SAN FRANCISCO — With all the persistent ranting about the housing crisis — how intractable it is, how it’s driving middle class and poor people from the Bay Area, and how there are no solutions in sight — one might think an affordable housing conference would collapse under the weight of all that collective pessimism.
“Standing Together” — the title of Friday’s 38th annual conference sponsored by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) — was the biggest one of these events yet. Fueled by Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing last week of a dozen bills aimed at addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis, about 850 affordable housing advocates — policy wonks, finance wizards, architects, grassroots organizers, contractors, tenants, public office holders — crowded lobbies and conference rooms at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square hotel.
At 8:30 in the morning, the place was teeming — abuzz with affordable housing believers, slurping down coffee and gearing up for an event that was as much a rally as it was a double-down work session.
On the rally side was Amie Fishman, NPH’s executive director, meeting and greeting and talking about “passion and urgency and commitment.” Affordable housing at last has emerged as “the critical issue for the Bay Area” — there is no more awareness problem, she said; the public gets it, and her organization now will help lead an “all-out push” toward passing the statewide 2018 bond measure for affordable housing that Brown and legislative leaders have agreed upon.
On the work-session side was Matt Schwartz, president and CEO of the California Housing Partnership Corporation. He moderated a panel on “Federal Housing Policy in the Trump Administration: Is the Best Defense a Good Offense?”
It got into the weeds about tax reform and the status of Low-Income Housing Tax Credit expansion legislation. He and the panelists gave nuts-and-bolts advice to attendees about how to find and assemble whatever money is available to bring a project to fruition — complicated stuff, as “you typically have to mix a dozen different sources to make any development work,” Schwartz explained after the session.
At a packed workshop about “Building Quality Housing for Less,” a contractor on the panel was asked to list the most unpredictable items in a typical affordable housing construction project.
“The skin,” answered Guy Estes, vice-president of San Francisco-based Cahill Contractors.
“Simplify the skin,” he advised, meaning that the exterior details that distinguish a building — and leave a developer’s personal stamp upon it — tend to eat up construction budgets in unexpected ways. Make it a little less pretty, or quirky, and you’ll stay on budget, was the message.
There were a couple dozen workshops. One was titled “Integrating Health and Housing Strategies: Lessons from the Field,” another was called “Bringing 21st Century Digital Literacy to Affordable Housing Residents,” another “Gatekeeping: Steps to Protecting Immigrant Residents.”
Some sessions were plain old practical: These local funds have been allocated as a result of local bond measures — close to $2 billion in affordable housing funds were recently approved in several Bay Area counties — and this is who’s entitled to the funds and here’s how to apply to get them.
“We want to be able to make quick loans” to take advantage of opportunities in a fast-moving real estate market, Linda Gardner, director of housing and community development in Alameda County, told the 60 or so attendees at her workshop.
There was a surprise announcement at the plenary session: JPMorgan Chase is giving $3.5 million to Housing Trust Silicon Valley and Genesis LA Economic Development Corp. as part of a pilot program to encourage homeowners to build accessory dwelling units — granny units — and other small-scale affordable homes to help ease the housing crunch. The program will be called “Small Housing, Big Initiative.”
The keynote speaker at the session was Tiffany A. Manuel, kind of a rock star in the affordable housing world, who has been writing lately about the ways in which language can backfire and impede the affordable housing movement.
Don’t just talk about tax credits and leverage.
Get personal, tell stories — and emphasize that when teachers and child-care givers can afford to live in a neighborhood, that benefits the whole neighborhood, said Manuel, who is vice president for knowledge, impact and strategy at Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that partners to finance, build and advocate for affordable housing.
“We want to talk about ‘home,’” said Fishman, boiling down Manuel’s message. “We want to talk about people and not about units.”