Op-ed: A better way to address the housing crisis

After so much media coverage of the bizarre presidential race, I find it refreshing to finally start to hear more about local races, where an eclectic cast of characters contending for many local offices are discussing hugely important issues that impact our daily lives, including one of the Bay Area’s favorite hot button issues: housing.

This issue is near and dear to my heart. Having grown up in the Mission District in San Francisco and having lived in the Bay Area my entire life — now in Berkeley — I don’t know what life without manifestations of gentrification, displacement and wealth disparity is like. But I know something must be done about this growing crisis.

The housing crisis has created raging controversies among otherwise likeminded liberals (this being the Bay Area) around building height limitations, density, numbers of parking spaces, and even paint colors. A familiar story at local boards and councils is of a developer asking for a permit to build more housing while neighbors express vehement opposition out of concern that the character of their neighborhoods will be damaged by big new developments, many of which cater to more affluent and/or transient occupants.

A fledgling movement of young renters has now joined the developers advocating for more development, in hopes that increased supply of housing will trickle down to them in the form of lower rents.


After struggling to figure out whether I belong to the pro-development or to the neighborhood preservationist camp, I have realized that many of our debates around housing development are stuck in a false dichotomy. We are letting it unnecessarily divide us.

The debate we should be having is a debate about who owns and controls the real estate in our cities and towns.

I have struggled to find stable and affordable housing in the Bay Area as a renter. We have a growing population in the Bay Area (like it or not) and everyone needs a place to live — something that neighborhood preservationists, despite their admirable goals of maintaining sense of community, often seem to overlook.

But I’m not inclined to rally for letting the developers build whatever and wherever they want, because simply letting developers building more tall buildings won’t entirely solve the problem — and in some cases that can make things worse because it displaces existing residents.

Real life is much more complex than what’s conveyed in supply-and-demand graphs in Economics 101 textbooks. People make decisions about where to live based on many factors, not just the quantity and price of housing. Some new developments cater specifically to the needs of affluent professionals by providing expensive apartments with luxury amenities like concierges and pet spas. Some developments cater to students or seniors with lower prices — and sometimes subpar construction practices as we learned after the tragic balcony collapse in downtown Berkeley that killed several young adults.

Not all housing is created equal. To solve the housing crisis we may need some taller buildings so we can accommodate everyone, but we definitely need more nuanced solutions than just simply letting the developers build on their own terms. So what to do?

We should insist that more housing and other real estate be owned by its occupants or by nonprofit community land trusts. Community land trusts (CLTs) are nonprofit organizations that hold onto real estate to ensure its permanent affordability and benefit to the community.

Some CLTs simply own housing and rent it to low to moderate income tenants, without all of the normal market pressures that other landlords typically experience. Unlike government housing agencies, CLTs are known for providing more autonomy and responsibilities to their tenants, so tenants have some control over the day-to-day management of the property. And CLTs do not kick out tenants if their incomes rise beyond a certain threshold, thus allowing residents to seek out higher paying jobs without fear of losing housing. Some CLTs include neighbors and other local stakeholders on their boards.

Additionally, many CLTs work closely with limited equity housing cooperatives (LEHCs), which are partially resident-owned. In an LEHC, the selling price of a share in the property is restricted by state law to ensure long-term affordability for current and future residents, while still enabling residents to own some equity. The equity owned by residents can increase in value over time but only to a limited extent. So residents have control, stability, and ownership, but without potential for windfall profits.

This is not a utopian fantasy. Among numerous longstanding LEHC and CLT owned properties in the Bay Area are some extremely successful and replicable models. In just one small LEHC in my neighborhood in Berkeley there are a few dozen people living together including seniors, young adults, service industry workers, nonprofit workers, and mid-career professionals who together benefit from below market-rate housing costs.

Two years ago, a few of my friends in the Mission in San Francisco, who have lived together for many years in a large house, worked with the San Francisco CLT to buy their home from the previous owner — likely preventing the property from being converted to a bed and breakfast. These friends, many of whom are artists or students, now reside there without fear of eviction. Community land trusts and LEHCs in the Bay Area collectively provide long term affordable housing to thousands of people today. But there are not enough of these units available. There could be much more if we supported this kind of community-owned housing with funding and incentives.

To truly solve the housing affordability crisis we need our elected leaders to do more than say that they want affordable housing: we need our elected leaders to prioritize and support community land trusts and limited equity housing cooperatives.

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Christina Oatfield lives in Berkeley and works as Policy Director at the Sustainable Economies Law Center.