Seniors Embrace Affordable Housing Campaigns

by on August 27, 2019

Enlisting Seniors in the Pro-Housing Movement

I spoke about my book Generation Priced Out to the all-senior Rossmoor Democratic Club last week. It has over 1000 members, which I’m told makes it the nation’s largest. The Club recently featured a talk on climate change by Washington Governor and former presidential candidate Jay Inslee; its interests transcend typical “senior” issues.

Considering I criticize boomers who oppose new apartments, I was uncertain how my arguments would resonate at Rossmoor. But most of the crowd appreciated hearing why cities must build more housing to increase affordability. And many of these very activist seniors openly embraced connecting to the affordable housing cause locally, statewide and the Democrats’ presidential nominating contest ( I urged them, along with everyone else, to connect to Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020).

Some mistakenly view Rossmoor, a community of 9000 located in the Bay Area suburb of Walnut Creek, as a community of rich seniors. But the community actually reflects the demographic patterns of all high-housing cost cities: many if not most residents bought their homes before housing prices skyrocketed. A woman in the audience said that she was able to buy her home at Rossmoor for only $178,000; today, most vacant lots the Bay Area sell for more.

Senior-YIMBY Alliance

Like other senior communities in high-housing cost areas, Rossmoor residents recognize that an aging population needs more housing options than the “one size fits all” approach of single-family zoning (Rossmoor has many multi-unit buildings along with single family homes). This helps explain why the AARP, whose California chapter endorsed Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner’s SB 50, is becoming a critical ally of what has been a millennial-driven YIMBY movement.

AARP’s 2019 report, “Making Room for a Changing America,” urges cities to take two major steps:

  1. “Evolve local zoning codes. Don’t continue to ban creative, flexible housing solutions, or place so many onerous requirements on projects that make them infeasible,
  2. Re-legalize the kinds of compact, walkable neighborhoods that can support transit, or neighborhood businesses by allowing “missing middle” housing types—like duplexes, triplexes, and quads—in more places.

This action plan parallels the YIMBY agenda.  Madeline Kovacs of the Sightline Institute wrote a great analysis of the report, “Age-Friendly Housing Will Be Smaller, Shared, and Flexible,” and its applicability to current policy debates.

It’s great that the nation’s leading senior advocacy group favors increased housing density. But AARP’s involvement only makes a difference if its members learn about their pro-housing stance and convey their support to politicians.

YIMBYs must make outreach to seniors a priority.

Expanding Outreach

I have noticed a potential split between the boomer-dominated homeowner groups that oppose new multi-unit buildings and the aging boomers that need such housing. As I stated in “Winning Boomers Over on Housing” many boomers are unaware that fourplexes cannot be built in their neighborhood. At Rossmoor, the crowd seemed shocked to learn that you can’t even build three units or more in most of San Francisco!

Many attending my talk wore campaign buttons. These are the folks who put the time in during national elections making phone calls into swing states and congressional districts.

That this crowd of seasoned political activists was not up to speed on land use and housing policies is not their fault.

It’s ours.

We spend too much time talking to those already engaged in housing policy. Our debates make it easy to forget that the general activist community is not on Housing Twitter. Nor are they on housing email action lists. They learn about state or national housing bills or local zoning measures via traditional media channels, which often do not cover them.

That’s why advocates for more inclusive housing policies need to prioritize expanding outreach and education beyond those regularly on social media. Traditional organizing and outreach strategies are a must. This is critical to winning local, state and national campaigns

Organizing for State Legislation

I spoke at Rossmoor after the local Assembly member Rebecca Bauer-Kahan was among the many Democrats who failed to back ACA 1. The bill would have reduced the support needed to pass affordable housing bonds from 66.6% to 55%. Cities have lost billions in affordable housing dollars as a result of the Prop 13-imposed 2/3 requirement to pass bonds, and ACA 1 is badly needed.

Nobody in this room of around 150 activists was aware of either of ACA 1 or Bauer-Kahan’s vote. Many are strong supporters of her, and were surprised by her lack of support for affordable housing.

But how would the Rossmoor Democrats have learned of the need to contact their representative when nobody contacted them about the bill? And why was there so little publicity around ACA 1 in the first place?

Bauer-Kahan and fellow Democrats should have backed ACA 1 without hearing from their political allies. But the lack of outreach to supporters left these Assembly members hearing only from other constituents—-those opposing the bill.

I brought up David Chiu’s AB 1482 (statewide rent caps and just cause eviction) and Nancy Skinner’s SB 330 (expedites housing approval and prevents downzoning) which the Rossmoor activists also knew nothing about. Yet these activists are in a district with a swing Democrat on both measures.

Housing activists trying to pass state measures need more organizing and outreach. California is a challenging state due to its size, which is why I have seen the legislative leadership as playing an outsized role (See “Democratic Leaders Fail California“). But YIMBY activists have gotten engaged in the South Bay and are making a difference. The movement needs to expand its visibility to all districts where high housing costs show the need for reform.

If California is ever going to pass a version of SB 50 and begin building the housing the state desperately needs, seniors must be part of the coalition. I left Rossmoor encouraged that, with the right outreach, this can happen.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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