By Michael Orion Powell---BERKELEY -- More than 200 people attended a recent panel discussion by policy makers from across Alameda County civil society, its banking sector and political establishment to talk about the area’s ongoing housing crisis.
The Northern Alameda County Symposium on Housing and Urban Development took place May 29 at Berkeley City College and was led by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and Pastor L.J. Jennings, founder and senior pastor of Kingdom Builders Christian Fellowship in Oakland. Also attending were representatives from the Bay Area Council and the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods in a series of panels throughout the day.
Bonta guided the first discussion, along with Tim Frank and Bay Area Council Vice President Jeff Bellisario. Bonta introduced himself as active on the issue of housing, but also spoke of being impeded in the work by a federal government and administration with vastly different priorities.
“There’s no ‘silver bullet’ or panacea that’s going to solve our housing crisis. We all know that, right now, folks can’t live in the neighborhoods they grew up in, can’t live anywhere near where they work or the communities that they love,” Bonta said. “Last year, with the leadership of the Speaker and the Governor, we got back a permanent source fund for affordable housing as well as putting on this year’s ballot a $4 billion housing bond. Unfortunately, we lost $540 million in housing tax credits from the federal government.”
Tim Frank, who sits on the board of Good Jobs First, is an advocate not just for his Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, but also for the Business Council of the Sierra Club.
“If we look back at the previous Great Depression, there were lessons to be learned from it, and we really didn’t apply those lessons as we approached solving the challenges of the most recent (economic downturn),” Frank said. “Back in the 1930s and the 40s, what happened is that when people lost their incomes, they were not forming households, but as soon as the economy came back after World War II, all those people rushed into the market.”
Throughout the symposium, issues of racism and discrimination were a recurring theme as audience members referenced recent controversies that have enveloped Starbucks and Wells Fargo Bank. Other audience members talked about what many say is the intentional segregation of American cities through federal housing policies dating back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Jennings, moderator of the symposium and pastor of the Kingdom Builders Christian Fellowship, said in response that “black people are being left out all over the place but, in order to not be left out, we need to come together and work together.”
Another speaker, Robert Ogilvie, is the Oakland director of San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research, or SPUR, a local non-profit urban planning research association. Ogilvie said that his view of the housing crisis rested in a long-held economic precept.
“The reason for the housing crisis lies in simple supply and demand. If there is more supply than demand, prices go down. If there is less supply than demand, prices go up. With [sprawl] we just started building farther and farther out, and I’m sure you already know… people, in order to afford homes, have had to move to Vallejo or to Sacramento and spend an hour and a half (on the road) each way,” Ogilvie said.
He added that the housing crisis is so dire, despite what is otherwise a largely thriving state and local economy, because builders focused on “infield development.”
“The problem with that is that it has proven very difficult to build enough infield housing to meet the demand. We’re not building enough and we’ve decided, and I agree with this position, we don’t want to build any more, and the result is that we are not building enough over the long haul,” Ogilvie said.
“Since 2010, the Bay Area has added about 600,000 jobs. A lot of those are very high paying jobs. We have added about 60,000 homes. That is a problem. Most local elected officials in California will say honestly that they want to do something about the housing crisis. City councils will tell you, however, that in reality they want to build as little housing as they can get away with because building housing right now is a fiscal loser for cities.”
Ogilvie pointed out that Tokyo, one of Asia’s largest cities with a population of 13 million, managed to contain a housing crisis simply by building more units higher up.
“Tokyo is growing rapidly as well but their house prices are staying flat. California is a state of just about 40 million people. Last year, we began construction of 82,000 housing units in California. Last year, (the Japanese) began construction of 142,000 housing units in a city with no land,” Ogilvie said.
Michael Orion Powell is a Bay Area freelance writer.