewide fund for affordable housing. Other legislative goals include putting teeth in the requirement that cities build housing to meet regional needs, strengthening fair housing laws, and overturning a court decision limiting cities’ ability to require  developers to build affordable units.

Holtzman of 350 Bay Area  said MTC could also do more to get people out of cars.

Kirkey responded, “Public transportation is already a major focus of [MTC’s] work. The lion’s share of the funding we distribute is related to transit.” But boosting public transportation is hard, because in many suburban areas, “the only way you can get anywhere is by car,” he said.

Holtzman argued that MTC should shift even more of its funding to public transportation, especially buses. It could promote a denser network of bus service in the suburbs, especially buses to connect lower-income residents to job centers. Ultimately, he added, the only way to meet state climate goals is to electrify transportation.

Although housing activist Dawson said she appreciated MTC staff for “listening to us,” the  final plan will depend on the MTC and ABAG boards. Majid said representation on these bodies is weighted toward less-populated suburban areas, where some residents oppose One Bay Area goals. Phelps of ACCE recalled that a delegation from her organization went to Livermore and were greeted by “a whole group of people like Tea Partiers saying things like, ‘We don’t want stacked-up housing,’ and ‘We don’t want public transportation in our neighborhoods.’”

Besides pressure from constituents, commissioners are influenced by business interests like the California Apartment Association, which lobbies against tenant p rotection programs.

Kirkey of MTC said he’s open to many of the suggestions on the advocates’ list. “We’ve already met with 6 Wins and other organizational representatives,” Kirkey said, “and we’re in the midst of refining and developing the draft plan.”


This report appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.


Published online on July 3, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.