How do we make regional housing policy equitable?
The answer is in place-based strategies
There are two pushes in housing policy right now that keep butting up against each other. One is the push to make equity a more central part of policy, no longer just a window dressing or an afterthought. The other is the shift to thinking about housing on a regional or even state level.
In a place like the Bay Area, where the housing realities of our nine counties are so deeply interrelated, it makes sense to think about housing regionally. The affordable housing crisis is not just a problem for individual cities, but for the entire region. What happens with jobs and housing in San Francisco or Oakland or Menlo Park impacts Mountain View and Berkeley and South San Francisco — each part of the region impacts and is responsible to every other part when it comes to jobs and housing.
But as policymakers are starting to take a wider-angle view on these issues, they are coming up with strategies that treat very different places as though they are the same, leading to policies that are both less effective and, more importantly, unjust, with unfair impacts on low-income and communities of color.
So, how do we make sure that regional housing policy is actually equitable?
It seems like the place to start is with the basic distinction that underpins the idea of equity: that equal is not the same as equitable. Different people and communities have their own distinct histories and needs. Access to resources has been and continues to be deeply unfair and unbalanced; systemic barriers continue to exist for some that don’t exist for others. Because we aren’t all starting from the same position, treating everyone equally won’t actually lead us closer to justice.
The same goes for places as goes for people — different places have different conditions and histories and needs, and so require different strategies to address housing and development issues.
Once you say it aloud, it’s a deeply intuitive idea — almost so obvious as to not need saying (or an entire essay). Piedmont is not the same as West Oakland. SoMa in San Francisco is not the same as Brisbane. The housing realities in each of these places — the histories, the state of the market, the demographics of the residents, the risk of displacement, even something as basic as the physical landscape — are distinct. And if we want housing policy that works and is fair, it makes sense to shape our policies specifically to the needs and realities in each of those places, instead of assuming that the same approach would have the same impacts in each place.
But despite the intuitive nature of this approach, this isn’t the way the predominant dialogue in the media and among policymakers is currently framing housing — especially in regional housing conversations. So, if we take this idea seriously, it’s time for a big shift in our approach to regional housing policy.
Place-Based Housing Strategies
Instead of trying to apply the same policies broadly regardless of the type of place, we should take the principle of equity to heart and take a different approach, developing place-based strategies.
What would this actually look like? Does this mean relying strictly on local housing policy, which hasn’t always guaranteed (and has in many places gone directly against) housing equity?
Not necessarily. This approach could provide the much-needed balance between macro regional policies that ensure cities do their fair share and hyper-local policies that ensure self-determination and address local needs.
A place-based approach to housing policy could start by identifying different types of places. This could be along a range of factors, including qualities related to development:
- the level of existing development (urban, ex-urban, suburban?)
- the state of the real estate market (hot, starting to heat up, or cold?)
- the land available for development (big parking lots and industrial land, small infill lots, or built-up land?)
- land costs
- proximity to jobs and transportation
And, most critically, factors related to communities’ privilege, power, and access:
- the demographics of the residents (race, class, level of diversity?)
- the current risk and stage of gentrification and displacement (stable, at-risk, advanced gentrification?)
- the tenure and stability of existing residents (renters with or without rent control and eviction protections? Small landlords or large corporate landlords and real estate trusts? Foreclosure risk for homeowners?)
- the history (exclusion? Investment or disinvestment? Good schools and educational/economic opportunities?)
- the experience local residents have had (or not had) in deciding the policies that shape the future of their communities
Taking these factors into account, we could then craft different housing production, housing preservation, and tenant protection strategies relevant to and appropriate for each type of place — almost like a menu — resulting in regional policies that still account for the needs of communities.
Of course, working out the details of this approach will be challenging: both identifying the factors that should be included, and even more so, getting policymakers to agree on which polices best address those factors. Luckily, there are some models out there from other regions to build on. UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project, the research team behind the gentrification and displacement mapping of the Bay Area, is starting this challenging work by reviewing existing models and beginning to identify key factors, types of places, and appropriate strategies. This work couldn’t come at a more important time, as the need for affordable housing and pressure for regional solutions continues to mount.
But even before we start talking about specific policies, it would be a huge step forward to agree on the basic idea of place-based strategies. This is more than an intellectual exercise — this is about the framework with which we approach development as the region’s population grows and becomes increasingly more urbanized. Can we agree to acknowledge that new development has different (sometimes negative, sometimes positive) impacts on different communities? Can we agree to acknowledge that some places may need more affordable housing, with deeper levels of affordability, than others? Can we agree to acknowledge that different communities need different levels of protection from gentrification and different guarantees of self-determination to redress historical wrongs?
This approach gives us hope for the future of our region. We know we need more housing — specifically a lot more affordable housing for low- and middle-income Bay Area residents — at the same time we see high-end, market-rate development unfairly impacting (and overwhelming) some communities and absent in others. With a place-based approach, we could target the right types of development, protection, and preservation strategies to the right places. Let’s shift our underlying framework, and start building regional policies that acknowledge and support the diversity of people and places in our region.