Sustainable San Mateo County’s Indicators Report Launch on October 19 focused on the need for affordable, sustainable housing and highlighted strategies that can make affordable housing for all a reality.

It was the 25th year Sustainable San Mateo County (SSMC) has presented in-depth research on one aspect of sustainability in San Mateo County. This year’s report, “Equitable Housing,” includes comprehensive data, the historical context, driving forces, an analysis of the impact of climate change on housing, case studies, policy initiatives and recommendations.

Click here to read the full report, the Executive Summary and the brochure. Click here to view a video of the event.

The report takes examines factors affecting the county’s current housing situation, as well as solutions aimed at creating more equitable housing in the short and long term. Karen Manor, SSMC’s Indicators Report program manager, made the struggle for affordable housing real when she noted that an average two-bedroom apartment in San Mateo County would require an hourly wage of $50.60, more than three times the current minimum wage.

Terry Nagel, chair of SSMC Board of Directors, gave examples of local and state solutions designed to address the lack of affordable housing. These include using developer impact fees to spur affordable development, and transitioning hotels into housing for homeless persons and low-income seniors. She noted that corporations are contributing money and land for affordable developments, and that cities, school districts and the county are working creatively to build affordable housing for teachers, public employees, and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Thanks to these and other efforts, San Mateo County will have a chance of reaching its goal of “functional zero homelessness,” meaning anyone who wants shelter in the county can access it.

Nagel said leaders from government, schools and nonprofits are collaborating across the county and Bay Area in new ways to bring deeply affordable housing to fruition. Additionally, the recent passage of State Senate Bill 9 allows up to four units on single-family lots and Senate Bill 10 permits up to 10 units on single-family lots near public transit. California’s new fair housing guidelines, issued in April 2021, give cities guidance on making up for past inequities. If cities ignore them, they may not be eligible for some funding.

Nagel said two key components required to ensure affordable housing are money and political will. The California Comeback Plan, the single largest investment in housing in our state’s history, has provided billions for affordable housing and to support renters. Furthermore, during the pandemic, residents became more aware of the need for essential workers and the importance of helping them live locally. Some have put pressure on elected leaders to help provide housing for them.

During a panel discussion, Rick Bonilla, deputy mayor of San Mateo, emphasized the importance of building awareness of the need for more affordable housing as well as a better understanding of how housing and sustainability impact each other. Bonilla said what we need most to build equitable, sustainable, affordable housing is positive will – political, community and institutional.

Redwood City Council Member Diana Reddy said “it takes a village” to make affordable housing happen: a City Council that makes it a priority, a city staff that researches and implements innovative initiatives, a development community willing to come together to help the city realize its goals, and a community that understands that workers of all incomes are necessary to make a thriving, resilient city or region.

Matt Franklin, chief executive of MidPen Housing, described the three-legged stool approach that his nonprofit team uses when undertaking affordable developments. First, they look for the commitment of political leadership. Next, they home in on cities willing to be more aggressive in their land use policy to build more densely. Finally, because of the large gap between market rate housing costs and what people can afford to pay, they require subsidies through both money and land.

Intentional and thoughtful policies are another key component to making equitable housing a reality.  For instance, Reddy said that Redwood City staff discovered prior to the pandemic that less than 10 percent of affordable units in the city were being used by people living or working in Redwood City. Consequently, the city adopted an ordinance which now gives preference to those who live or work in the city or who were priced out of living there.

Like Redwood City, Bonilla said San Mateo has been successful in using a housing impact fee for developers to incentivize density of parcels under development, and partnering with others to fund affordable developments.

Next the conversation turned to how our community can better help its unhoused residents and those teetering on the edge. Christine Kohl-Zaugg, executive director of SSMC. pointed out that if just 6 percent of extremely low-income individuals in the county lose their housing, the population of homeless people will nearly double.

Reddy shared two examples of how urgent housing needs people are being addressed. Recently, Redwood City swapped land with the county in order to develop a 240-unit Navigation Center in the city. This shelter, east of Highway 101 off Maple Street, will provide a suite of intensive counseling and other supportive services in addition to provide much-needed housing for the homeless population. Additionally, state funds have enabled the county to purchase hotels in Redwood City, San Mateo, Half Moon Bay and elsewhere to permanently house those lacking shelter. Because of these efforts, San Mateo County will be close to reaching its functional zero in homelessness in the foreseeable future.

Franklin pointed out that homelessness and having a very low income go hand in hand.  Throughout the Bay Area there are 900,000 very low-income individuals and 35,000 unhoused individuals. He stressed that we have proven solutions to homelessness, citing MidPen’s 95 percent retention rate for people who used to be on the street after they spend two years in permanent affordable housing. However, because those solutions are expensive and time-consuming to implement, and because the current economy creates a need faster than solutions can be put into place, he said it often feels like we don’t have a way to address the problem.

Fortunately, Franklin said, we know that taking a multi-pronged approach that includes the development of interim and permanent supportive housing will provide safe shelter for those most in need. The All Home regional group of which Franklin and Reddy are members  proposes a “1-2-4 model” that recommends that for every one temporary/bridge home created, we must create two permanent supportive housing units and take four intervention measures to help prevent people with extremely low incomes from falling into homelessness.

The panel rounded out the discussion by sharing their visions of what equitable housing might look like in the future. Franklin voiced a wish to create quality jobs and engage employers more deeply in balancing these jobs with needed housing. He pointed out that every high-paid executive position that comes to the Bay Area creates a demand for three to five service jobs. He said we must create housing to meet the needs of these people, as they are all essential to our economy.

Reddy’s vision for 10 years out is that the number of people facing housing insecurity in our area will be drastically reduced, thanks to cities taking up the banner of buying and converting underutilized apartment buildings and hotels. Bonilla expressed optimism that the passage of Senate Bills 9 and 10 will have a positive effect on creating and dispersing more affordable housing throughout the county, especially near transit. At the same time, he hopes the growth of transit-friendly housing will reduce the amount, and therefore expense, of parking associated with the developments.

By Susie Hodges