We can fix racial segregation on the Peninsula

By Justin Alley

The Bay Area is more racially segregated today than it was in 1970. Among the many destructive problems with residential segregation, one is that it helps governments create major imbalances in where they invest resources.

Broadly speaking, governments tend to invest more in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. As a result, you often see more parks, schools and clean air in those areas. Meanwhile, governments tend to invest much less in predominantly Black, indigenous and Latinx neighborhoods. Residents of color have seen the problem worsening over time and are not surprised that Bay Area suburbs are increasingly segregated along racial and economic lines. The skyrocketing prices of homes in the suburbs during the pandemic are part of that disturbing trend.

Last month, the Association of Bay Area Governments nudged the region closer to the inclusive and prosperous place it claims to be. It adopted a draft regional plan that requires more affordability in the suburbs than it ever has before. The plan is called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA. It is a state-mandated planning process where regional agencies tell their cities and counties how much new housing, and at which income levels, they must plan for over an eight-year period. It is worth noting that this process does not tell cities precisely where they must put new housing. Therefore, it is incumbent upon cities to break the historical trend of trying to squeeze as much new housing into poorer, less-white neighborhoods, and instead distribute it equitably across the whole of the city.

The pressures are mounting and it is long overdue for cities to redress their zoning practices. Bay Area cities and counties were expecting to see higher housing targets this time compared to previous rounds. In June 2020, the state found that the Bay Area’s total housing target for 2023-2031 is more than double the target from last time. One major reason for this large increase is that the new target includes the thousands of homes the Bay Area failed to plan for in previous rounds. Now, all of our cities and counties have an urgent duty to pull their weight.

The new legal duty to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing adds another weight to the scale. It requires regional and local housing plans to actively increase fair housing choice for everyone, no matter their race, gender or other protected characteristic. Fair housing choice exists when households “have the information, opportunity and options to live where they choose without unlawful discrimination and other barriers related to race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin or disability.”

On the Peninsula, fair housing choice means having more affordable options in suburbs like San Bruno and San Mateo. These cities are known for having high-quality resources but few homes affordable to predominantly Black and brown low-income families. Only the wealthiest, who are disproportionately white, can benefit from these resources.

San Bruno currently has only one home affordable to every seven low-wage workers. San Mateo has one home affordable to every 10 low-wage workers. Many cities on the Peninsula, like Atherton and Hillsborough, have ignored fair housing choice by denying apartment buildings altogether. In the COVID-era, this is a wake-up call because a lack of affordable housing often leads to overcrowded houses and apartments.

We can do better.

Prior to the pandemic, 550,000 people were commuting every day to jobs on the Peninsula outside their home cities — that’s equivalent to three-quarters of San Mateo County’s entire population. Many commuters would prefer living in the city where they work, if they could afford it. And while many white-collar workers have been able to make the shift to working from home, this has not been the case for low-wage workers. When families can live close to work, stay in neighborhoods they grew up in, or afford to stay close to the people and resources they need, it is better for everyone — less traffic, more social cohesion, more time for families to spend with their children, and it moves us closer to the diverse and prosperous place we all want the Peninsula to be.

Now is the time for the Peninsula’s cities and counties to get to work and decide how they will meet these long overdue housing needs. Their decisions can ensure that every family who seeks to live here, whether for jobs, school or health, can find a place to call home. The Peninsula can do this, and we will all be stronger for it.

This piece originally appeared here in the San Mateo Daily Journal.

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