Housing Access & Affordability on the West Coast: My Journey Begins

A number of people have wished me good luck when I tell them what I’m doing. It doesn’t come from elected officials or anyone representing a public agency, of course. It’s usually from those affected, advocates, or people I’m interacting with throughout my day at coffee shops and bars.

I’ve been planning this series in some way or another since 2013. Over the next few months, I will travel from Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles, California and back up, covering some 3,000 miles and stopping by ten cities to share their stories of housing access and affordability. I’m not sure if people wish me luck because they think I need it (I do) or if this is a slightly crazy endeavor (it is), or that people hope these articles get written because things have to change (they do).

The Roots of My Interest in Urban Planning

If I had to put a label on it, I categorize myself as a jack-of-all trades urban planner. I’ve served on a planning commission, worked on transit and housing advocacy at the local and state levels, worked on the land use and permitting side of market rate and affordable housing development, and recently worked on land use policy for a nonprofit up in Seattle. It’s given me the ability to meet and build relationships with communities throughout the Pacific Northwest and be a small part in supporting their shaping their future.

I’m really a planner because I like people. I want to hear about your grandchildren and what it was like to grow up in your neighborhood. Those stories are precious and wonderful things. They are the fabric that make communities strong.

I stumbled into urban planning in my freshman year at the University of Oregon. I thought I was applying to a marketing assistant position with the campus Office of Sustainability. Turns out, the role was with a research and experiential learning institute that would introduce me to planning and change my career path completely. This institute worked with a city’s public agency for an entire year. Students across different disciplines, from folklore to sustainable business, collaborated with agency staff to solve the city’s most pressing problems.

This seemed very interesting, but I still dropped out of school after my freshman year to work in the music industry back in my home of Los Angeles. I was driving 90 minutes to work every day because I couldn’t afford to live near where I worked. I started to put two and two together. It took a year before I came back to school and asked for my old job back. I soon changed my major from journalism to planning, public policy, and management.

I ended up getting deeply involved in local transit advocacy, working to expand the bus rapid transit network in Eugene, Oregon. This led me to realize that my experience of living far from where I worked was not unique and in fact, people often had to drive until they qualify for housing. This made it tough for people to bike or bus to work, often resulting in them paying significantly more in transportation costs. This was something I had experienced time and time again in Los Angeles, but I never knew that it had a name and people studied it. I dove headfirst into planning and fell in love.

While I do have a bachelor’s degree in urban planning, I’ve learned much of what I do from working in advocacy and mentors from different backgrounds. Some of those I work with have a degree in planning while others are stay-at-home moms who got involved in advocacy. My mentors vary from a theoretical particle physicist turned transit advocate to a musician. Planning is at it’s best when there’s diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and thoughts. In fact, my retail experience is often the background I draw on the most. It’s where I learned empathy, patience, and the difficulty of navigating systems and their many issues. And planning, very intentionally, is an exclusionary and byzantine system.

What is Land Use and Why is it Important?

That system is largely grounded in land use, which sounds boring but hear me out. Every park you visit with your children, the elementary school that doubles as a community center, the new breweries popping up in your neighborhood, or apartments around the corner—that’s land use. It’s the policies and preferences that shape the areas we live in and what makes home, home.

Land use is made up of zoning and policy. Zoning classifies land for different uses such as hospitals, gas stations, or single family homes. Much of the west coast is zoned to only permit single family homes, although this is changing. Simply put, architects know how to design smaller footprints like tiny homes and rowhouses; it’s a question of whether or not they are allowed in the first place.

The west coast’s housing crisis is not the result of a lack of good design. At the end of the day, an affordable home and a market rate home theoretically look the same from the outside. The difference is the policy decisions that are underneath. And figuring out what’s underneath is the primary driver behind my work and this series.

Policy provides incentives and higher level guidance around how cities and areas should look and function. This may include how cities grow and accommodate affordable housing or address homelessness. These policies often apply citywide or focus on a specific neighborhood.

The Troubling Demographics of Land Use

Historically and still today, land use zoning and policy are used for government-sponsored segregation and exclusion. For example, communities place affordable housing in flood-prone, low-income, or industrial areas in an effort to separate them from typically single-family neighborhoods with higher property values that are predominantly white. Black and hispanic public housing residents are four times more likely than white public housing residents to live in census tracts where the poverty rate exceeds 40 percent.

In addition, historically diverse neighborhoods may not receive key public infrastructure investments, such as sidewalks and bike lanes, until white residents move there. Gentrification oftentimes begets displacement, leading to the fragmentation of communities of color that may have lived in the same neighborhood for generations. After all, there is a fine line between neighborhood revitalization and urban renewal.

These types of issues are exacerbated when the planning profession is 81 percent white (including myself). Elected officials, from local to national, are a whopping 90 percent white. Even local civic boards and commissions, such as planning commissions, seldom represent the demographics of the communities they serve. When these individuals and groups don’t reflect the people they serve and support, communities end up with plans and projects that are crafted in a vacuum and don’t meet their needs. Unsurprisingly, homogenous people make for homogeneous plans. This history is vital to understanding the roots of the housing crisi—and even more vital to understanding how to develop solutions that work.

The west coast has a distinct and remarkable housing crisis. The reasons vary depending on who you talk to:

Any one of these factors (among others) could be a primary cause of the crisis and in reality, there’s probably a grain of truth in each. At its core, that’s the purpose of this series. To find those grains of truth and fashion them into something that makes sense.

I had been in Sacramento for several days and was still trying to get my bearings. A friend who lives there had given me a lead on a proposed emergency ban on no-cause evictions. Sacramento was the first stop on my road trip where I hoped to interview people up and down the west coast about housing access and affordability. Having recently passed a rent control ordinance, Sacramento seemed like the perfect place to get started.

I was trying to understand what exactly was going on, and my first day in town consisted of my spreading multiple pages of notes out on my aunt’s kitchen table in nearby Roseville, California. It did not help that the last few weeks were a blur of quitting my job, setting up a 3,000 mile road trip, and getting consulting and freelance work lined up to support myself in the interim.

So far, there were three different rent control issues at play: a recently implemented rent control ordinance in the city of Sacramento; a rent control measure that was supposed to be withdrawn from the March 2020 ballot after Sacramento’s recently implemented rent control ordinance passed; and a newly passed statewide rent control bill that may have resulted in hundreds of no-cause evictions across the state prior to it’s effective date on January 1, 2020.

So much for a simple story on implementing rent control. Honestly, as an urban planner I should have known better. But, what can I say—I’m an optimist.

What Makes a Home? A Crisis in Sacramento

Outside of the Board’s chambers, Sacramento Tenants Union organizers and Bell Oaks tenants had waited to testify to the Board of Supervisors since 10 AM. Geoff Barka was one of dozens of tenants living in the Bell Oaks Apartments that were given a no-cause eviction from their homes. Those who had received these notices had to move out by the holidays.

In response to the no-cause evictions incurred at Bell Oaks and elsewhere in Sacramento County, Supervisor Phil Serna had brought forward an emergency moratorium that would put a blanket ban on no-cause evictions like Barka’s until statewide rent control (also known as AB 1482) went into effect on January 1, 2020. Several other cities, including Los Angeles, had already put a ban into place to protect tenants.

Barka has lived in Bell Oaks for four years and has lived in the surrounding neighborhood of Arden Arcade since 1994. He has a housing voucher (formerly known as Section 8), so he has 90 days to move as opposed to the usual 60 days required for market rate apartments. However, he and his son still have to be out by Christmas.

As a senior, he is theoretically able to access more affordable housing units than applicants with families or individuals. Many affordable housing developments have restrictions on tenant age, dependents, or pets. Yet, each affordable housing complex has at least a two-year waiting list and still requires a nonrefundable application fee. As of roughly two years ago, over 43,000 families residing in Sacramento County had applied to join the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) waitlist.

With a housing voucher, ideally Barka would find a market rate apartment and pay a portion of his rent based on income, the remainder covered by the SHRA. However, these units must have a rent amount that meets federal requirements, on top of a landlord willing to accept a housing voucher in the first place—a difficult task that is often mired in race and class-based disrimination. The unit must also meet rental code requirements, something the Bell Oaks apartments technically no longer met.

The Sacramento Board of Supervisors would end up not discussing the moratorium for several more hours, by which time many tenants had left to go to work or take care of their families. Few employers would allow their employees to miss work for a public hearing, even one as critical as this.

To minimize disruption during the day-long meetings, attendees and those testifying waited in the lobby until their agenda item comes up. The much smaller group of tenants and organizers were ushered in through black curtains, into an auditorium with theater seating and bright fluorescent lights. The Supervisors were discussing a request to form an interjurisdictional homelessness policy board.

“The challenge of homelessness doesn’t follow political boundaries,” remarked Supervisor Serna. After much deliberation, they voted in favor to form the board. The proposed schedule consisted of three meetings a year.

We Go Forward: Fighting For Housing Justice in California

Represented by Jim Lofgren, the California Association of Apartments interceded and negotiated a $2,500 relocation assistance payment for displaced Bell Oaks tenants. This payment did not apply to other tenants who had received no-cause evictions. Supervisor Susan Peters, whose constituents include Geoff Barka, remarked that the relocation assistance was “more than twice as much” the monthly $950 to $1,050 rent at Bell Oaks. Along with Supervisor Sue Frost, she voted against the moratorium, defeating it. A supermajority of four votes was needed for it to pass. The eviction notices served to tenants present at the public hearing and beyond in Sacramento County would stand.

As I was leaving, I saw Debbie Stollery waiting for a ride back to Bell Oaks. We had met just a few hours prior in the lobby area, as she waited to testify to the Board of Supervisors. She had a neat, handwritten list that detailed potential moving expenses in a delicate cursive, including application fees, first and last month’s rent, costs to hire movers, deposit (including pet deposit), and an anticipated higher monthly rent.

Her rent at Bell Oaks is already nearly 100 percent of her monthly social security; she pays $930 a month and receives a check for $975. The relocation assistance provided by Bell Oaks will not cover the costs on her list, which she estimates to be at least several thousand but “could be far higher.” As she does not have a housing voucher, she must be out of her apartment by Thanksgiving.

Gavin Mercer is a tenant at Carmichael Village in Carmichael, California, also within Supervisor Peters’ district. He and his roommates were told to leave their 800-square foot apartment by the end of the year. He expects a rent increase, stating “anything comparable is more.”

Mercer continued, “If [my] rent doubled, I would be paying 50 to 65 percent of total wages. Not counting utilities—just rent.” Mercer and one of his roommates will be able to manage, as they have steady income and family nearby. He’s unsure where his other roommate will go.

Some might consider these tenants as unfortunate collateral in the fight for housing. Rent control will be effective soon enough in a matter of weeks. Yet it’s important to consider three crucial realities.

First, the true cost of those who were displaced prior to the effective date of the rent control bill is likely unknown. Evictions are chronically underreported and there is a lack of household-level data on where tenant households move and why. However, there are self-reports across the state of tenants receiving evictions, which have been verified by local public agencies. Unless a city or county passed a moratorium, it is highly likely these tenants will be displaced from their homes, to the tune of thousands. Unless displaced tenants have the financial means to pull together the necessary fees and payments to move to a new unit, it is highly likely that they will end up homeless. This can mean anything from having to stay with relatives or friends, sleeping in their car, or staying temporarily at a shelter.

Second, the rent control bill, while a step forward, only applies to properties that contain two or more units and units older than 15 years. In other words, it exempts townhomes, condos, and single family homes not owned by corporations or Real Estate Investment Trusts, as well as duplexes where the owner occupies one of the units. Yet rent increases are capped at 5 percent plus inflation, or a limit of 10 percent, on an annual basis. For seniors on a fixed income, such as Stollery, this could result in a legal increase that effectively results in their eviction.

Overall, the place we call home should not be fragile concept. I strongly think that there is no amount of data or policy that can, nor should, alter this. Simply put, we each deserve a home.

“We go forward. The issues around housing are bigger than this,” said Mackenzie Wilson, an organizer with the Sacramento Tenants Union. We were sitting on the steps leading up to the Sacramento County building, as they smoked a cigarette before another public hearing, this time to testify against a proposed expansion of the county jail. They continued, “[It’s] mind blowing how intersectional this is…we need to keep bringing back these campaigns to shift the narratives. It gives people a leg to stand on. AB 1482 [statewide rent control] was a powder keg for housing as a human right.”

Bree Nicolello
Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.

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