Q&A: Search for answers to ‘the moral question of our day’ in California

Why We Wrote This

As the state seeks solutions to homelessness and affordable housing, Assemblyman David Chiu has emerged as a key figure. “We have to think differently,” he says.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Democratic Assemblymen David Chiu (right) and Mike Gipson smile as Mr. Chiu's measure to cap rent increases is approved by the assembly in Sacramento, California, Sept. 11, 2019.

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Nearly a quarter of the U.S. homeless population lives in California. Assemblyman David Chiu has emerged as a central player in the state’s search for solutions to the related dilemmas of homelessness and affordable housing. Three bills authored by the Democrat from San Francisco went into effect Jan. 1 and bolster California’s efforts to build more affordable housing and protect tenants.

“We have a challenge that cuts across all of our borders, and we have to take a holistic approach to addressing it,” he says.

In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Chiu discusses the need for a regional model for affordable housing, the struggle to counter “not in my backyard” sentiments, and Silicon Valley’s obligations to low-income residents.

“Homelessness is not just an economic or public policy conundrum,” he says. “It represents the moral question of our day.”

Recent polls show that a rise in homelessness ranks as the most pressing concern for residents of California, where almost a quarter of the country’s homeless population lives. At the same time, efforts to build more affordable housing face strong headwinds in the form of high construction costs, byzantine building regulations, restrictive zoning laws, and local resistance to low-income housing.

Assemblyman David Chiu has emerged as a central player in the state’s search for solutions to those related dilemmas. During last year’s legislative session, the Democrat from San Francisco authored two bills that could help shrink the state’s affordable housing gap of 1.5 million units, and a third measure that enhances tenant protections against rent-gouging and unjust evictions.

With the legislation taking effect Jan. 1, the Monitor speaks with Mr. Chiu, who served as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before his election to the assembly in 2014. He discusses the need for a regional model for affordable housing, the struggle to counter “not in my backyard” sentiments, and Silicon Valley’s obligations to low-income residents. This interview has been edited and condensed.

One of your bills creates a housing finance agency for the San Francisco Bay Area that will have the authority to raise funding for affordable housing through regional ballot measures. Why devise a broader strategy to address the shortage?

The Bay Area has been an epicenter of our state’s housing crisis, and it’s clear that a piecemeal approach for trying to solve it city by city has failed. We need a much more coordinated approach. We need all 101 cities and nine counties in the Bay Area to be rowing hard in the same direction, and we can help by giving them the tools to raise funding for desperately needed housing.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Pedestrians walk past an affordable family housing complex that opened in 2015 on Feb. 11, 2019, in San Francisco.

Raising funding is one thing. But how do you overcome NIMBYism and generate public support for low-income housing developments?

Homelessness is not just an economic or public policy conundrum. It represents the moral question of our day. Are we content with letting tens of thousands of our neighbors to be forced out onto the cold streets of California?

So our ask to the public is to come together and put yourself in the shoes or the sleeping bag of the person on the streets and say, “If you were that person, how would you want to be treated?”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed a lower court ruling to stand that protects the rights of people to sleep on sidewalks or in parks when they can’t find other shelter. Residents often complain about homeless encampments in public spaces yet they also don’t want more affordable housing built in their neighborhoods. So how do you end that logjam?

That’s the intense political conundrum we are grappling with as policymakers. On the one hand, the public is clamoring for solutions to homelessness. On the other hand, every time we propose building housing in specific [areas], we receive intense local opposition. We’re not going to make headway if we don’t break through this conundrum. And I think that requires every city and county to step up to build permanent affordable housing, supportive housing, navigation centers, and shelters to finally put a roof over people’s heads.

Another of your bills provides incentives to developers to build housing in which all of the units are affordable. Under that law, they can build complexes that are taller and have more units than a market-rate housing development. Can you explain the rationale behind that?

What we’re grappling with is the reality that affordable housing is very expensive to build and funding is always in short supply. [Editor’s note: The cost of building a single unit of subsidized housing in California runs to $425,000, almost twice the national average.] Our new law will stretch those scarce dollars further by allowing affordable housing developments to be built more densely and taller so that we can build more units for exactly the same amount of money.

What’s your response to critics who say those kinds of bigger buildings will tear the fabric of the community that attracted them in the first place?

We have to think differently. I believe we can do this without upending the character of our cities and neighborhoods that we love. We’re not talking about building skyscrapers on every inch of every city. But we are telling communities you’re going to have to do more, you’re going to have to build more.

California’s soaring cost of living is contributing to the rise in homelessness. You authored the Tenant Protection Act, which caps annual rent increases. Why has the state gotten involved in what some people see as a matter of local control?

Housing and rental prices don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries. We have a challenge that cuts across all of our borders, and we have to take a holistic approach to addressing it. We need to come together with a shared commitment to responsibility. And this is why it’s important to have consistent rules to protect tenants from sudden rent hikes and being evicted into homelessness.

The Tenant Protection Act also shields renters from unlawful evictions. Last year, San Francisco became the second city after New York to offer free legal representation to tenants facing eviction. Given how the tech boom has driven up housing costs in the Bay Area, should policymakers be pushing Silicon Valley companies to fund a similar initiative for the entire region or even the state?

I think it’s an entirely appropriate question to ask. We’ve seen in the last year or so several of our major Bay Area tech employers step up with significant commitments to addressing the housing crisis, to the tune of several billion dollars. But the vast majority of these commitments have been around funding to build affordable housing, and I certainly think that helping individuals stay in their homes ought to be at the top of our list as an approach to addressing homelessness.

 

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