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A Novel Solution to SF's Housing Crisis: Sue the Suburbs 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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For many, the Bay Area's absurd real estate prices are a simple matter of supply and demand. The obvious solution — build more housing — is stymied by reluctant, slow-growth cities.

But imagine if pro-development activists could compel cities to build the region out of its housing crisis. The San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (or, woefully, SFBARF) thinks it's possible.

SFBARF alleges that the East Bay city of Lafayette recently passed up an opportunity to build hundreds of apartments priced within reach of middle-income earners. SFBARF organizer Brian Hanlon said that in doing so, Lafayette violated state law — and isn't the Bay Area's only bad actor.

If SFBARF can file and win a legal case against Lafayette and force the city to build the affordable housing project it rejected, there's nothing to stop SFBARF from sighting its crosshairs on other cities.

"Lafayette is the beginning, not the end," said Hanlon, who called this legal territory largely unexplored. "We're going to learn a lot of things from Lafayette."

Though he wouldn't name the next city on his group's list, Hanlon said he's keeping an eye on the tech-friendly South Bay.

"They're welcoming tons of new office space, and those new workers are not going to be the ones that suffer," he said. "They're going to displace low-income communities."

SFBARF's argument hinges on the California Housing Accountability Act, a 1982 measure that allows a citizen to sue a local government to potentially force approval of low-to-middle-income housing projects — even after a city squashed such developments.

It's unclear how many of these housing projects have been illegally rejected in recent years. But data from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) shows that counties overwhelmingly prefer to build housing for high earners. Between 2007 and 2014, 69 percent of all construction permits in the Bay Area were for homes too expensive for even moderate earners making up to 120 percent of the area's median income.

The same ABAG also recommended how much housing counties should build for each income bracket. No local county satisfied a single quota — except one. Santa Clara County, home to Google, issued 20 percent more permits for expensive homes than the Association suggested.

SFBARF is still crafting a long-term strategy to take on local governments. The organization itself can't sue Lafayette or any other city; instead, it will sue on behalf of someone who could have lived in the rejected housing project. To recruit such a litigant, Hanlon and Sonja Trauss, SFBARF's founder, created the website SueTheSuburbs.org.

A legal campaign won't be cheap, so Hanlon and Trauss also formed a sister organization called the California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund, which, if it obtains nonprofit status, could accept tax-deductible donations.

A win against Lafayette might discourage other Bay Area governments from nixing similar housing projects. "The most powerful thing is the threat of litigation itself," Trauss said.

About The Author

Noah Arroyo

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