By Michael Brownrigg and Donna Colson.


We   recently critiqued the state housing element process, noting that Sacramento’s reporting requirements result in many hypothetical housing units but few real ones. Here we outline how the state could get more affordable housing actually built in cities.

First, the transition being demanded of suburbs across the nation is profound. America’ s suburbs were created as low­ density, single-family homes with backyards for kids; planners put apartment buildings in cities where the jobs were. Creating housing back then was easy -builders just exploited low­ cost nearby farmland and connected to city jobs with a highway.

That model is now broken. Inexpensive nearby farmland is mostly gone. So suburbs like ours have to grow up – literally -to accommodate housing.

And that’s hard.

Still, plenty of elected officials on the Peninsula know we need bigger,denser buildings and are trying to make it happen.But notwithstanding finger pointing by Sacramento, cities cannot build housing because there’s so little public land. Burlingame contributed a parking lot to build 132 units of deeply affordable housing for working families and seniors, which we will proudly open this year,but this is a limited resource.

Most land is privately owned. That means redevelopment/housing projects need to make financial sense to the land owner and developer. And with rising interest rates and increasing construction costs, financial feasibility is slipping away.

So here are some concrete ideas for state legislators if they want to stop playing the blame game and actually help affordable housing get built. Spoiler alert: Most require money.

  • Sacramento could waive capital gains taxes for property owners who sell land to affordable housing developers. This could incent land owners, especially of commercial properties, to finally sell their long-held, low-tax properties.
  • The state could streamline eminent domain for housing on underutilized parcels and then subsidize a city’s acquisitions. We have a two-third-acre lot in Burlingame vacant for 25 -years because the overseas owner has an unrealistic view of value. That site could be housing SO families in three years. But we don’t have the tools or money to make that happen.
  • The current housing finance system is creating balkanized projects, in which residents are either 100% below area-median-income (due to tax credit finance requirements), or are 90% market rate or higher because developers won’t build without a profit. All social research indicates economic integration leads to better outcomes for kids. The state should help market-rate builders include more affordable housing units with tax rebates or direct cash subsidies.
  • Faster than cities can create affordable units, we are losing even more •naturally affordable”units in older buildings when they get sold. For example, there’s a 70-unit building for sale whose units average 40% below market; new owners/investors will certainly work hard to raise those rents to market. Our county’s housing agency, HEART, wants to buy and preserve older buildings but there are no state programs to subsidize such acquisitions. Indeed, the state does not even count a deed­ restricted preserved affordable unit toward a city’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation requirements.That has to change.

The state should also create incentives to reward cities for housing, for example:

  • The state’s housing targets seek a 15% increase in Bay Area housing. Punitive and prescriptive state housing mandates should be waived for cities issuing building permits exceeding a 10% increase in units.Their concrete success demonstrates those cities are serious, so let them figure out how to build housing in ways that work for their communities, free from Sacramento’s dictates.
  • Water allowances should be prioritized for cities that undergo a 10% increase in actual occupied housing. Water restrictions may put a serious cramp on quality of life in the future, so let cities that are creating housing get first dibs on water allocations to accommodate their businesses and residents.
  • Infrastructure spending should be directed to communities that are getting housing. Cities whose residential populations grow by 10%-20% need more parks, libraries and traffic amenities.
  • And for social mobility, let’s reward cities that create more affordable family units (two bedrooms or more). The fastest way to create units for RHNA is to permit studios, but with larger units we can embrace more low-income families so that their kids can have the benefits of the Peninsula’s great schools, parks and open space.

This isn’t easy, building new housing in built-out towns and suburbs. But we can do it with a mix of muscular financial help from Sacramento and rewards for communities doing the hard work. That’s how we move from hypothetical housing reports and finger-pointing to getting families into homes, enjoying life and all that it has to offer.

Michael Brownrigg and Donna Colson are the mayor and vice mayor of Burlingame, respectively.