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Redwood City tackles affordable housing with ‘bold move’

Live/Work is intended to reduce the impacts of the jobs/housing imbalance, mitigate displacement pressures and provide environmental benefits, city officials said.
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In what the Redwood City mayor called a “bold move,” City Council recently voted to adopt amendments to its affordable housing ordinance that would favor applicants who live and work within the community over those who don’t. 

The ordinance would now require developers who plan to provide affordable housing units to give preference to applicants “who live, formerly lived, work or are offered employment in the city of Redwood City” before considering others who may want to reside in Redwood City. 

The Sept. 27 vote to approve the amendment came after the council expressed unanimous and enthusiastic support for the Live/Work preference two weeks before. 

“We’ve been saying this for years that we need to do something to address that we have a staggering number of people who would love to stay in Redwood City, relocate in Redwood City, (who) may have an opportunity, or are in jeopardy of leaving,” Mayor Diane Howard, who did not respond to a request for comment, said on Sept. 13. “And here we have a chance to really make a difference at a local level.”

Redwood City Councilmember Diana Reddy said that "less than 10 percent of affordable units were going to Redwood City residents.”

“It’s not appropriate that such a low number of affordable housing is going to people outside of the community,” Reddy said in a phone interview with the Pulse. 

Councilmember Lissette Espinoza-Garnica echoed Reddy and said the Live/Work preference would prioritize those with ties to Redwood City who need affordable housing. 

One hundred percent of affordable housing units built in compliance with the city’s updated code will go toward the Live/Work preference, said Alin Lancaster, the city’s Housing Leadership manager. She added that the policy would not affect market-rate units.

The amended ordinance will go into effect at the end of October, Lancaster said. However, any developer applications completed on or after April 26 will also be subject to the amendment, she said. 

The council also approved clarifications to the ordinance. The changes in the Affordable Housing Ordinance specify that residential and nonresidential developers build affordable housing units concurrently with new developments and deliver them before or at the time the property is made, according to the amendment to Article 29 of the Redwood City zoning code. Still, the city does allow for alternative ways to meet the requirement, including by paying an impact fee and or by providing off-site affordable housing.

More Jobs, fewer homes

According to a study commissioned by the city this year, Redwood City “added eight times as many jobs as housing permits” between 2010 and 2018, which has caused a significant jobs/housing imbalance and growing demand from workers for additional housing. The imbalance has caused a severe strain on lower-income families, according to the study.

Lancaster said Redwood City’s Live/Work preference was created as a way to address the imbalance. 

Espinoza-Garnica said high-income earners who move into the city and drive up rent costs push out low-income residents, whom businesses need for their low-wage, unfilled jobs, they added. 

“Those jobs that aren’t glamorous, hard, laborious jobs….," they said, adding that low-paying jobs can include work in cafes and restaurants, or housework and day laborers.

And households will also need amenities, too, the Redwood City native said.

“Like custodians and gardening, all those people need places to live,” Espinoza-Garnica said. “So if we prioritize Live/Work, that means that people who do these low-paying jobs can also live here in Redwood City, which has so many amenities and is the county seat." 

According to Lancaster, the Live/Work preference would also help Redwood City families displaced due to any city activity, such as public projects or code enforcement. Under this policy, displaced residents could return to Redwood City if they chose, Lancaster noted.  

Displacement pressures and gentrification due to the rising cost of housing can have a lasting negative impact on the overall health of low-income residents and their families, according to information from the Urban Displacement Project at UC Berkeley. People of color, in particular, have been disproportionately affected as a result, according to the project.

"And for the most part, (people of color) come from families who are impoverished and working class,” Espinoza-Garnica said. “There isn’t really a way for working-class people to escape poverty through just hard work, which I think is the myth of the American Dream. A lot of people come with a history of poverty in their family and they couldn’t just pull themselves up from their bootstraps to resolve it all.”

Roughly 40 percent of households in Redwood City are cost-burdened and pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to the city's study. Another 17 percent or 5,400 households pay more than half of their income on rent, the study showed.

Lancaster said the Live/Work preference would have a tertiary effect in its environmental benefits. Less than 15 percent of Redwood City's low-wage earners live in the city, according to the city's study.

Many people have to travel far to get to jobs that pay well, Espinoza-Garnica said, recalling their experience as an employee at a restaurant where coworkers drove from as far away as Monterey.

By adding the preference to the city’s code, city officials said they hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging low-income workers who may drive long distances to work in RWC, to shorten their commute.

But some argue that the amended ordinance does not go far enough. 

Evelyn Stivers, executive director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, said that the city has done a “great job in creating more affordable homes in the last few years, thanks largely to their jobs/housing linkage fee and new leadership.”

Specifically, she said, with their requirement to developers to partner with affordable housing providers when building new office parks. HLC is a nonprofit that collaborates with community leaders to provide affordable housing services to those who need them.

“But the net effect is still more office than housing,” she said. "Which means the city is still causing traffic, displacement, and worker shortages that impact neighboring jurisdictions without the financial benefit that Redwood City receives through the new taxes.”  

Redwood City will receive tax revenue from businesses located in the city, but neighboring cities such as Hayward, Fremont, East Palo Alto will not, she added. Those cities will need to come up with revenue to offset increases caused by Redwood City's increase in jobs, Stivers said.

She also said she wishes the ordinance were broader and included relatives of those who live in Redwood City but live in neighboring areas. 

“I understand why the council is adopting the Live/Work preference because our region has such a terrible shortage of affordable homes,” Stivers said. “But many people need to live close to their support networks. That might be a doctor, a service provider, a mom, a son, or a good friend that is willing to help out when you need it." 

The Live/Work preference does not extend into the North Fair Oaks community, Lancaster said. It’s unclear whether the preference applies to students who go into Redwood City for school but live outside the city.

“Additionally, communities like North Fair Oaks are so close to Redwood City,” Stivers said. “Claiming that area is not part of the 'community' seems very closed-minded.” 

Lancaster said that the city’s study analyzed only incorporated Redwood City and would need to expand its scope to study the impacts of a preference that included neighboring communities. 

When exploring how the Live/Work preference could impact the city, officials looked at policies from various neighboring jurisdictions, but it was not modeled after any other city, Lancaster said. 

At the Sept. 13 meeting, Howard, who supported the possibility of including North Fair Oaks at a later date, stopped short of inviting and offering the policy to neighboring cities. She did, however, offer a suggestion. 

“But, to surrounding communities, I’d say, please do the same….Please do what we’re preparing to do, which is a bold move,” Howard said. "And build more housing and offer this Live/Work preference to your communities.

“We’d really appreciate the help to bring down the jobs and housing imbalance.”

Pulse Reporter Leah Worthington contributed to this report. 

Michelle Iracheta is the editor at the Redwood City Pulse, a local news site dedicated to providing accurate and timely news to the Redwood City community. Michelle can be reached at miracheta@rwcpulse.com, on Twitter, on Facebook, and by phone at 832-729-2105. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.




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Michelle Iracheta

About the Author: Michelle Iracheta

Michelle Iracheta is the editor at the Redwood City Pulse. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Seattle Times and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Michelle, a Houston native, is married and has two dogs.
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