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David Barca Interviewed for Silicon Valley Housing Outlook on Inman

Could California YIMBY rescue housing in the Golden State?

California’s leading tech firms are done leaving the state’s affordable housing crisis for others to sort out.

Microsoft’s Nat Friedman

Their workers in the Golden State depend on a turnaround, and they’ve set up an advocacy group to be based in Sacramento, the seat of the state government, to lobby for laws that would double the rate of homebuilding in California.

Pantheon CEO Zack Rosen

California YIMBY (“yes in my backyard” — in contrast to the NIMBYs) is aiming to advance a suite of bills in 2018 to “get California building again” by pushing for high-density housing near transit routes, among other initiatives.

“Specifically, we will advocate for laws to permit dense housing near transit and reduce housing impact fees that make homebuilding economically infeasible,” said the group led by Microsoft executive Nat Friedman, Pantheon CEO Zack Rosen and San Francisco housing activist Brian Hanlon.

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“California YIMBY will also address financing solutions for new homebuilding, enforcement of state housing laws, reporting requirements for housing law compliance, fixing Regional Housing Needs Allocation procedures, and streamlining the housing approval process.”

Brian Hanlon

The group said that current law permits local governments to engage in “opportunity hoarding,” which restricts access to economic and educational advancement by preventing developers from building enough homes to meet housing needs. Barriers to homebuilding include density
limits, onerous impact fees that only permit the construction of luxury housing, and convoluted and capricious housing approval processes, it said.

Hanlon said that tech executives — rather than just tech leaders — were contributing to the group, which had so far raised around $500,000.

C.A.R. onboard: ‘We need buy-in’

Geoff McIntosh, president of the California Association of Realtors (C.A.R.) welcomed the move by members of California’s tech community.

“I am very excited about it personally,” he said. “We need buy-in from a really diverse group of participants to address this tremendous house shortage in California, and the tech community has a vested interest in this because they won’t be able to recruit (if it isn’t solved),” he said.

In Silicon Valley, towns such as Cupertino, where Apple is building its latest campus for 14,000 employees, single-family homes are starting at more than $1 million in the immediate surrounding areas, said the C.A.R. president. “It takes a lot of income to buy a house there,” he added.

David Barca, VP for Pacific Union in the Silicon Valley flagship office also applauded the move by the tech community.

“I believe they will find support in the California legislature as well as with our professional Realtor group, the California Association of Realtors,” Barca said. “However, I know the municipalities of Silicon Valley are also trying various approaches to add housing stock.

“Menlo Park, for example, is actually active in purchasing buildings with an eye toward future affordable housing. Mountain View recently entertained a proposal for 10,000 new units, primarily rental, that has for now been scaled back to 3,000 because an environmental impact report indicated that was the maximum the area proposed could support.”

California currently has a homeownership rate of 53.8 percent, according to C.A.R., second only to New York on the scale of lowest homeownership rates in the country.

Parents to the rescue

Many young Californians are relying on their parents, who are in some cases providing cash to help them buy their first home, said McIntosh. State-wide, cash buyers represented one fifth of all transactions last month, and he thinks a lot of these were moms and dads giving their kids a foothold in the real estate market.

McIntosh feels for the tech companies of the Bay Area, rather than blaming them for making a hot real estate market worse, which is a common complaint in the region.

“They are losing people who have elected to leave extraordinarily good jobs and move to much less financially beneficial positions in other states, just so they can benefit from the housing,” he said.

Big tech companies such as Apple and Google are building housing for their employees, a tremendous effort to be applauded, added McIntosh. “But we just need so much more. We are still under-producing by about 100,000 units a year, which is forcing prices up,” he said.

Broadening special interests?

Research commissioned by C.A.R. has suggested that tired shopping centers be turned into residential developments, a solution with all the infrastructure needs on site and often good public transport links.

Some communities have protested against this because of concerns about the traffic increase, but McIntosh said the presence of shopping centers would cause more congestion than using the space for residential purposes.

The tech community is likely to work at its usual pace in this new venture — fast. California YIMBY’s Hanlon, a high-profile housing advocate, has already drafted a couple of key bills for California housing, including SB 167, which requires that all cities conduct a “Housing Accountability Analysis” for proposed housing developments. He said C.A.R. had endorsed the bill along with other business groups.

Part of the problem in Sacramento, where groups such as C.A.R. lobby policymakers on a regular basis, is that stakeholders see Realtors or developers as having a direct financial interest in ramping up homebuiding in California. California YIMBY, on the other hand, is made up of broader interests, Hanlon said.

He added that there’s an opportunity for large alliances to form in Sacramento among Realtors, developers, “YIMBYs” and residents who need housing.

By advocating in the state capital, the group fills a middle-class advocacy gap, as Sacramento hosts many well-established low-income housing groups and business interests, Scott Wiener, a California state Senator who represents San Francisco, told The Information.

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