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  • By Rachel Swan - SF Examiner

Bay Area leaders propose aggressive housing fix, and new agency to get it done

A panel of mayors, developers and transit officials has an aggressive plan to stanch the Bay Area’s housing crisis by combining a regional rent cap, new property taxes, laws against arbitrary evictions and loose zoning near transit centers.

The group, named the Committee to House the Bay Area but called CASA, also recommends creating a new agency with taxing authority to implement region-wide housing solutions.

Over the past two years, its members drafted a 10-point compact meant to bring housing production more in line with demand: Since the recession ended in 2010, the Bay Area has created 722,000 jobs but built only 106,000 housing units. That imbalance has pushed people far away from where they work, forcing them into wildfire zones or soul-numbing commutes.

“There’s a huge cost to doing nothing on this problem,” said Grace Crunican, general manager of BART and a member of the panel.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf agreed and stressed the importance of responding to the crisis as a region, rather than a collection of cities with separate laws.

“Oakland’s problems are not ‘Oakland’s problems’ — we’re all interdependent,” she said. “Our status as residents of the Bay Area supersedes our status as residents of any particular municipality.”

Some cities have already applied many of the concepts in the compact. Its provisions line up closely with recent laws passed in San Francisco, where Mayor London Breed is rallying for more housing and city officials are easing restrictions on nontraditional dwellings, such as granny units. San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose and Richmond already have entrenched rent control, whereas CASA recommends a 15-year cap, limiting annual rent increases to 5 percent greater than the consumer price index.

The recommendations in the compact are not enforceable laws. But they will likely serve as guidelines for state lawmakers, city councilors and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom. The compact might also become political ammunition for such bills as SB50 from state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, which eases construction of housing near transit. A bill or policy idea becomes much more credible if a chorus of Bay Area leaders support it.

Judson True, chief of staff for state Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said he’s confident the CASA plan will inspire legislation in Sacramento this year. He said Chiu and other lawmakers have followed the process closely.

CASA was formed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments to marry housing and transit, two policy issues that frequently intersect.

The 21 members of the panel didn’t agree on everything when they met Wednesday in a large conference room of the Bay Area Metro Center in San Francisco. Schaaf called for a tighter rent cap and raised concerns about the plan’s impact on low-income communities, where residents are more likely to be displaced by new development.

Breed had similar reservations, saying she sees the urgency for faster housing production but wants to keep neighborhoods intact. As a city supervisor, Breed championed “neighborhood preference” — setting aside new housing for residents who already live in an area — and she said Wednesday that she intends to press that idea statewide.

Michael Matthews, the state director of public policy at Facebook — a company that has struggled to shuttle workers from more affordable parts of the Bay Area to its offices in Menlo Park — criticized the plan for not going far enough. “We can go farther, faster, harder,” to create housing, he said.

But overall, the committee supported the plan and its general goals: build 35,000 homes each year, including 14,000 that are affordable to low-income families, and 7,000 that are affordable to moderate-income families. At the same time, panel members seek to preserve 30,000 units of existing affordable housing, and 300,000 low-income households that are on the verge of being displaced. And CASA is calling for a new oversight body to shepherd its policies, which may be its biggest recommendation yet.

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting Wednesday showed how divisive housing and transit have become in the Bay Area. Some speakers wholeheartedly support the plan, but others called it a power grab and criticized the committee for being skewed to favor big cities, developers and tech companies.

“I feel like this is insider baseball trading among big cities and big businesses — small cities and everyday citizens are excluded,” said Susan Kirsch. Her group Livable California advocates for local urban planning and moderate growth.

Crunican, the general manager of BART, acknowledged the tension. Her agency stewed in controversy earlier this year as Sacramento legislators debated AB2923, a bill enabling BART to build housing on its parking lots. It passed in August and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September.

“It was ‘Congratulations, Grace, here’s your crown, here’s your cake,’ — and then all I got was a bunch of enemies,” she said.

CASA’s 10-point plan will go before the MTC for approval next week, and before ABAG in January.

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