HERE - Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California

Prepared Remarks
Housing California Conference
Sacramento, CA
April 29, 2015
I am honored to speak in this room. As a housing activist, I spoke to this very
plenary session over 9 years ago, and I can’t believe you invited me back.
Last night, I stopped by your party, “Housers After Dark.” As I met conferencegoers over drinks, I learned two things:
(1) You guys can party. If our top housing leaders could enter into dance
competitions against the political opponents to affordable housing, we would
be unstoppable.
(2) The second thing I heard was your stories - of how each of you are
fighting in your communities for more housing, often fighting alone or with
a small group of allies.
I thank you for what you’re doing and want to let you know that you are not
alone. This week, we’re coming together - 1,200 strong Housers of California are
here at Housing California - to talk about how why 2015 should be the Year for
Last night, Housing California’s executive director Shamus Roller asked me to tell
a little of my story of how I became a Houser. My story is likely not different from
many of yours.
Twenty years ago, after growing up the first kid in my immigrant family, I moved
from the East Coast to California, because there is something special about our
state that draws all of us from around the world (at least until we discover there’s
no housing here). I spent brief periods of time in Berkeley, Pasadena and
Huntington Beach, before settling in San Francisco, where I’ve lived for the last
two decades as a tenant.
Shortly after I arrived in San Francisco, I discovered that within blocks of where I
live, thousands of residents are crammed into SROs, in single rooms off a hallway,
often 3, 4, 5 family members in 10-by-15 foot rooms. As someone from an
immigrant family, I’ll note that many of our SRO residents in my city are
immigrants, but many are also second- and third- generation Californians.
About once a year, I would show up at the scene of a fire in one of these buildings
- and see the burned out belongings of seniors, families, artists and students who
live in real poverty. This is not how residents in the 7th-largest economy of the
world are supposed to live.
The one and only recurring nightmare I’ve had about my neighbors and
constituents is that the Big One – the major earthquake – hits, and thousands of my
neighbors in SROs perish because we weren’t able to stabilize their buildings.
Like all of you at some point in your lives, I decided I needed to get involved in
housing, and thus started my evolution toward becoming a Houser. Some housing
activist friends asked me to join and then chair the board of an affordable housing
nonprofit, the Chinatown Community Development Center, an organization that
has developed affordable housing for several thousand low-income, immigrant
At the time, I was a civil rights attorney and learned that Governor Gray Davis’s
Administration here in Sacramento had decided to continue an anti-immigrant
policy of Governor Pete Wilson that required affordable housing property
managers to verify the citizenship of residents in affordable housing.
But because of leaders in this room, we brought a lawsuit on behalf of several
dozen housing organizations against the state - and we won.
Because of leaders in this room, I came and spoke at this very Housing California
conference as a grassroots activist, when we came together from around the state to
fight for the last state housing bond, Proposition 1C in 2006, for $2.8B – and we
Because of leaders in this room, while I served as the president of San Francisco’s
Board of Supervisors, we passed a dozen bills to move forward a housing agenda to legalize in-laws, to regulate short-term rentals, to strengthen inclusionary laws,
and to build affordable housing.
Three things I learned:
(1) All of us are fighting in our individual communities - often as lonely
warriors - without knowing what we’re all doing around the state. But we
win the big fights when we come together;
(2) The roads lead to Sacramento, where policymakers need to convinced,
and sometimes dragged kicking and screaming, to do the right thing;
(3) Because of leaders in this room, this organization - Housing California has led these fights and won.
I want to thank Housing California for your cutting edge work in providing
services for homeless youth, for formerly incarcerated individuals, for homeless
women and children on CalWorks.
These are important lessons today as we face the most severe affordable housing
crisis in the history of our state.
I usually brag about my city of San Francisco - and not just about the three World
Series trophies of our little baseball team, but about how we were the first city to
establish a living wage, to have universal health care, to allow marriage
equality. What happens in our city reflects trends that move to other parts of our
Unfortunately, San Francisco also happens to be Ground Zero for the affordable
housing crisis.
We have the dubious honor of having the highest rents in the country, the highest
home prices in the state. Where 60 percent of our low-income residents spend over
half their income on rent, and thousands of evictions and residents have been
forced out of our city in recent years.
My friends from outside of California make fun of the fact that despite while I
stand in front of you as the Assistant Speaker pro Tempore of the California State
Assembly, married to a public interest attorney, our combined income does not
qualify us for an average 2-bedroom condo in the neighborhoods I’ve represented
for the past 6 years.
Unfortunately, as goes San Francisco, so goes California.
Think about this: nine out of ten of the most expensive cities in the country are in
California. We live in a state with 12% of the U.S. population but 20% of our
country’s homeless, 25% of our homeless vets, 33% of our nation’s chronically
homeless. We have half a million homeless kids - and as of today’s newspaper
reports, a million and a half families who don’t have access to an affordable home.
In 2015, having a roof over your head shouldn’t be a luxury. This is not the
California dream.
You’ve seen the numbers. But more importantly, every one of you - because you
are Housers - you know their faces. You know their names.
Of the farm worker living in a shack in the Central Valley. Of the senior living in a
mobile home in the Inland Empire. Of the vet living on the streets in downtown
LA. Of the ex-offender who finally did his time and is out, but doesn’t have a place
to go in Stockton. Of the immigrant family living in an SRO in San Francisco’s
Chinatown or Mission district.
You also know that our state is experiencing skyrocketing inequality, an inequality
driven by the lack of affordable housing.
Twenty-four hours ago, the California Housing Partnership announced that our
state’s lowest income households spend not 1/3, not 1/2, but 2/3rd of their income
on housing. That’s no money for food, health care, bus fare, clothes for the kids.
One and a half million low-income households - from San Diego, Orange County,
LA and the Inland Empire to the Bay Area and the North Coast - do not have
access to affordable housing.
Federal poverty rates sadly do not include housing costs, because when you factor
in housing costs, the percentage of Californians living below poverty climbs 37%
(from 16 to 22%).
What kind of state are we living in? We have a tale of two states, being driven by
the fact that the rent is too damn high.
I can throw out multiple theories, statistics or data as to why we got here. But
instead, I’m going to give one reason: we weren’t organized enough. When
Governor Brown decided to eliminate redevelopment, we weren’t organized
enough. When Prop 1C housing bond funds dried up, we weren’t organized
enough. When the Great Recession hit, and budgets were cut, we weren’t
organized enough. We’ve lost $1.5 billion per year that used to fund affordable
housing in the state, because we’re haven’t been organized enough.
Today’s times may seem bleak, but as the saying goes, it’s always darkest before
dawn, and I daresay that saying applies to politics.
Every major political movement comes when there’s a real crisis. The civil rights
movement started 50 years ago with firehoses at Selma. Obama’s Affordable Care
Act came after 47 million Americans were uninsured. Wall Street’s Dodd-Frank
reforms didn’t happen until our financial system collapsed with the Great
Recession. Let me tell you why I have real hope that 2015 will be the Year of the
When I first came to Sacramento five months ago, I had no idea if anyone would
care about affordable housing. I decided that my first bill would be about housing
financing. I asked housing advocates how much money could we reasonably
propose before getting laughed out of Sacramento? Housing advocates said I
should propose increasing the affordable housing tax credit by about 50% - adding
$40 million to the current $70 million. That was my first bill, AB 35, introduced
on my first day, December 1st.
But then I found an amazing political partner, a true housing champion. Her name
is Speaker Toni Atkins. She happens to be the Speaker of the Assembly. She
asked a question no one else did - a bold question of vision - “how much do we
need?” Given that our state has lost $1.5 billion a year, we’ve decided to call that
Today, AB 35 would quadruple the affordable housing tax credit, from $70 million
to $300 million. That $300 million would leverage $600 million of federal tax
credits and federal tax-exempt bonds - for a total of $900 million.
It would also increase the percentage of state credits that developers can use on 4%
federal credit projects from the current 13% to 50% and allow funds to be used for
developments for extremely low-income, SRO, rural or special needs residents.
As a progressive Democrat, I have to tell you that I was pleasantly surprised that
Republican colleagues have agreed to support our bill, which strengthens a publicprivate approach to more affordable housing.
This bill is supported not just by advocates for our poor, labor and working
families, but by the business community, which recognizes that workers need
housing and the jobs that come from building housing; and just yesterday, the
California Chamber of Commerce called AB 35 one of the top job creator bills of
But for Speaker Atkins and me, and for everyone in this room, AB 35 isn’t
enough. Speaker Atkins has proposed another $500 million a year for a permanent
funding source for affordable housing - through AB 1335.
This would be on a small $75 fee on real estate transaction documents, excluding
home sales, which would leverage another $2-3 billion of federal, local and bank
investments. Twenty of this money will go to encourage homeownership.
We lost the permanent source fight last year, and Speaker Atkins is termed out in
2016. We have a small window - and we need to get this done this year.
We’ve built a significant coalition to get this done - from labor to business,
affordable housing, tenant and progressive advocates. We have 150 organizations
in support of our bill, which sounds like a lot. But as point of comparison, last
year, when the legislature was debating the last permanent funding source
proposal, we had 700 organizations - and we lost.
We need you to organize, organize, organize! To pass the permanent source bill,
we need 2/3rd of both the Assembly and the Senate. My guess is there may not be
a single person in this room who can call each of the 120 legislators in our state
legislature. But I’d also guess that we can divide up this room so that each
legislator can get calls from 50 people in this room.
And then we need to convince Governor Brown. While I’m a big fan of Governor
Brown’s, he has many competing budget priorities - our schools, our roads, our
health care system, high-speed rail, the drought.
We need the Governor to understand that if we build more affordable housing, it’s
not just about housing - we reduce poverty, health care & social service costs,
unemployment rolls. Your average homeless person in California incurs $3,000 a
month in county costs for emergency room visits, hospital stays, arrests and
incarceration - and when that person has housing, 80% of those costs go away.
Educating our legislature - educating our Governor - that’s where you come in.
You are the ground troops and field marshals for how we live in California - how
we house CA - how we build community. YOU ARE HOUSERS.
I have a law school classmate who recently gave a speech where he announced his
candidacy for United State President. Senator Ted Cruz decided to echo John
Lennon’s lyrics, asking us to imagine his vision of a conservative presidency. I
have to admit, Ted Cruz and I don’t agree on much - but we both agree that
activists need to imagine.
Even if we win all of these measures this year, our work is not done. Let me close
by asking you to imagine, as Housers:
--Picture the woman in your community who is beaten every few weeks by her
partner, who can’t leave because she can’t afford to pay rent for herself, her 8 year
old, her 2 year old. Now imagine that one day we have a shelter system that takes
care of every domestic violence victim or survivor, every woman and child as they
transition to a new life.
--Picture the vet coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, dealing with PTSD and
living on the streets. Now imagine that one day, we protect all of those who
protected our homeland, and we end veterans homelessness once and for all.
--Picture the runaway kid, in a state that has 1 out of 4 homeless kids in our
country, where 40% of our homeless kids are LGBT, picture the runaway kid,
targeted by the pimp, the drug dealer, the human trafficker. Now imagine a day
when we have transitional age housing for every young person who needs it.
--Picture one family in desperate need of affordable housing. Now picture 10
families in a room; 100 families in a shelter; 10,000 in a stadium. Now imagine
that one day we’ve built 1.5 million homes, and Californians get to say the
American Dream is alive and well in the Golden State.
--Picture the politicians who saying we need housing, but never vote to provide it,
to prioritize it. Now imagine that one day, this year, our policymakers and the
public actually believe and understand that housing is a civil right, a human right, a
moral obligation.
Thank you for imagining with me. Now it’s up to you.