Editorial: Unshackle Measure A

In 2016, county voters overwhelmingly agreed to tax themselves and spend $950 million to address the housing crisis and shelter more than 5,000 homeless persons.

A year later, developers showed up for a November 2017 Board of Supervisors meeting to receive project approvals but were mugged instead. Officials surprised homebuilders with an 11th hour requirement that they sign over their properties. “Just, I think, about 45 minutes ago, I agreed to deed over the land to the county for Leigh Avenue,” First Community Housing CEO Geoffrey Morgan said to nervous laughter.

“We learned shortly before the meeting today of the county’s desire to purchase the land,” Cupertino planner Kerri Heusler told the board, adding that the city’s 19 affordable units were financed and on a “tight timeline.”

Somos Mayfair’s Gabriel Hernandez said he was “a little anxious in terms of the development of the Quetzal Gardens Housing Project. We were hoping to have this pass through today, and I’m just wondering why there’s going to be a delay in that. I’m going to have to go back to the families that we’ve been working with and try and explain to them that they’re working out some kind of thing around what we call security interest vs. equity interest and ownership.”

Supervisor Cindy Chavez announced from the podium that she would vote down the housing unless the county held title to the lands. That bullying move certainly wasn’t part of the Measure A language approved by voters. We’re pretty sure they wanted to get as many homeless and mentally ill people out of tents and off the streets—as quickly as possible. Supervisors Joe Simitian and Mike Wasserman buckled to the political hardball and withdrew their doomed approval motion.

As the projects lurch forward and the housing crisis worsens, supervisors need to make sure the public gets its billion dollars’ worth and that our elected officials maximize the number of roofs over people’s heads. Do we need to wait until another local woman is raped by a tent dweller to realize that mental health and supportive services are needed now, not years in the future?

Attaching conditions to make it harder to build housing just complicates things. The county has already unnecessarily spent $12 million to buy the dirt underneath four projects, including Gilroy’s Gateway Senior Apartments and Morgan Hill’s The Crossings on Monterey, and lease it back for $1 a year. That’s not money well spent, and is inconsistent with the will of the voters.

The county needs to make more deals happen and gain as much leverage as possible on the voter-approved funds. That means forgoing socialist land ownership ideals and supporting inclusionary units in mixed housing projects, rather than just segregating people with severe social problems in homogenized projects that impact neighborhoods.

It also means allowing project-based vouchers (PBVs) to be applied to a broader range of affordable housing options, including housing for teachers, public safety workers and other vital members of the workforce.

With independent Susan Ellenberg now on the Board of Supervisors, a back-scratching majority no longer dominates. It’s time for lone Republican Wasserman, the South Valley’s sole representative, to stand up and demand fiscal responsibility with marketplace competition to get the best deals for taxpayers instead of just going with the flow.

Ensuring that the next $700 million in Measure A money attracts as broad a pool of bidders as possible—by not creating too many restrictions—will be a good test. Micromanagement creates barriers to execution. The supes should focus instead on expanding the housing stock quickly and building as many affordable units as possible rather than getting hung up on who owns the land or gets the vouchers.

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