The city of San Mateo is currently in the process of setting its goals for the coming year. As part of that process, individuals and organizations may write to the council suggesting priorities. The following is the letter we have sent to the council setting forth the goals we think the city should place at the tops of their agendas.
Honorable Mayor Rick Bonilla and Members of the City Council,
In its recent history, a number of forces have severely pulled at the fabric of the San Mateo community we value so highly. Foremost among them has been the housing crisis, which continues unabated. One San Mateo, a community group working for a more fair and inclusive San Mateo, is concerned with making sure that our city lives up to the basic dream we have of it as a place of, by, and for all its people. As such, we believe that the goals the council sets for itself this year and beyond must prioritize real steps to mitigate some of the damage being caused by our manmade housing crisis, and, in general, to strive for a more fair and inclusive civic community.
To that end, One San Mateo recommends that the following goals find a place on the council’s future agendas.
1. Enhanced civic engagement with underrepresented groups
Civic engagement, like the housing crisis, is a much talked about issue, and addressing both is at the heart of One San Mateo’s mission. Civic engagement is fundamental to the entire practice of a democratically representative system of governance. Yet various data show that there are shortfalls in civic engagement throughout the diverse spectrum of community stakeholders. In particular, both renters and people of color are significantly underrepresented in our civic processes. San Mateo must begin now to take concerted action to redress these disparities. This is not simply a matter of public relations or outreach. Rather, full civic engagement is a reality when there are no longer disparate positions of influence to drive disparate outcomes. It is the duty of any democratic body to take practical steps toward this guiding ideal.
2. Data collection on local rental market
Throughout the conversation around what constitutes an appropriate response to the housing crisis, various parties have lamented the lack of good data. It is only sensible that the City of San Mateo at last put in place a program geared toward the collection of essential rental market data. Such a program would gather information on (but not necessarily limited to) when and to what extent rent is increased, where and on what sort of property (neighborhood; 1br, 2br, 3br, etc.), and when and for what reasons a tenant is evicted. Landlords are already required to provide tenants with written notices of rent increases and evictions. The city could simply direct landlords to submit this same information through an electronic portal. At present, Mountain View has a similar program. We furthermore note that during the Sept. 4th discussion of the federally mandated Assessment of Fair Housing, all of the council members offering comment indicated support for data collection.
3. Relocation assistance for substandard properties
Recent developments at 314 Poplar Street brought to light the need for a comprehensive ordinance establishing property owners’ obligations with respect to tenants displaced by unsafe or substandard living conditions. The County of San Mateo developed such an ordinance and enacted it into law in February 2017. The stated purpose of that ordinance is to provide monetary relocation payments enabling displaced tenants to find safe and secure housing and to deter property owners from allowing unsafe conditions to develop in the first place. To address cases such as 314 Poplar, we believe that the City of San Mateo should commit to adopting an ordinance patterned on that adopted by the county last year.
4. Annual multifamily code enforcement inspections
In line with goals 2 and 3, it has become clear that a more robust code enforcement inspections program is needed in San Mateo. As it stands, its code enforcement program is reactive and fragmentary. It is dependent on someone, usually a tenant, who may or may not fear reprisal, coming forward and complaining about egregious conditions. While the fire department does conduct periodic multifamily inspections, their primary focus is fire code violations; they may note other code enforcement violations, but there is no systematic mechanism for involving the city’s code enforcement department in a process for follow-up. The San Mateo County inspection program provides a good model of a more adequate system. Operated out of the Environmental Health Services Division, the program conducts routine inspections of all multi-unit (4 or more) rental properties and assesses property owners annual fees to pay for the inspections. We believe the city should enact a similar program. We caution, however, that a more strenuous inspections program, which could in some cases displace tenants from substandard properties, is counterproductive unless it is coupled with an effective means of relocation assistance, as referenced in the preceding goal.
5. Source of income anti-discrimination ordinance
Under California law, it is illegal for a landlord, property agent, real estate broker or salesperson to discriminate against a person on the basis of that person’s race, religion, ancestry, disability, sex, orientation, familial status, or general source of income. It is, however, permissible to discriminate against the acceptance of Section 8 vouchers. With homelessness and underhousing on the rise as a result of the housing crisis, Section 8 vouchers represent a valuable tool for moving people off of the streets, out of shelters, and into more stable housing. Yet hundreds of vouchers go unused in San Mateo due to the difficulty of finding landlords who will accept them. A number of other localities, such as Santa Clara County and East Palo Alto, have adopted ordinances to cut down on the undue rejection of Section 8 vouchers. Once again, we note that during the council’s public response to the AFH report, all council members offering comment expressed interest in increasing Section 8 usability
6. Public lands for public benefits
As affordable housing is our region’s most pressing need, it follows that publicly owned land should be principally devoted to the development of new affordable housing. Building as near as possible to 100% affordable housing on public land provides significantly more affordable units than the 10-15% allocated as part of standard market-rate projects. Therefore, where public agencies have vacant or soon to be vacated land, that land should be made available at negligible cost for the purpose of below-market-rate housing of all ranges, from low to moderate income, and up to workforce housing. Ensuring that public land only be used in ways which have the greatest public benefit is fundamental to public officials’ roles as stewards of the public good.
The above are basic goals we urge the council to pursue, and we look forward to collaborating with them on more concrete proposals. We reiterate that several goals mentioned in this letter were already broadly assented to by the council in its response to the presentation of the AFH report, and it remains the legal obligation of the city to address the housing inequalities exposed in that report. Moreover, it is our conviction that unless the city of San Mateo earnestly dedicates itself to finding ways to address our broken housing market, and simultaneously endeavors to reduce our disparate levels of civic engagement, San Mateo will persist in its slide toward becoming a city of unequal parts instead of moving together in the direction of a shared dream of being united and whole.