It all started in Walnut Creek cafes, living rooms and churches in 2012. That’s the year East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), Greenbelt Alliance, and several congregations and nonprofits came together to promote equitable development in the City.
In 2012, housing costs were rising – but they hadn’t begun to spike like they have in the last two years, to the point where a two bedroom in a newer Walnut Creek apartment building goes for $3,615/month. This is so far out of reach for the workforce that powers Walnut Creek’s retail-focused downtown, the City’s retired seniors who want to age in place, and other lower-income communities.
At the time we began these conversations, the City wanted to attract investment to its West Downtown and throughout the City. But who would the benefit of that investment go to? Would it go to the top of the market, or could we find a path to balanced, community-serving development through collective action?
We asked ourselves that question as the Greenbelt Alliance and EBHO began organizing a community coalition. Slowly but surely, over meetings, hearings, and coffees, we sparked connections and collaboration as community leaders lifted up the need for “homes we can all afford” and housing solutions that work.
Over years of advocacy, leadership from local faith communities, work with city staff and support from elected leaders, EBHO members and allies built up an affordable housing agenda for Walnut Creek. The City Council’s actions on August 1 were part of a broader movement across the Bay Area in which cities – propelled by communities – are taking the housing crisis into their own hands.
On August 1 we had a few key victories for affordable housing in Walnut Creek but the most important was an increase of the affordable housing fee on new housing development from $15/square foot to $18. Even better, this substantial change includes an annual increase based on the construction cost index, starting January 1, 2018 to ensure the fee keeps up with the market.
We didn’t get everything we wanted. The staff proposal published in May recommended increasing the fee from $15 to $22/square foot. But the city also wanted to increase a traffic fee, which pushed down the affordable housing proposal. Still, this fee has raised between $3 and $4 million dollars per year in recent years, and the 20% increase we won will give a big boost to the resources available for affordable housing preservation and development. This means a sustainable local funding pipeline that will expand housing resources for working families, retired seniors, veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and other low-income populations.
Walnut Creek has now shown Contra Costa County what local leadership on affordable housing can look like, and that it’s possible to create a framework for the balanced development of great communities. Now Walnut Creek has sent this message to San Ramon, Danville, Lafayette and other neighboring communities and stakeholders, including the County Board of Supervisors. Advocates will be in those communities to support affordable housing leadership based on our momentum – and win – in Walnut Creek.
This victory was huge but there’s more work ahead. Walnut Creek needs to commit to strong anti-displacement and tenant protection programs, smart and green transportation options, and to requiring community benefits in exchange for zoning exemptions. These issues are at the forefront of the West Downtown Specific Plan (projected to wrap up at the end of 2017), a development project in an area which recently saw terrible, direct displacement of multi-generational Latino households due to the development of high-end apartments. Additionally, the City’s North Downtown Specific Plan (which is just kicking off), will need community advocacy to secure one of several prime sites for affordable housing development in this opportunity and jobs-rich area.
And we can do it! With the networks that advocates have built in Walnut Creek, Concord, Richmond, and across the County, we will build consciousness, public will, and investment in solutions. The affordable housing movement is building up in Contra Costa, one brick at a time.