In an ongoing effort to shore up affordable housing throughout the South Bay, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors are considering a $750 million bond for the November ballot that would help pay for new homes for veterans, seniors, low-income families and the homeless.
Earlier this year, the board signed a resolution stating that homelessness in Santa Clara County constitutes a "crisis," with unacceptable costs in terms of both public resources and human suffering. What's more, the resolution called on individual cities to do their parts and increase the availability of below-market rate and affordable housing to stem the tide of residents falling into homelessness.
Similarly, the board of supervisors is trying to find ways to do the same. In February, the board voted unanimously to test the mood of Santa Clara County voters to see whether residents would support a countywide affordable-housing measure. And it turns out that the support could be there.
Last week, the firm EMC Research found that roughly two-thirds of likely voters in Santa Clara County would support a $750 million general obligation bond to build low-income and supportive housing geared toward veterans, seniors, low-income families, the homeless and other "disadvantaged residents," including victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse.
Of the 805 residents polled, 31 percent believed that housing was the most important issue facing Santa Clara County, beating out transportation, crime and public safety, jobs creation and education. It's also a big change from previous years, according to Ruth Bernstein of EMC Research. In 2005, just 11 percent of those polled said housing was the most important issue -- specifically housing for low-income residents.
"There is significant support for a measure that would focus resources on increasing the number of affordable housing units in the county," according to a staff report.
Following arguments for and against the housing bond measure, and explaining that it would cost property owners $14 per $100,000 of assessed value, Bernstein said support drops to just below the two-thirds majority required to pass a measure. But with the right public messaging from a private, positive campaign, she said, the measure could succeed in November.
"We do think there is an opportunity, and it is worth considering, given these numbers," Bernstein said.
The board of supervisors agreed in a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Joe Simitian absent, to have county staff flesh out exactly what the general obligation bond would look like and how the money would be spent. The board is expected to review a resolution by August, in time for the November ballot.
"Our polling results shows a very strong concern among voters about our lack of affordable housing as well as support for a measure to pay for it," Board President Dave Cortese said in a statement following the meeting. "Now we need to get down to the details so that our voters have a clear picture of what we are asking them to support."
Some of the greatest support for an affordable-housing measure came from Santa Clara County's fifth district, which encompasses North County cities including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and part of Sunnyvale. Of those polled in the region, 62 percent consistently supported a potential ballot measure, regardless of arguments for or against, and regardless of the cost -- the most of any district.
Voter support for a ballot measure is expected to be highest among residents who do not typically vote in elections, but are expected to cast their ballot in the November presidential election, which Bernstein said indicates that the county has a rare opportunity now, but probably not if it's delayed to the 2018 election.
"Many of those voters will show up to vote in this presidential election because that's when they tend to vote, in these big turnout elections," Bernstein said. "They tend to be younger, maybe more progressive, and much more likely to be renters who are more concerned about housing issues."
Jennifer Loving, executive director of the supportive housing agency Destination Home, told the board that she was "thrilled" that there's an opportunity to build new housing for the most vulnerable residents in Santa Clara County.
"New money can go a long way to ending our homelessness crisis," Loving said.
Supervisor Ken Yeager said public support could waver depending on the specific details of the bond. The polling showed enough public support, he said, but it's not clear whether those polled were hoping for rental units or homes, and whether they would support high density developments.
"We're going to need a certain level of detail so people can understand what they're supporting," Yeager said.
Cortese said he wondered whether the scope of the housing bond could be extended to middle-income families as well, recalling recent data that found only 17 percent of the residents in Santa Clara County could actually afford to buy a home. He said a lot of people feel like they are caught up in the affordability crisis in the Bay Area, and it'd be hard to go wrong building housing for broad number of people.
"The need for housing is so severe across the board that it's pretty hard to make a mistake investing in housing," Cortese said. "It's not like you can invest in the wrong sector of housing and waste your money. There's just a tremendous need."
As the details of the ballot measure are fleshed out, Yeager suggested that the county seek public input from city leaders across all 15 cities in Santa Clara County, and get a feel for what kind of development might be feasible in local communities.
The worry, Yeager said, is that the bond might end up being used to bolster affordable housing in San Jose instead of the far-flung communities that haven't done enough to build more housing for low-income residents.