When San Mateo County voters passed Measure A in 2012, it was sold as a way to help bridge a funding gap and to ensure that county services such as health care, human services, parks, public safety and other initiatives would not be cut. It was to also provide money to make sure that Seton Medical Center would stay afloat by allocating seismic upgrade money since it provides essential health care services to North County residents.
It was originally estimated to raise about $60 million a year through an increase of the local sales tax of half of 1 percent, though it now generates about $80 million a year. We opposed the measure at the time because it was too soon after the Great Recession and many San Mateo County residents were still feeling the economic effects. This was the same year that saw the state pass Proposition 30, a quarter-cent sales tax increase to raise $6 billion a year for schools. There were many needs across the state and its citizens were still getting their economic bearings while the local measure had a number of loosely defined beneficiaries.
So now four years later, county voters are being asked to extend what was to be a temporary tax set to expire in 2023 for another 20 years. One might think that our reaction would be more along the lines of what we said four years ago. Many of the same issues still hold true. Yet there are very important differences with this proposal, now known as Measure K. The county has had four years to prove it could spend Measure A money wisely. That money has gone to a host of worthwhile programs such as the Big Lift, which provides resources for early education, and also homeless and drug rehabilitation programs along with other basic necessities in the county. And while the economy has definitely turned around, it has left many struggling. The booming nature of this recent cycle has meant there is an exponentially growing need for housing assistance programs.
This county has a long history of planning for affordable housing developments but the recent need has outgrown the effort considerably. And that is where Measure K comes in. The 20-year extension assists the county in its borrowing capability of up to about $200 million to be used for a number of affordable housing developments. That money could be combined with other money from cities, the Housing Endowment and Regional Trust and nonprofits to provide new opportunities for housing at levels that can be afforded by average San Mateo County residents. The money can also be used to expand code enforcement efforts to ensure aging buildings won’t need all tenants evicted for massive upgrades and even assistance for property owners looking to make upgrades without needing to vacate much-needed units and disrupting communities. Older buildings could also be purchased through additional partnerships as a way to keep tenants in place rather than being sold to those looking to rehabilitate and flip swaths of units. The county is also considering an ordinance Oct. 4 that would create a relocation assistance program for tenants evicted from illegal or substandard units. There is much promise in these proposals and it has taken an acute crisis to put nearly every elected official in this county on point when it comes to finding palatable solutions. Even if rents stabilize or go down, the expense of housing will still be high in this area and will likely grow in the future as it has in the recent past.
This crisis is not just born of new jobs. It also comes at the edge of the dissolution of redevelopment agencies which had allowed for partnerships to create affordable housing developments sprinkled throughout the Peninsula. Federal funding that had often allowed city governments to create programs for people to buy homes and stay in them has all but dried up. Low interest rates means new offices and high-rent housing pencil out but developments with an affordable component don’t as easily. And legal questions about inclusionary zoning, which set aside a percentage of new housing developments for below-market rate units, remain.
It is a perfect storm, and out of it comes ideas that can be part of a solution.
Latching affordable housing onto an existing sales tax and providing an extension is not a perfect vehicle, as opponents to this measure rightly point out. County officials had entertained the idea of floating a bond to voters but there wasn’t enough time for polling and outreach, and this situation needs attention sooner rather than later.
Measure K provides an opportunity for county residents to redirect county revenue into affordable housing while allowing county officials more flexibility in financing needed projects sooner rather than later. It is unfortunate we are in this situation in which government money — our money — is needed to ensure our county stays economically diverse and livable. But we are. Measure K will help provide housing to those who need it. It will help alleviate traffic because workers can remain here rather than commuting. But most importantly, it provides hope for many who are being priced out of this area and will help retain our community as it is — with room for all income levels.