Chipping away at the housing affordability crisis in the Bay Area.
That’s my window. The thought fills Michael Norris with pride as he considers the new home on Las Juntas Way he’ll be moving into this coming winter. After nearly seventeen years of renting a one-bedroom apartment above a bar in San Pablo, Norris can’t help but daydream about settling into his new neighborhood in Walnut Creek. Sleeping in his bedroom. Cooking in his kitchen. Looking through his window.
Norris’s ground-floor unit is part of the Esperanza Place development, now under construction about two miles from the city’s downtown in Contra Costa County. The project, one of the largest undertaken by the local affiliate of the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, will provide forty-two new homes to members of the community for whom the Bay Area’s steep housing costs have rendered homeownership out of reach. “At its core, our housing crisis is a pretty straightforward supply-and-demand problem,” asserts California State Assemblymember Marc Berman, who represents parts of the San Francisco Peninsula and Silicon Valley. “The key to making housing more affordable is building more housing.”
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I’ve joined the group of volunteers who are armed with shovels and pickaxes, though to call what we’re doing “construction” may be a disservice to the skilled workers who practice that essential trade. Under the searing July sun, the eight of us who have self-selected for the job are, at best, searching for buried treasure and, at worst, just digging and sweating. “Somewhat irrational” is how one AmeriCorps team leader muses he might label our decision to undertake this particular task on this particular day, with temperatures soaring toward 100°F. Alas, in order to connect the site’s central sewer line to the pipes that will drain the wastewater from each home, the end of each buried PVC segment has to be unearthed. In the absence of actual sewage, it’s not technically shoveling shit—but you get the idea.
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Much like our team’s efforts on that sunny day, the process of planning and building affordable housing in the Bay Area can be “a long slog,” according to Janice Jensen, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley (Habitat EBSV). From the time of the affiliate’s purchase of the Las Juntas Way site in 2016, it took five years to secure the building permits required to break ground—and would have taken longer if not for “the tenacity and patience” of project manager Melanie Mintenko and her team, says Jensen. In her view, getting affordable housing projects underway is an exceptionally bureaucratic endeavor, especially in California. This being the case, Jensen and her fellow leaders at Habitat spend significant time advocating for policy changes in Sacramento and Washington, DC. They aim to simplify the process and break down the barriers that burden builders of affordable housing—barriers that sometimes include measures originally intended to spur the industry.
“The housing crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing our state,” according to Assemblymember Berman. “It exacerbates declining enrollment in our schools and drives teachers, first responders, and other essential workers out of the Bay Area.” He maintains that his colleagues in Sacramento recognize the uphill climb faced by affordable-housing developers and explains that the Legislature has “passed a number of key policies in the last few years to streamline and expedite approval for affordable housing construction in cities that fail to build enough housing.” When it comes to easing the burden placed on developers, he gives the example of last year’s Assembly Bill 2006 that he authored to “eliminate duplicative work” among the multiple California agencies responsible for monitoring compliance in affordable housing developments. The bill has been signed into law and takes effect at the start of 2024.
Despite existing hurdles, Habitat EBSV has managed to construct hundreds of new affordable homes in the region in recent years, with nearly two hundred more planned for communities in Alameda, Oakland, San Jose, and Santa Clara. Jensen remains undeterred in her goal. “We want to build as much as we can, in as many places as we can,” she says. As ever, securing funding is the key challenge when it comes to increasing the supply of affordable housing in a densely populated area with a stratospheric cost of living. While market-rate housing developers simply scale the price of the home to the costs incurred to build the project, affordable housing developers like Habitat for Humanity “price it to the buyer—that’s a very different model.” Habitat ensures that homeowners’ total monthly payments—mortgage, dues, and utilities—do not exceed 35 percent of the household’s monthly income, an established standard for affordability in housing. Jensen figures that the upcoming project in Oakland, which will pair eighty-five new affordable homes for ownership by Habitat EBSV with eighty-five new affordable rental units from fellow nonprofit MidPen Housing, represents an over $50 million stake by her organization—no small sum for a nonprofit relying on private donations, public funding, and below-market-rate mortgage payments from previous projects. “Somebody said, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ Well, there you go.”
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We’re continually reminded by the site leaders to visit the water and Gatorade stations, as we toil and blister and drip from every pore, wondering how we could’ve passed on the task of preparing the townhomes on the other side of the parklet-to-be for their upcoming paint job. Nonetheless, morale is high. Some manage an occasional smile, and camaraderie has soared to new heights. Three of the four end-pipes have been located, and after some re-consultation of a blueprint for the site, we slightly adjust the course of our five-foot-deep trench. As Jared Slaybaugh, the site’s assistant construction manager, announces the lunch break, our team silently determines to plow on—sensing that we’re nearly there.
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In keeping with the organization’s long-standing policy for approved homeowners, Michael Norris has been hard at work on Esperanza Place since late 2021 (the outset of the project) and become something of a mainstay on-site. Everyone we bump into has a kind word for Norris, who grew up in San Francisco and helped break the color barrier in the city’s service industry in the 1970s. He tells me that he served as the first African American bartender at the iconic St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. Norris was encouraged to engage with the Walnut Creek development by his daughter, Michelle, who owns a home in Martinez as a result of a Habitat for Humanity project there.
“The application process is not for the faint of heart. The last thing we want to do is sell somebody a home when they’re not ready for that,” says Jensen. For applicants who don’t initially meet the requirements to be approved as a homeowner, Habitat EBSV offers programming as a housing counseling agency certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jensen says many of the folks who aren’t yet ready for homeownership enter this program, and she often sees a “trajectory change in their life” with the financial know-how that they develop in the program. In evaluating prospective homeowners’ applications, “part of what we look at is their need for housing and also their willingness to partner with us. This is not just a purchase transaction, this is a true partnership—a long-term partnership.”
This collaboration includes the “sweat equity” component of the agreement, referring to the Habitat for Humanity tradition of building a sense of belonging in new communities by having the future homeowners contribute to the construction of their new home. “It’s easy to become disillusioned working on a 42-unit project, when the local need is in the thousands,” admits Slaybaugh. But working side by side with future homeowners like Norris and getting to know their stories and what the community will mean to them? To Slaybaugh, “That’s what it’s all about.”
On a Habitat for Humanity project, it’s not just the future residents who roll up their sleeves and pitch in to the building process—the local communities also contribute countless hours as a volunteer construction workforce, complementing the expertise of the contractors hired to handle the more technical aspects of the build. For Slaybaugh, the volunteer contributions on the construction site are indispensable. Most days of the week, he and other site organizers, including AmeriCorps members who each spend over ten months working on-site, focus on getting the volunteers to take on tasks that are teachable but not necessarily easy. On a typical Saturday, the group at Esperanza Place ranges from twenty to thirty volunteers helping out with everything from painting to hanging fiberglass sheeting for the building envelope to navigating the stories-high scaffolding and lining up studs that will shape the roof line. In addition to bringing the community together to embrace the new neighbors on the block, Jensen points out that “for some developments, [the volunteers] can make a huge difference financially, because you’re saving on labor for a whole lot of things.”
With the soaring costs of real estate in the region, Habitat EBSV has to get creative in identifying projects that will meet with success. “When we go into a community, it’s very opportunistic,” says Jensen. “We look into where we can get land the jurisdiction owns that they might want to use for affordable housing. Esperanza is a great example of that.” With its goal of providing homeownership opportunities to as many families as possible, the organization tries to build the highest possible density of homes on a given site while working within the bounds of local community regulations. It also relies on generous donations of building materials—for everything from drywall to fasteners—to help keep the costs of construction to a minimum.
Setting aside the donations and the volunteer hours, are there strategies employed by the construction team at Esperanza Place that might support building affordable housing in the Bay Area and beyond? Slaybaugh explains that the team applies the concepts of optimum value engineering to reduce material usage wherever it is safe and practical. For example, he noted their ability to maintain high quality and use less lumber by utilizing 24-inch spacing between wooden uprights in its wall frames, as opposed to the customary 16-inch spacing.
According to project manager Mintenko, Esperanza Place will also be a net-zero energy development. The plan is for the rooftop solar panels (installed on all the buildings by the nonprofit GRID Alternatives) to generate enough electricity to offset all of the energy requirements at the site. She is confident that focusing on the details of sustainable building—like using electric heat pumps for heating and cooling, installing Energy Star appliances, and using energy-efficient insulation and window glazing—will help keep monthly utility bills as low as possible for future homeowners.
Dirt, dust, and mud cling to my boots, legs, and shorts, which are unfortunately too short for the occasion. With each shovelful, anticipation grows among the four of us volunteering in our trench and the three or four onlooking team leaders. One thrust unveils the glimmering blue plastic tag that is meant to roughly mark the whereabouts of the end-pipe in some number of the three dimensions. Another two, three, four strokes, and my shovel strikes gold—in the form of PVC pipe. Amid congratulatory back-patting and gratuitous high-fiving, we’re quickly brought back to earth by the realization that we’ve managed to locate a white pipe rather than the green one that we were meant to find. In what serves as a neat summary of my time spent on the construction site to date, I had almost made a contribution.
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Despite the best efforts of affordable housing developers and advocates across the region, the California Housing Partnership reported that as of 2021, there was “a shortfall of 207,618 affordable homes spanning the nine counties” of the Bay Area. From her perspective on the other side of the bay, Palo Alto City Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims believes that making a dent in the region’s affordability crisis will require local leaders to reconcile their communities’ goals with the policies and mandates coming out of Sacramento. In her view, too many leaders shape the debate as being about “local control versus control of the state.” She proposes that we do away with that binary and instead find common ground in values that we all cherish. “Wouldn’t it be nice if our teachers could live here?” she says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if our seniors could age in place? Wouldn’t it be nice if our young adults, who grew up here and did everything right, could afford a one-bedroom apartment?”
She highlights one such effort to build consensus among regional voters that is currently being undertaken by a local coalition called Bay Area Housing for All. The goal is to raise $10 to $20 billion in public funds to improve housing affordability and combat homelessness via a bond levied on property taxes in the region’s nine counties. The group aims to bring the measure, which they claim would increase taxes by $100 to $200 per year for a million-dollar home, to the November 2024 ballot.
Echoing the strategies that Jensen and her team at Habitat EBSV rely upon, Lythcott-Haims says, “What changes in our mindset are we willing to adopt in order to make room for affordable housing, which, by definition, is denser housing?” One of the remarkable things that helped make Esperanza Place a reality was that the city of Walnut Creek has served as “an absolute champion for the project,” according to Mintenko. This support, combined with funding from Contra Costa County—which also sold the land to Habitat EBSV—and efforts from the local water, sewer, and utilities agencies, was invaluable in ensuring the project’s success.
“It’s not unusual for Habitat to get what the market has rejected,” notes Jensen. But what gives the Las Juntas Way site potential to be an “amazing community,” she says, is its access to good schools, its location a few minutes’ walk from the Pleasant Hill Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) light rail station (the buildings’ windows are rated to block out noise pollution), and its proximity to amenities like the Iron Horse walking and cycling trail that forms one border of the site. “That, to me, is a big sign of success—that when we’re done and our families have moved in, people can’t drive by and say, ‘Oh, that’s the affordable housing,’” says Jensen. The team’s goal is to build a set of new homes that enhances the community that surrounds it.
The housing affordability crisis is often felt particularly acutely by those workers who contribute to communities in the Bay Area but whose incomes are such that they cannot afford to live where they work. For councilmember Lythcott-Haims, it’s clear that “humans do not do well commuting for hours a day. It takes them away from their family. It takes them away from their kids. It’s bad for the environment. It’s bad for traffic.” There is no silver lining. For her, it is paramount that we find areas of our cities where we can make compromises—rethinking zoning laws to construct new homes that are near transit and main streets. “I don’t want us solving our affordable housing problem by relegating people to the edges of town.” Instead, she envisions families of all income levels living together in a community, with proximity to essentials like parks, schools, and fresh groceries.
In her view, one of the direst symptoms of the regional housing crisis is the dramatically declining enrollment at elementary schools in cities like Palo Alto. “That is a direct function of the fact that young families cannot afford to live here. And a city that doesn’t have youth will, one day, hollow out from its core.” If cities in our region are someday forced to shutter schools one by one, Lythcott-Haims believes we’ll look back at this moment and wonder why we didn’t do more to provide affordable housing in our communities.
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It’s clear that as Michael Norris walks me through his unfinished end-unit condo, visions of how he’ll make this place his home are flashing before his eyes. “They say it will look bigger once everything is moved in,” he reports with a hopeful smile, surveying the dimensions of the cozy but comfortable one bed/one bath that will soon become his. He jokes that luckily it’s not any bigger, or he’d constantly run the risk of one family member or another overextending their welcome.
For Norris, the move to Walnut Creek isn’t just about upgrading his scenery and eliminating the stairwell climb he currently faces each day. It’s a chance to do something substantial for his family. On the verge of turning seventy when we meet at the beginning of July, Norris brags that his life is filled to the brim with time spent chasing after his eight grandchildren. “My kids just put all their events on my calendar and I show up where I’m told,” he proclaims, glancing at the time and declaring that he’s got a baby shower to attend at 2 o’clock that day.
He hopes to one day fill the space in Unit 11 with solid-oak furniture—something that lasts forever. As he grows older, he wants to establish the place in Walnut Creek as something permanent for his family. He feels that a home has value not only as a place where the family can gather together—they’ll make good use of the new ball courts and walking trails, to be sure—but also as the start of something intergenerational. With each mortgage payment that he’ll make, he’ll be building a legacy that can set an example for his grandkids and those who will follow after. As he puts it to me on this summer day, with sunlight glinting off the passing BART train windows, “If you don’t grow good roots, you won’t have a strong tree.” ♦
David Palm has been a resident of the Peninsula for the better part of a decade. He honed his affection for the Bay by taking earsplitting BART rides to earsplitting rock shows. Nowadays he prefers quiet afternoons spent hiking and visiting local wineries with friends. This is his print debut.
Jaime Borschuk is an Iowa transplant who has called the Bay Area home since 1999. A portrait and documentary photographer, she lives in the Outer Richmond with her two cats. When she’s not taking photos, she enjoys shopping for potato chips in other countries and practicing classical guitar.