Is affordable housing the elephant in the room or the camel’s nose?


Posted by on Fri, August 5, 2005

2.3% of the housing units in San Mateo County are priced below market. But 8.1% of housing units in Half Moon Bay are priced below market.

On Wednesday the Half Moon Bay Review called the lack of affordable housing "the elephant in the room". They tell us that while 85 percent of county residents can’t afford to buy a home here, only 10% of new housing development is set aside for low-income residents.

I support setting aside a lot more than 10% of our maximum allowable growth each year for affordable housing. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good for the community in all kinds of ways. But we need to do it within the limits on growth that the community has agreed are reasonable.

Half Moon Bay is doing its share

You might infer from the Review’s editorial that Half Moon Bay isn’t doing its share to solve the problem of affordable housing. You’d be wrong.  According to the The Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, an affordable housing organization, 2.3% of the housing units in San Mateo County are priced below market. But 8.1% of housing units in Half Moon Bay (350 out of 4,325) are priced below market.

Because of its contribution to affordable housing, Half Moon Bay was the second-fastest growing city in the county, with 2.6% growth

You may be thinking, "Wait a minute! Doesn’t Half Moon Bay have a 1% growth cap?"It does have a cap, but it makes exceptions for affordable housing.  In addition to the 1% legally-allowed growth, the city exempted another 1.4% in affordable senior housing.

What’s going on here?

Affordable housing has a posse

The government has used a wide variety of carrots and sticks to create economic incentives to build affordable housing. This has worked and this is generally a good thing.

This approach has made some strange bedfellows. In addition to the community organizers you’d expect to be pushing hard for affordable housing, there is also a broad coalition of real estate agents, big banks with mortgage businesses, developers, land owners, and construction unions.

Many of these groups have a strong interest in using affordable housing as a wedge to pry apart existing growth limits. This strategy puts supporters of growth limits in the awkward, but misleading, position of appearing to oppose affordable housing.

You can also see that strategy at work in the unincorporated Coastide. Just one example in the last few months is the Review’s coverage of efforts to exempt caretaker units from growth limits.

The Coastside can’t solve the county’s housing problem

The city of Half Moon Bay, and the unincorporated Coastside, can’t solve the county’s housing problem.  There are a quarter-million homes in San Mateo County, and 5,774 of them are affordable. That’s right, San Mateo County’s existing, inadequate, supply of affordable housing is 169% of the total housing in Half Moon Bay.

So, when people tell you they support affordable housing, be sure to ask them what they think we should do about it. Ask them specifically whether they would set aside a portion of our mandated growth rate, or whether they would exempt affordable housing from the limits. If they say that some affordable housing should be exempted, ask them how much.

And when they say, as the Review said last week, "we must stop fighting among ourselves and tackle these problems before they tackle us", watch your back.

I challenge the Review to tell us how they think we should tackle the problem within the context of our community growth limits. As always, they’re welcome to post their answers as a comment on this story—the fastest way to get their answer to the community—or to take it up on their editorial pages. They don’t even have to mention Coastsider.

This is a very well-thought and challenging editorial. Exactly the kind of writing you can’t find in the mainstream press. Kudos.