San Mateo County Made History This Weekend While Talking About Housing Issues



Today, San Mateo County achieved something that has never been done anywhere in the US, thanks to Threshold2008’s Assembly of residents talking about San Mateo County’s housing needs.  Threshold2008 brought together the dialogue and range of voices that only the general public can bring to the government and housing officials in the 20 cities representing our County. Through the generous donations of the Open Square Foundation, The David & Lucielle Packard Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, plus Bailard Inc., Common sense California, County of San Mateo, Hurlburt-Johnson Fund, Mills-Peninsula Health Services, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, San Mateo County Community College Foundation and The Whitman Institute,  400 people representing a microcosm of the residents of the County met, learned about, and discussed housing issues facing the County, now and in the future.

Taking place at Canada College in Redwood City, I had the opportunity to listen to the majority of break out sessions taking place during the two days.  People took the task seriously, and approached it with different eyes, making this an interesting opportunity for true citizen involvement.  What’s so exciting about this process is that these people are only the beginning of the dialogue.  Beginning on April 1st. you can also participate online through Threshold2008’s website.  I promise that I’ll let you know when the time comes how you can participate, too.

We learned that each of the 20 cities making up San Mateo County had its own policy but last year decided to work together, something unique in California.  We learned that zoning can be changed to make change and that Redwood City has done this in their downtown redevelopment leaving blocks of land unzoned to allow for best-use decisions by developers and the City.

Today, the citizen participants asked probing questions of the panels during discussions.  The morning panel tackling the topic of Who Should Make Housing Decisions consisted of:

* Assemblyman Gene Mullin of the 19th District, CA State Assembly
* Supervisor Rich Gordon from the 3rd District, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors
* Mayor Carole Groom, City of San Mateo
* Duane Bay, Executive Director of San Mateo County Department of Housing
* Linda Mandolini, Executive Director, Eden Housing

Questions about why we have so many studies were asked repeatedly and all agreed we do have too many of them, but sometimes regional government requires them.  ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) conducts a job and household study every two years and is in a position to project pretty accurately, what our growth will likely be over the next couple of decades. Supervisor Rich Gordon felt that studies also can build opposition to projects.

The Assembly asked how all of the local agencies can work together.  The cities of San Mateo County joining forces to swap housing needs from city to city to meet affordable housing shortages, is something unique to our County.  We have begun to adjust our thinking across boundaries allowing for cities with vacant land that ’s not suitable for Affordable Housing to swap it with cities in need of the housing. An example of Woodside swapping land adjacent to Canada College with Redwood City so Affordable Housing can be built for Canada employees and teachers in a similar program to what was done in San Mateo at CSM.

A question was asked about the state requirement for affordable housing through Measure 1C, passed last year.  Assemblyman Mullin, with the perspective of both a former City Council member in South San Francisco, and now at the State level as an Assemblyman, resented the State telling the cities and counties what to do about housing, but on the State level, he now sees the value due to the shortage of housing.

We learned that there is no dedicated funding from the state for housing except through bonds.  It’s very expensive to build in San Mateo County.  The only way we will see more housing stock is to have a large migration out of the county and out of the state and we don’t want that.  Housing needs public support to get built.  San Mateo has streamlined their application process and is the only city in the county to have done so, but even then there are slip ups in notifying neighbors of possible projects.

In summation, Supervisor Gordon said that whatever decision on where to built is made, we always see opposition.  There’s no constituency for change in the County.  The only people showing up at hearings are the opposition.  In order to make change, the decision makers must hear from the general public during the process.  He urged everyone to become proactive and find out what’s going on.

What I heard over and over was people saying the felt they were out of the loop on what was happening in their communities because they did not read newspapers, or receive notices in the mail.  They wanted the information pushed to them, rather than being willing to take responsibility on getting information on their own.  I am not certain if there is an easy way to over come this complacency by people.  Hopefully, this two day Assembly will show the participants how important it is to seek out the information.  It is too much to expect a city to try and find the citizens who aren’t tapped into normal channels of community information.  People must learn to take responsibility into their own hands.

The afternoon session covered the topic of Policy Solutions and Funding Choices with a panel featuring:

* Duane Bay, the Executive Director of San Mateo County Department of Housing
* Debbi Jones-Thomas, the Housing Coordinator from the City of Redwood City, who has 29 years of housing and redevelopment experience
* Chris Mohr, Executive Director of Housing Endowment and Regional Trust (HEART)
* Robert Sherrard, Senior Vice President with City National Bank, and Planning Commissioner from East Palo Alto
* Chris Wuthman, Principal with Renew Properties, a developer of high density in-fill housing
* Pete Peterson, the Executive Director of Common Sense California

There were questions about the effect on the county of the aging Baby Boomers and how it will effect public policy? Questions about what contributes to Affordable Housing?  How zoning effects housing prices?  If streamlining the permit process might allow for more building at cheaper costs? Would private equity funding with tax credits help bring more dollars or public versus private funding availability or employer funding help?

Chris Mohr said there is a Federal Housing Trust Fund bill in Congress right now that, if it gets out of committee, might offer some help to our communities.  The streamlining of the zoning process again was brought up and San Mateo and Redwood City were set as examples of how to do it right.

People wanted to know about re-purposing buildings for housing.  Bob Sherrard said it was tried in San Jose but can be very expensive and just  because there are empty offices today doesn’t mean they will be empty in a couple of years.  It takes several years to make office space suitable for housing and many cities aren’t keen on the loss of the tax base.

As the day’s session began to conclude Peter Peterson congratulated the Assembly and encouraged them to stay involved in the process.  They are now in the top 5% of San Mateo County citizens with their knowledge of housing issues and in the top 1% of citizen’s engaged in the process.  But they need to continue this proces with participation in their own cities.  They are the spark that can now start the fire that makes policy changes in San Mateo County.

It appears that they just might do it.  The Internet portion of the process is next month and most of these people said they are going to participate in it and Threshold2008 needs at least 1000 participants for the next phase.  Following the online participation will come small neighborhood assemblies where, if you too are interested in learning how you can help, you’ll be able to invite your friends and family to move the process forward.

This is grass roots policy at its finest!  Dr. James Fishkin, the Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, was visible throughout the weekend.  This was the largest group he has seen utilizing this process and he was delighted.  There were originally 900 people contacted by phone and given a 20 minute interview.  At the conclusion of that interview 400 were asked to participate.  I’ll have more data on the participants and more about their opinions later in the week.

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