FREMONT, Calif. — What began as an ambitious bill to establish a state body dedicated to building and maintaining mixed-income housing has now evolved into a pilot program, poised to serve as a “proof of concept” for a more robust initiative down the road.
Introduced by Assemblymember Alex Lee earlier this year, Assembly Bill 309, also known as the Social Housing Act, initially aimed to create the California Housing Authority, an independent state entity focused on building and maintaining mixed-income social housing projects. However, the original Social Housing Act has been substantially pared down in the seven months since its introduction. During a town hall co-hosted by East Bay for Everyone and Fremont for Everyone on Thursday night, Assemblymember Lee shared that the revised bill will instead establish a social housing program under the state’s Department of General Services and focus on soliciting bids for the construction of up to three social housing projects on state-owned land. These pilot projects are positioned to lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive social housing initiative in the future.
“We are kind of compromising on stuff,” Lee said, “which is not bad. We’re halfway there.”
The revamped bill continues to safeguard the rights of residents in these pilot social housing units, ensuring they pay no more than a third of their income in rent. The bill also guarantees tenant protections and empowers residents to engage in decision-making processes related to the management and operations of these housing projects. While the specific locations for the pilot projects have yet to be picked, Lee said his hope is for one of them to be in the Bay Area.
Governments across the local, state and federal level are applying an array of measures to tackle the housing crisis, from expanding tenant protections like rent control to cutting red tape around housing construction, including reducing the opportunity for public participation. Lee said he’s proposing social housing as a solution because it has been successful in other places and will be the first step in treating housing like a human right guaranteed by the state instead of a profit-making endeavor driven by the market. He pointed out that currently there is greater certainty about a child attending school in the U.S. than about them having a stable home.
“Social housing is one of those fundamental tools that we’re missing,” Lee said.
Mixed-income housing has both social and financial benefits, Lee said; it sidesteps the concentration of poverty seen in past public housing projects, allowing individuals from diverse backgrounds to coexist without their socioeconomic status being apparent. Meanwhile, rent affordability is maintained by higher-income residents subsidizing the rents of their lower-income counterparts, akin to for-profit developments that allocate 10% to 20% of units for affordable housing.
“The same math applies here,” Lee said.
While social housing has a history dating back to the early 20th century, ensuring affordable rents in places like Vienna and Singapore, it’s now gaining traction across U.S. cities, counties and states. In Seattle, voters recently passed Initiative 135, paving the way for the creation of the Seattle Social Housing Developer, which will be responsible for developing and maintaining social housing in the city.
The push for social housing comes amid a deepening affordable housing crisis across the U.S. Alameda County’s latest point-in-time count revealed an alarming increase in homelessness – from 8,022 individuals in 2019 to 9,747 this year. In the southern part of the county, many homeless individuals resort to sleeping in tents, vans and RVs because of unaffordable rents. A recent study by My Eden Voice and East Bay Housing Organizations underscored the housing insecurity and unsafe conditions faced by many renters in the Eden area. One-third of renters reported living in conditions considered uninhabitable by the state, while 40% feared rent hikes that could uproot them from their communities and a quarter grappled with the fear of eviction.
Anyone interested in expressing their opinions about the Social Housing Act to the state Legislature can call the Senate Appropriations Committee at 916-651-4101 or submit a letter at calegislation.lc.ca.gov/Advocates.
Watch the full town hall here.