Article Special Series Greg Keidan

Addressing California’s Housing Shortage: Lessons from San Mateo County

Greg Keidan is program coordinator for the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative and can be reached at

Californians are facing a critical housing shortage, particularly in affordable or workforce housing. The number of new homes falls significantly below present and predicted needs, and it is increasingly difficult for Californians to afford homeownership or even rental prices. California has the highest median home prices in the nation and is currently ranked as the least affordable state. Its homeownership rate is the fourth lowest nationally, with just 58 percent of residents owning homes.

Much of the responsibility for creating affordable housing falls to local governments. State law imposes a variety of obligations on communities to provide housing for people of all income levels, and many local officials are personally committed to expanding housing opportunities. Common reasons to support affordable housing include strengthening the local economy, enabling people to live near their work and providing shelter for disadvantaged or vulnerable populations, including the elderly.

While cities are legally required to announce and hold public hearings on pro-posed development or zoning changes, some find it advantageous to organize earlier and more in-depth dialogues involving residents and local leadership.

Redwood City Council Member and former Mayor Barbara Pierce explains, “Involving the public in housing decisions and planning airs their concerns and perspectives on the community and can enable policy-makers and planners to develop housing that fits within the community. It involves sharing the bigger picture about community needs and working together to create solutions with more support and understanding.” She adds, “Potentially it creates a constituency for change rather than a constituency for divisive legal actions.”

According to a recent study conducted by city and county governments, San Mateo County will need 73,000 additional housing units by 2025 to accommodate predicted population and job growth. If housing continues to be built at the current rate in the county, the community would face a shortage of 35,000 to 49,000 units.

Addressing the Gap Between What’s Needed and What’s Available

Pierce helped plan and facilitate an ambitious public engagement initiative in San Mateo County called Threshold 2008. This ongoing project has thus far engaged more than 800 residents through a countywide two-day assembly, an online web dialogue and smaller “community conversations” hosted by volunteers. According to Threshold 2008 Executive Director Greg Greenway, this project aims to address the growing gap between the number of homes available and the number needed to accommodate future needs. He says, “Typically you hear mostly from people saying ’no’ when you try to make changes in local government. We wanted to create a constituency of people saying ’yes.’”

Organizers raised close to $1 million for the project and collaborated with Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy as well as a private organization specializing in public engagement.

This process was openly designed to create the conditions that would result in support for new housing development. Local leaders such as County Supervisor Rich Gordon and business and civic leader Tom Bailard believed that the growing gap between the amount of available, affordable housing and the demand for it was an important issue that could not be addressed within the traditional planning system.

Threshold’s Greenway explains that there was a bottleneck at the approval process for new development. Opposition at public hearings or through voter initiative had often prevented new homes from being built, leading to existing homes becoming less affordable.

By educating a diverse cross section of residents about the need for more housing and asking for their input about where this housing should be and what it should look like, organizers hope to build consensus to address the housing shortage and make it possible for workers who provide vital services — such as teachers, firefighters and police — to afford homes in the area.

So far the results are promising. An initial phone survey of 1,822 residents found that 38 percent thought there was a need for more housing in the county. But after participating in a weekend assembly on housing choices, 68 percent of the 238 randomly selected interviewees supported this view.

Strategies for Broader Participation Succeed

Pierce points out that the input generated by the Threshold 2008 process was particularly valuable to local leaders because “it provided perspectives from a broad spectrum of people, different than those that we might see in a public hearing. Both the information and the process are important in helping our community plan for the changes that are needed to create more housing. I believe the working sessions were more helpful for the community and the developer than the typical route with public hearings and modifications after plans have been submitted.”

San Mateo Mayor Carol Groom observes, “What we learned from the public is that they want to be equal partners in a housing development project, and they want to be involved from the very beginning — not just midway or three-quarters of the way through the process when it is going to come up for a vote. People don’t want to be seen as obstructionist, they want to be seen as partners — this is their neighborhood, too! Engaging the public early generates great benefits as you proceed. As we say at the hospital where I work, a little prevention at the front end saves you a lot of frustration at the back end, and that is really true in city planning.”

Local leaders appreciated the thoughtful design of the Threshold 2008 process. “Meetings are very helpful when community members have time to receive background data about the issues, time to share their unique perspectives and concerns, and then time to work with each other around the table to examine the situation and develop some thoughts about concerns and choices. Having neutral facilitators who can work with the residents as they discuss the topics is also key,” says Council Member Pierce. Mayor Groom believes that using a combination of large group presentations and smaller breakout groups and workshops worked well, and having issue experts available to answer participants’ questions was also very helpful.

Peter Ingram, city manager of Redwood City, adds, “You have to create a venue and process in which participants get good information, have the opportunity to get their questions answered and then engage in brainstorming or visioning in small, safe groups. This takes resources and time, but it’s worth it.”

Affordable Housing Resources

For a list of publications on affordable housing in California, visit

This article appears in the October 2008 issue of Western City
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