Today I find myself asking the same questions I last asked 12 years ago. It was May of 2008, and I was the Staff Director for then–Councilmember Sam Liccardo for the City of San Jose. The economy was spiraling out of control and the housing market had crashed. The questions I was asking then are the same ones I find myself grappling with today:
- How do we triage what needs to be addressed first and stop the bleeding?
- How do we prevent homelessness due to this crisis?
- How do we position ourselves to get state and federal resources?
- What do we need to do to come out stronger than we are now?
Since that time, I have worked in multiples sectors that showed me the power and importance of a cross-sector response, most recently as a Senior Policy Advisor for Sam Liccardo, now Mayor of the City San Jose. We need a response that envisions a future that is better for everyone, where each person has an affordable place to call home, and where everyone feels that they belong.
Before the pandemic, we were already in a housing crisis. The housing shortage was caused by a variety of factors:
- Discriminatory policies of the past
- Laws that make it hard to build new homes, preserve existing homes, or protect tenants
- The increasingly high cost of building new homes.
The structural problems we had before COVID-19 put safe, stable housing out of reach for so many people in the Bay Area — and that has put us all at risk. A stronger future means a Bay Area where everyone can afford to live.
How do we seize the moment and build a stronger future?
Cities need to hire more staff now!
In my experience leading response efforts for the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and Liberia, Super Storm Sandy in the Northeast, and the wildfires of Northern California, I learned that State and Federal funding is limited and is often first–come, first–serve. Although it might be counter intuitive to spend money to hire staff when cities are projecting significant budget shortfalls, our local governments need to be ready to make full use of all State and Federal resources. This means hiring the staff needed to apply for grants; document and provide proof of payment for labor, equipment , and supplies; and convening the community to ensure that equity is at the center of community plans.
To put a finer point on the importance of equity–centered community convening, we know that the community will be better served if those most impacted are at the table. Their voice is critical for deciding what they need and how best to respond. If the plan works for those with the most at stake, it will work for everyone and lead us to a stronger future together.
Get projects shovel-ready
Cities can work smarter by investing in technology and innovations that accelerate the affordable housing development pipeline. Cities have demonstrated how quickly they can adapt to an environment that does not allow for in–person meetings.
Let’s not waste this opportunity to learn from the technology-driven adaptations we’ve made while sheltering in place for plan review and inspections. Critically evaluate old practices and traditions and institute new processes and policies that use technology for more efficient and effective inspections. Cities should also establish Development Action Teams that can quickly respond and explain services offered and fee structures; reviewing processes; discussing permits; providing access to financing, technical, employment and training resources; and responding to specific questions. This will create a strong pipeline of shovel–ready projects that have completed pre-development activities and have the necessary approvals to jumpstart new project construction.
Turn immediate short-term responses into long term assets
As the adage goes, we should never waste a crisis. We have a short period of time to be aggressive and to build or acquire emergency housing to both address the needs of the COVID–19 pandemic and the housing and homeless crises that existed before the pandemic hit. Cities need to review how State and Federal changes in building and planning permits, procurement, and environmental review (CEQA) can accelerate affordable housing production. Solicit faith organizations, schools, hospitals, transportation agencies, and water districts for available land and buildings that can be used to meet the public health needs of our community. Use State and Federal funding to quickly renovate and build on that land in a way that will preserve it for long term affordable housing.
Learn from the 2008 Great Recession and do not return to normal
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed how critical housing is for our communities. We should be looking forward to how we build a stronger Bay Area. A Bay Area that is just, affordable, and inclusive so we can recover and thrive — and be prepared for any future emergencies.
We can’t afford to go back to the way things were — because the way things were included inequities in health, in economic opportunity, and in access to affordable housing. We must build a stronger community and ensure that recovery leaves no one behind.
Lastly, in a nation and region that values our diversity, we must remain united as we face what lies ahead of us. Solving the challenges we face, at the scale that they have come to us, means using our diversity as a strength to put more power into creating the future we want. That means working to build a stronger Bay Area that moves all of us forward and where affordable housing is a reality for all.
At the Partnership for the Bay’s Future, we believe that a stronger future requires investing in building affordable homes, sustaining affordability where it already exists, and supporting policy changes that will lead to more affordable homes and greater protections for renters.
As we plan for our future, I hope that we will all hold the following reflections from the Great Recession to guide us:
- Nothing should go back to normal
- Normal wasn’t working
- If we go back to the way things were, we will have lost the lesson
- We can rise up and do better