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Tackling the Housing Affordability and Displacement Challenge

This Saturday, February 20, policymakers, planners, civic leaders, advocates, developers, and other regional stakeholders will gather for an important forum on how Bay Area local governments and regional agencies can address the displacement of long-time residents caused by rapidly escalating housing costs.

The forum is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Oakland Marriott City Center at 1001 Broadway, near the 12th Street BART Station in Downtown Oakland. In addition to a discussion of regional trends, challenges, and solutions, the forum will also include four sub-regional break-out sessions to focus specifically on San Francisco, the Peninsula and South Bay, the East Bay, and the North Bay.

preliminary agenda and registration form have both been posted online. The forum is sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) as part of the update to Plan Bay Area 2040.

The Bay Area Monitor last covered displacement concerns surrounding Plan Bay Area in its October/November 2013 edition. Here again is that article in full:

There Goes the Neighborhood: Will Regional Plan Push People Out?

We tend to take comfort in the notion that neighborhoods are stable places, steadfastly retaining their distinctive character throughout the years. Yet in reality, they constantly undergo subtle fluctuations, and can eventually start to feel unfamiliar to us. Sometimes, the transformation involves a wave of housing renovations, streetscape improvements, and commercial enterprises — in a word, revitalization. When revitalization leads to the displacement of residents by an influx of wealthier newcomers, another word applies: gentrification.

An intensely loaded term, its mere mention can provoke impassioned reactions and spark heated arguments. Such discussions often fail to reach any productive resolution, in part because participants may have different interpretations of how exactly gentrification works. Analyzing this complex phenomenon hasn’t become any easier, either, with the introduction of anti-sprawl planning strategies that can exert powerful influence on neighborhood dynamics.

Planners have increasingly sought to concentrate development within the urban core, aiming to encourage walking and transit use, reduce air pollution from cars, bolster public health, and enhance overall quality of life. However, some advocates contend this approach exacerbates gentrification displacement of lower income residents.

“You’re immediately creating this kind of economic and social tension by trying to push more people into a smaller space,” said Peter Cohen, co-director of the San Francisco Council of Community Housing Organizations. As a result, “we get almost a Darwinian sorting out of the haves and have-nots based upon who’s able to afford rising rents, who’s able to afford the latest cost of a condo, who’s able to set up a new business.”

Having observed this effect in the neighborhoods he serves, he predicts it “is going to be happening in the near- and mid-term future in many other places in the Bay Area as they experience pressure of growth,” with San Francisco representing “the canary in the coal mine.” With the region’s population expected to jump from 7.2 million today to 9.3 million by 2040, that pressure looms large.

Expressing frustration about how officials have been preparing for this prospect, Cohen criticized the recently adopted Plan Bay Area for failing to protect groups at risk from gentrification displacement. Put together by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, the plan’s vision for 2040 focuses 78 percent of new housing units and 62 percent of new jobs into a relatively small proportion of land, roughly 170 pockets around the region dubbed Priority Development Areas. These sites will receive sizeable transportation investments to help them achieve the housing and jobs projections; Cohen thinks the regional agencies should more strictly control this funding by telling local jurisdictions that “you can’t just take all this transportation money and do investments that are going to encourage infill development if you don’t simultaneously have an effective set of stabilization policies in place so that you do no harm.”

“Unfortunately that’s the kind of muscle that the regional agencies were not willing at the time to use,” he lamented. “So the Plan Bay Area essentially, for the most part, continues the status quo.”

As in any examination of gentrification issues, evaluations naturally differ. Dan Chatman, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, asserted, “There are ways in which Plan Bay Area could be implemented that would increase the amount of housing that would otherwise have been created in the Bay Area, and that can be nothing but good for affordability of housing and thus for possible displacement pressures.”

Emphasizing the concept of supply and demand, Chatman reasoned that the plan’s relaxation on development constraints should result in builders producing a surplus of residential units, prompting prices to drop. In his estimation, residents are getting priced out of Bay Area real estate markets because local jurisdictions have refused to offer more options. “It’s not about developers not caring about poor people,” he said, “it’s just about municipalities and neighbors not wanting density.”

These same parties will control much of how the plan translates into action at the local level, Chatman noted, and so all the attendant questions about neighborhood transformation rest mainly in their hands. In terms of safeguarding the interests of low income populations, he pointed out that the Bay Area has a staunch network of affordable housing activists whose “voices will be heard” during the process.

Cohen confirmed that he and others like him intend to speak up as Plan Bay Area becomes real “on the ground… jurisdiction by jurisdiction by jurisdiction.” Then he added, “Basically we just battle gentrification in the neighborhoods — that’s kind of the way it’s always been.”

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