March 24, 2021

Breaking Barriers to Innovation in Affordable Housing

Affordable Housing Webinar Series


Ophelia Basgal: Hi, I'm Ophelia Basgal. I'm a consultant fellow at the UC Berkeley turner center for housing innovation, and what brought me to affordable housing was a graduate internship at UC Berkeley many years ago. My first internship was at HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and that was what started my career in housing.

Daniel Saver: Hello, everyone. My name is Daniel Saver. I'm the Assistant Director for Housing and Local Planning at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission which is based in the Bay Area. I'm actually a lawyer by training; trying to recover from that as best as I can these days. My first real job on the ground outside of law school was working as a tenants rights attorney at a community-based legal services agency. I come at the affordable housing world very much from a tenant perspective and thinking about housing security, housing instability and what that can mean for families and communities.

Barry Roeder: My name is Barry Roeder and I work on data and strategic projects for the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development. I'll talk a little bit more about my background with one of the digital projects we'll discuss today later. I came to the affordable housing space because I had the good fortune to live out of the country. I lived in Buenos Aires for six years and when I came back to San Francisco I was struck by the discrepancies that I saw - the wealth gaps. I was struck by six-figure cars driving through areas of the Tenderloin that have fifteen thousand dollar per capita income. I thought, wow, this is kind of like the third world. I decided I needed to change what I was doing, which at the time my last private sector job was creating a line of credit for high net worth individuals. I just couldn't get around that anymore so I made a shift.

Roshen Sethna: My name is Roshen Sethna. I'm a partner at Exygy. I lead our civic sector practice here. Exygy partners with social impact organizations to design and build technology that improves lives and we'll talk a bit about that as well. We've worked closely with Barry and his team in the City of San Francisco. I came to housing  luckily really early on in my career. I did an AmeriCorps stint in Houston as a counselor for first-time home buyers. I counseled about 30 families a month on anything from credit to prepping to be a homebuyer. Personally, I come from a family of activists on my mother's side. They were freedom fighters in India. My personal ethos around what I care about, what I focus on are generally ways to radically meet basic needs for people and protect civil liberties. Given that low income folks, formerly incarcerated folks, black and brown families, various groups have a harder time accessing affordable housing. I view it as a civil rights issue as many of us do. That's the lens and my personal background coming to it.

Sethna: We have very little time with you guys. We're going to try and pack in as much as possible. There's a lot of knowledge on this panel that I want everyone to hear from. I'll play a facilitator role and take us through some key questions that will hopefully give you guys a good background in grounding in what's happening in affordable housing. The first thing I want to do is a step back a little bit. I'm going to ask Ophelia to dive in and give us a little bit of a history lesson in affordable housing and how you kind of anticipate the current administration fits into that. Ground us in where we've come so far.

U.S. Affordable Housing History

Basgal: This is going to be a very high level overview of sort of important dates in U.S. housing policy. We're going to go back almost 90 years ago to the end of the Great Depression because that was the first major congressional legislative action back in 1934 when we created the Federal Housing Agency, which was focused on homeownership and coming out of the Depression that was a big issue. It was how to make home ownership affordable through a mortgage insurance program. That was our first program aimed nationally at addressing housing needs., That got followed in 1937 by the U.S. Housing Act which created public housing which was the first time we had a program that focused on low-income housing. It provided financing to develop public housing and it was focused on slum clearance. Remember, this was at the end of the Depression and the construction of new housing. Not only were we focused on developing decent safe and sanitary housing, but also the other piece of it was it was an economic driver. It was designed to create jobs somewhat similar to the situation that we're in today from the pandemic of facing an economic dislocation and how you could use federal programs to address not only social needs but also economic. Public housing is owned by and operated by local housing authorities that are then subject to federal regulation. Initially the program focused on families with modest incomes who paid a flat rent to cover the operating expenses of the public housing. But over the years, that has shifted and the eligibility focus now is on extremely low income and low income families. People now pay rent, families pay rent based on a percent of their income. It originally was 20%, grew over time from 20 to 25%, and is currently 30% of adjusted gross income. That percentage of family income is how we see rents set in most affordable housing programs. The federal government does contribute operating subsidies to offset the fact that the operating costs may exceed the actual rental income when it comes in. That program serves just about 1.1 million very low income households. In 1965 the Department of Housing and Urban Development was created as a cabinet level agency following much of the civil rights legislation that came about in 1964. We did have a civil rights act that was adopted. They're specific called out to prevent discrimination against members of protected classes in private or public housing. That act has been amended over time but it was a statement that we did not want to see discrimination in the provision of housing. In the early 1970s there was some thought that maybe the private sector could do a better job of providing affordable housing than the public sector. There were programs developed by the federal government that really focused on non-profit and for-profit ownership and provided subsidies through low-interest loans, tax benefits, and rental subsidies. Some of them still exist but there was quite a bit of construction that happened between the early 70s until the early 1980s. There's about 1.4 million households in that program. In 1986 we took a look at the tax code and created the low-income housing tax credit program to provide incentives for the construction of affordable housing. That is now the largest government subsidy program that we have. In 1974 there was a sea change. Basically there was research being done that said the problem isn't that there's not a sufficient supply of safe and sanitary housing. The fact is that people just can't afford it. There was an experimental program that was created to see if you could provide rental subsidies for low-income families to rent apartments on the private rental market. It was an experiment that worked and from that flowed what we call the Section 8 or Housing Choice Voucher Program that we have today. It currently serves 2.2 million households. It is the largest federal subsidy program and it is administered by local housing authorities. Rent in this case is calculated at 30 percent of income for the families who participate but they do have the option to pay more with their own funds within limits. In the late 80s the problem of homelessness arose, and so we got the Mckinney Act to address homelessness. That's kind of where we are today. I think as we discuss you'll see that many of the issues that were raised when these programs first started have come back full circle because it isn't the issue of decent safety and sanitary necessarily. We have supply problems that maybe we didn't have when some of these programs were created. I think with the new administration we are going to see a refocus on affordable housing. We're already seeing it with the Emergency Rental Assistance Program as part of the COVID assistance, homeless assistance, reinstatement of fair housing focus; a shift back to some of the programs that it operated for a number of years. Let me just close by saying that the gap between housing needs and rental assistance persists. In the United States housing assistance is not an entitlement, so even though you may be income eligible to receive the assistance, you won't necessarily get it. It falls far short of the needs as a consequence. There's about 26 million family households in the United States that meet the program income requirements. Less than 20 percent of them receive housing assistance. Think of it in terms of numbers. For every 100 low-income households receiving assistance there are another 300 or so that are income eligible living in substandard living conditions and getting no assistance. We have a big challenge to solve. Roshen, I'll turn it back to you.

Sethna: Ophelia, I know the Biden administration is proposing to invest more in Section 8 vouchers and vouchers in general. I'm assuming that that will tackle this gap that you're just mentioning that there are a lot of folks who are eligible for assistance who are not getting it.

Basgal: That's absolutely right. There's even some people who are now saying that we should make housing a right. Make it an entitlement program. If you're income eligible, you'd be eligible to receive assistance.

Sethna: I know your colleague Carol Delante has also pushed for incorporating it into the tax code so that people automatically get it, which I know is a huge political challenge and would be very hard to do, but something that's essentially an entitlement that comes to you if you're eligible. You don't have to go out and apply for it.

Pain Points in Affordable Housing

Sethna: I'm wondering if you can also, before we get into some of the things that we're seeing, highlight some of the biggest pain points in the current affordable housing landscape and the big buckets that we generally look at for where innovation is happening, where are we pushing, where do we need it.

Basgal: Most of it's around cost which flows from a number of things. Land use policies, construction costs, time delays in terms of processing. We have a real cost problem. When you're building units that are ending up costing five to six hundred thousand dollars a unit, it's very hard to make those affordable without enormous amounts of subsidy. Because of the way the programs work, we have many layers of assistance. There's no affordable housing development that's done that doesn't involve stacks of different types of financing. That's one of the challenges. Clearly the cost issue is a huge one.

Sethna: Barry and Daniel, I'd love to invite you as well. Any challenges you see in an affordable housing landscape right now?

Saver: I'd underscore what Ophelia said. I think the key thing is there's a lot of stuff driving costs. One of the big ones that we've been looking at recently is land use. Housing is traditionally a very localized concern. Decisions about what gets built where, how big, what does it look like typically done at least in this country by local governments. There's just a lot of barriers there at the local level that are written into local rules whether it's zoning codes, their general plans, permitting processes, etc. I think that's just a huge pain point that we're seeing in terms of actually delivering new housing. I'd also like to flag, the rules are always written the way they are for a reason, political will. Because most of these projects tend to get approved by political bodies, you could have the land and you could even have the money. But if you can't get an approval at a local level, you still don't have homes for folks. That's a major pain point in some locations. It's not kind of true all the way across the board but certainly, having actual political support for housing in a range of housing solutions that meet the needs of everyone in the community, that oftentimes is a major challenge in a lot of locations.

Roeder: The only thing I'd add is that my colleagues are well aware of this. But if you take that out, another layer that we need to look at with a regional lens increasingly. It's hard to manage some of these projects within the context of the individual jurisdictions especially when you know neighboring jurisdictions have different policies and different approaches. There's certainly an economy of scale that could happen by looking at these problems in a larger sense. It's also a way of facilitating things for the housing seeker. It's very hard for them to figure out what's available and where. As I think we all know, many households are by jurisdictional. They work in one place and live in another. It's not that they're necessarily just concerned about housing in their immediate server.

Issues in Single Family Zoning Laws

Sethna: Both kind of touched on land use and zoning. I wonder if you could dig in a little bit more there to help us understand what types of zoning laws are blockers or cities that have been shifting that.

Saver: We're having this panel now. A major topic of conversation at the national level, but also picking up a lot regionally here in the Bay Area, is discussion of single-family zoning. A lot of new affordable housing that's getting built, because of all the cost concerns,  only really works at a certain scale. You need to be able to build multiple units, and there's just really limited land in a lot of urban America where you're allowed to build more than one unit. We could have a whole separate panel on the history of single-family zoning and its impact on the housing market. There's a very strong racist history to that policy. That said, it is a complex issue. Local communities still do have a lot of knowledge about where certain things may or may not be appropriate. It is a fine balance but we're certainly seeing a number of cities across the country have started to try to eliminate single-family zoning. A couple Bay Area cities are talking about that. If that trend continues that would be a huge shift in land use policy at the local level that could pay really great dividends for affordable housing. I think one of the complications that we're hearing in a lot of places is that there could potentially be some downside for poor people if you don't do that very carefully. If you change zoning and you increase land value in a place where poor people already live, that could actually increase displacement pressures and you may end up pushing out the very people who are meant to benefit from the policy. I want to appreciate the fact that it can be nuanced. Trying to figure out how to thread that needle where we can open up opportunities for new homes and communities where there haven't previously been opportunity to build; while doing so in a way that helps get in front of gentrification and displacement concerns. That's a key area for policy innovation in the near term.

Basgal: I think Daniel mentioned political will earlier because people in neighborhoods automatically think, "Oh my god. My neighborhood will be overrun by all these apartments and there won't be any place to park." Historically the density in single-family housing was substantially higher than it is today. I'm a prime example. I'm living in a house where we met the people who built it back in 1924 and there were six people living in the house at that time. There are two of us here now. Part of it is giving people the history of, "Wait a minute. It isn't quite what you think it's going to be." As we do accessory dwelling units and a number of different initiatives that are out there with single family zoning, people will see that it doesn't have the negative impact that they're expecting.

Saver: Having spent a lot of time working in suburbs in the Bay Area, I think the big fear is suddenly more neighborhood focused is going to look like Manhattan. That's a big concern. I think lots of times when folks in the business are talking about changing single-family zoning they're not talking about that dramatic swing. Having nuance and allowing for multiple paths forward I think is one of the ways that we can also try to address the potential political challenges.

Institutional Innovation in the Bay Area

Sethna: I'd love to shift us to some of the areas where we're seeing - we don't like to call it innovation because Daniel has pointed out that there are a lot of things we know we need to do already to support affordable housing development and preservation - both innovation and things we know we already need to do. I might turn it over to Daniel to talk a little bit about what's happening on the more institutional and policy side especially here in Northern California and maybe potentially being a model for the rest of the country.

Saver: I'd be happy to chime in here. I work at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission but if you see my little tag here under my name,  it'll say slash BAHFA. One of the things that our agency is working to launch is a new institution which is called the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority. This is a brand new entity created in the nine county Bay Area in Northern California to act as a regional hub for housing, finance, policy, and support. This entity was created by state statute in 2019. It sprang into existence January 1, 2020 just in time to start learning how to walk in the middle of COVID. We're facing our challenges like many others but the vision for BAHFA, this new housing finance authority, is really to elevate the resources and support that are available to move housing in a multi-pronged approach at the center of BAHFA. This is one of the innovations, that institutional innovation, that though its name is the Housing Finance Authority, the mandate is much broader than housing finance. We do see housing finance authorities that exist all over the place. BAHFA is rooted in what we call the three P's (production of new housing, preservation of housing, and protecting existing residents). BAHFA is charged with trying to figure out how we can bring resources to the table to do all of those at the same time and try to help address the kind of political challenges of working across jurisdictions. There's 109 different jurisdictions in the nine county Bay Area, each of which has land use authority over its particular plot of land. We, the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority, do not have land use authority. We can't say, "Build this here. Don't build that there." We're gonna be needing to work in close partnership with our local jurisdictions to try to move the needle. Creating this regional infrastructure is a really interesting institutional innovation. It's the first of its kind in California. I don't think many things like it exist in the United States at all. We're really excited about that. As you said, Roshen, sometimes we need to innovate in certain places because what we have been doing isn't working clearly based on the need that's still out there in the community. There are some things where we do know the answer. To build affordable housing, you do just need a subsidy. You need resources. That's not rocket science. In the current economy as Ophelia laid out, one of the issues is just people can't afford housing. There needs to be a subsidy there. There's innovation we can try to bring together different financing mechanisms so that they're more sensible, cohesive, and result in less delay and professional costs associated with building affordable housing. The other thing BAHFA can do that's not rocket science is to just bring in more money. BAHFA has the power to place a revenue measure on the ballot for all the counties in the nine county Bay Area to raise more revenue. That's something that we're going to be evaluating in the coming years to try to increase the size of the pie so that people who are doing great work right now have more resources to have a greater impact in that work.

Private Sector Solutions: Coalitions

Sethna: We've been talking a lot about government and institutional investments in housing. There's also private sector solutions that have popped up which are also really interesting to follow which also involve coalitions. We're seeing this theme of a lot of coalition building to work on affordable housing together. In LA and in other parts of the country there are these models where you will have a funder come together - Kaiser has been one of these popular funders because they see housing as a social determinant of health - and you'll have a developer and then you'll usually have community groups. In LA, for example, it's been churches that have come together to say, "We have land. We want to make use of it. We want to build on it." These coalitions are financing and building permanently affordable housing outside of government kind of funding structures. We need innovation in what you could call the private sector as well as on the government side.

DAHLIA: Designing and Building for Affordable Housing Applicants

Sethna: I'd like to shift a little bit and talk about end users. How are we focusing on designing and building for housing applicants themselves, considering their experiences in the process and in obtaining housing? Barry, maybe you can talk a little bit about your experience. Barry and I have had the fortune of working on a project in the Bay Area that has been very user-centric and iterative and built out over time. He can give some background there.

Roeder: From the perspective of the housing seeker, and I sort of made brief reference to this before, it's been really difficult. As other panelists have noted, there's definitely been a shortage of opportunity. Even if those opportunities are out there, the question is, "How do you find out about them?" It's been shockingly random. I happen to know someone who happens to see or I was walking down the street and I saw a sign. I went through the process. I created an application, which would traditionally be somewhat cumbersome with 12 or 15 pages and might even include things like tax returns and pay stubs and things like that. You would submit it and it's in a black box. You don't even hear about it or let's say you're really lucky and you heard about two opportunities. The second opportunity might not accept the paperwork that you prepared for the first opportunity. If you think about that in any other context it's not really a great value proposition. What I have been fortunate to work on at the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development and with the City of San Francisco has been a groundbreaking system called DAHLIA. You'll see here that there's a public sector requirement to create acronyms. DAHLIA is the Database of Affordable Housing Listings Information and Application. It's the San Francisco flower. It's our housing portal so you can go to one place and see what's currently available. You can apply for it in 15 minutes. To create that we had to really adopt some different practices in terms of project management. In short, it couldn't be the, "Let's create the big binder of requirements and then we'll go off in a corner and work on them for a while." The risk of that with most technology projects is that as we learned from our early partners, Google, and our fantastic partner, Exygy, along the way is if you're not tied with the users locked step in the process, you might go build that binder and then it doesn't work for them. It doesn't make sense to them. They don't use it. To date we've had over five million site visits and six hundred thousand applications. We've got a lot of traction which is great. I'll tell you one other thing that's been interesting. It's that we've learned along the way that while we thought we were building something for our users - and we did again to make it easier to find and apply for affordable housing - because it's a digital product, we're amassing a lot of data on who's looking at what and realizing why are we building those things when people are looking for that. It's just this incredibly powerful tool that we didn't have before. Roshen, I'd like to get your thoughts on this too because, of course, we, the Mayor's Office of Housing Community Development, have learned how to do things agile-ly and how to learn how to be user centric based on the things we learned from you guys.

Sethna: I appreciate that we've been able to have this partnership for now five plus years. I actually think you hit on what to me is the bigger value out of the project is that the institution, being the Mayor's Office of Housing, has learned new ways of working. I think often as a design and tech agency people come to us and say, "Can you build this or build that? It's going to help us be this silver bullet to solve this really complex ecosystem level problem." The way I like to usually reframe it with our clients in housing and in other sectors is just using product as that lever for change. The development process for a digital product, in your case this affordable housing platform called DAHLIA, centers users, it starts small, releases early, iterates, and builds on it. That process is intriguing and we need more of that in the public sector. I think before DAHLIA and what has now become an open source tool that multiple jurisdictions are using for affordable housing management, jurisdictions weren't really building tools that were backed by a lot of user research or being iteratively built out over time. One example of this is that in the previous experience, end users would have to go to different buildings and pick up an application that was specific for each building. You have to make sure you have the right application. Now through this process there's one common application in the Bay Area for affordable housing that we're working towards. We center users, we center and design what works for them. At a broader scale previous to this product, we had no formal collaboration between multiple Bay Area jurisdictions on housing. We weren't talking about, to your point, data. How do bond measures use data that's coming out of this product to say. "How do we need to invest? Where do we need to invest?" That was an idea one of the jurisdictions had and then ultimately since we're building this housing tool as an open source tool, how do we share resources to maintain it and share costs? What the platform or this digital website has caused is more systemic organizational change in how we build and deliver services. How do we use a platform as a way to have these conversations? It's really brought together a lot of different groups whether they're counties, cities, housing developers, housing counselors, housing seekers. We've done a really good job of bringing a bunch of different groups around the table. What Barry mentioned, the DAHLIA product can be found at That's the platform that housing seekers in the City and County of San Francisco can use to search and apply for affordable housing.

The DAHLIA Expansion: Bloom Housing & Minimum Viable Communities  

Sethna: The DAHLIA product was abstracted because we had the foresight to say, "Let's build this in open source code." We were able to then abstract it to say, "Here's a website that any jurisdiction can use to manage and deliver their affordable housing." That abstracted product is called Bloom Housing and it's being implemented in a few different Bay Area jurisdictions. We're starting to create this coalition to have a regional collaboration that Barry's leading. What we like to call it at Exygy, in the product world we say minimum viable product. It's like the first thing you release that provides value to people. But my colleagues and I like to say minimum viable community. What's that minimum viable group of people that you had to get together to have more systemic change? The last thing I'll say is that layering - whether it's technology or data collection or whatever - onto poor policy or institution ineffective institutions doesn't really do us any good. This interplay with institutions moving forward and digital services moving forward in sync is really important. Digital products can show people where a policy or program isn't working or isn't having its intended impact. But then there needs to be that feedback loop to policy or program leaders to say, "We have to shift something now. It's not working the way we thought it was going to." More private sector initiatives with Kaiser investing. If anyone does want to look those up, Strategic Development Solutions are the folks pulling together the fund that Kaiser is investing in specifically in LA, if people are interested more in the private sector side.

Basgal: There's a spectrum to what we're talking about. From the things we already know how to do that Daniel mentioned to a process like DAHLIA. I think one area that's really ripe for significant changes is in the construction industry. We’re seeing the development of modular housing in the United States and more product and techniques. We've been building the same way stick built housing for the last you know 70-80 years and this is a real shift that will help address some of the issues around cost and time and construction and help bring that cost down. It ranges all the way. That modular couldn't have happened without the technology that's come along with it.

Sethna: Any final thoughts before we open it up to questions from the panelists?

Addressing Affordable Housing Nationally

Basgal: I noticed that one person did say “Is this pretty much just focused on California?” We're obviously all in the Bay Area so that is the lens, but I do want to say that these issues we face here are no different than high cost areas across the country. There are solutions that I think are relevant all across the various different jurisdictions.

Saver: There was a great article in the New York Times about a week or two ago saying, “Is California exporting its affordability crisis?” There's a lot of news about Californians leaving because of the high cost. But the point of the article was really these issues do exist at least in the U.S. and many of our major metropolitan areas. I do think that there's a lot that we can learn from each other and certainly the regional government in Northern California were interested in learning from and seeing how we can be in dialogue with other regions that are trying to take on really similar issues.

Roeder: I would just love to add to that I'm really hopeful that things like the DAHLIA platform in San Francisco or the Bloom platform regionally can, as we talked about, take data that helps us make a better argument for why we need to do this. Should this become an entitlement? How do we support? I think that data can do things, sort of create the minimum viable community, as you mentioned, Roshen, sort of gather us around this so we have a better understanding of who are. The people that are struggling with housing; in San Francisco it's easy to say the poor people, but it's actually quite a number of economic segments that are struggling with housing. I'm sorry if we're exporting that to the rest of the country, but it is a conversation we need to have. I think that the data that we can gather from some of these technology innovations might help us.

Saver: I would just tack on to that as a one other thought that I love the part about the data and also really engaging the user. Like the idea that the folks who stand to benefit from these investments and policies should be involved in actually shaping how we do this. It’s an idea that has a lot of currency and in the social justice space generally. I do think that is something that in the policy making space we need to keep going back to that. If we're going to be proposing solutions for struggles that so many people are facing we really need to be in close contact with them to make sure we understand the contours of those issues. Are the solutions we're putting forward really working? Are they suggesting solutions? We need to just listen to them. There's not a lot of innovation we need to do. It's really just a matter of understanding what people are asking for and providing that as a government. That's the kind of thing that the private sector has learned to do. Government tries to do that but that is the place where we can always improve.

Addressing Rising Construction Costs

Sethna: I might move us to some of the questions that are coming in. So we had one from Chloe. Has there been any consideration for how to adjust for the rising costs of materials for housing? I’ve heard multiple developers cite this as a barrier to build more affordable housing. Daniel, you mentioned that density is important when needing to keep costs down. Are there any other solutions out there that we're seeing for rising costs?

Ophelia: There is, as I mentioned, the modular housing where you're building off-site. You have much less construction waste, so that addresses the materials cost and also the materials that people are using themselves. There's an architectural professor at Berkeley that is doing 3D printed houses, and they're small right now, but there's opportunities to address the issues of concrete and its impact on climate change. We're going to need to continue to look at product, no question about it. I think that bringing some of the steel manufacturing back into the United States will probably help some. There's a range of policies that address that issue around construction costs associated with materials. You said a similar question about that as well.

Bloom Housing’s Unique Value Add

Sethna: There's a question in the chat that's also related to DAHLIA. Barry, if you could maybe address this. For any public sector housing folks on the line could you maybe explain San Francisco's interest in building DAHLIA vis-a-vis what was the targeted difference in functionality between DAHLIA and other systems like Rent Cafe?

Roeder: Thank you for the question. First of all, when we started the process, Rent Cafe wasn't there. Just for the folks that don't know that's a product that's offered by Yardy. Yardy is a system of record for housing agencies. There's a few of them that housing agencies and developers use. Yardy is arguably the most well-known. Rent Cafe is an opportunity for people to sort those agencies and their developers to put up a listing about their information. Those weren't there when we started our process, but what we discovered was that they tend to have less functionality in a couple key regards. You'll find that there are a number of, for lack of a better term, listing services that would provide information about what's currently available or they might even give availability information. They'll just say our portfolio is this if you want more information click here, But as you go further down the path of what a housing seeker would need, next being the application. There are fewer that have the application. Next they’ll need tools for the housing agency developer to manage the placement process. The other thing, for better or worse, is that a number of those portals that don't originate from or interact directly with the jurisdiction don't have access to the information and processes required to actually process an application all the way through to placement. For instance, they might not manage a housing lottery preference programs that would be there. Aside from the fact that Rent Cafe specifically didn't exist when we started our process, I don't think we would say, “Oh, shoot, we should use Rent Cafe,” because we just recognize all the other pieces that are involved. That's why we've decided to go a custom route, but I’m not hastening to define that term. That does not mean we're going to build our own thing and we're not going to share it, or worse, we're building it with a partner who claims it as their own intellectual property. If tomorrow they don't want to do something, or maybe they go out of business. That's this wonderful idea about open source. But what does that really mean? This lives in the public sector for the benefit of the public sector. None of us are hijacked by what it is. We can collaborate on the pieces that we want. That's what we're working on the Bay Area so we can share costs. But as San Francisco, I need some special pieces. I can build that code on top. I just think there's a wonderful flexibility and modularity that will create efficiencies at the same time that it allows us to serve our unique needs.

Sethna: It's a good point, Barry. I think there's been this push in civic technology to say, “Here's the portal where you can apply to all your benefits.” Inevitably, there needs to be some customization at the local level. To your point, Bloom Housing is a piece of open source code and DAHLIA as well. The San Francisco site as a piece of open source code is available for any jurisdiction right now to take and implement if you have engineers and designers in-house.

Neighborhoods of Opportunity

Sethna: We have maybe a few more minutes. Let's see what other questions we have. What extent are housing plans being blended with improved educational employment opportunities? I wonder, Ophelia, if you want to speak to that. I'm happy to also speak to the one right below it about housing becoming a right.

Basgal: In terms of affordable housing policies, equity has risen to the top which was not necessarily a consideration before. It specifically gets to the issues of what we now call neighborhoods of opportunity. It looks at where we're housing used to be as they're shopping in the neighborhood. We're now looking more broadly. What do the test scores show? What other kinds of services are in the community? That does not mean that you can't develop services and you know enact issues that would address services and other things that would help address issues of inequity in communities that may not be so richly sourced. There’s definitely a bigger focus now on looking at those kind of metrics. It's not enough just to build decent, safe, and sanitary housing on an island where people end up separated out from the rest of the community and don't benefit from the values there. Then in terms of just the question about who's writing more deeply on the notion of housing becoming a right. You'll see a lot of that in the advocacy of groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, National Low Income Housing. There's a fair amount of research going on about what the cost would look like. Those might be some resources to check out.

Sethna: We've been talking more about low and middle income housing but on the homelessness, we've historically said you need to be clean to get this housing or you need to have all these requirements to get this housing. I think we've shifted a lot of that thinking to being a housing first approach as it's called. You get housing and no matter what we're not putting restrictions or qualifications on it. Actually that housing also has wraparound services and other things that come with it. A lot of the non-profit housing developers have more of those services in-house where they're building. We can see more and more of that on that side. The for-profit developers obviously don't as much because they don't play in that space, but a lot of for-profit developers in San Francisco do build pieces of the affordable housing stock here because of San Francisco policy that requires them to.

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing

Saver: Let's see we also have a question. What are the panelists thoughts on the concept of focusing production on neighborhoods of opportunity versus other areas where there may be need but aren't considered high opportunity areas? This is a big question in the world of fair housing and civil rights within the United States all across the country. I don't have a specific answer to this but maybe a framework of thinking about it. There's an affirmatively furthering fair housing rule that's a federal rule that's been tossed around back and forth during the last couple years with administration change. Here in California we have a statewide version of that rule. I think that rule may give us a bit of a framework to think about how to try to walk and chew gum at the same time. One thing I would put out is when I hear this question, sometimes when I hear the debate, it's like do we either invest in these areas of opportunity that are high resource with great schools and parks and walkable, and build low-income housing there so that poor people can live in places where there's great opportunity? There's lower income communities and communities of color that have been historically disinvested in so how do we make sure that we're focusing public resources to benefit those people that historically have really been left on the sidelines. And those with limited dollars, we gotta try to find an approach about how to do both. I think the idea of affirmatively furthering fair housing helps a little bit because it really says you have to do both. You really need to open up opportunity for people who have been left out in those places where there is opportunity. We also need to figure out how to invest in places to transform them into places of opportunity, so it's not just about investing in affordable housing in lower income neighborhoods and communities of color because there's such need there. It's also about bringing other investments that can really transform those neighborhoods. What I would say is with this approach I think you need to have really tailored policy packages that accompany them in different scenarios. You don't want to suddenly invest a ton of public money in a low income community without having strong tenant protections in place because then you may just displace out everybody with the increase in land values and attractiveness. The free market just runs rampant over those folks. You tried to improve their neighborhood for them and suddenly they're not there anymore. If we can do both and when we're doing both we also need to be clear-eyed that it's not just a one-size-fits-all, every community gets the same set of investments and policies. We need to really tailor them to be appropriate to the local context. I really appreciate that question because that's a place where we need to do better thinking collectively as a housing sector to figure out how to do both of those well.

Considering Housing Developer Risk When Providing Subsidies

Basgal: I'm really intrigued by the question that was posted. What do we do to control rising costs? Part of what Daniel mentioned earlier, we know time is money in construction of housing. There was a recent study done on a project that was done in San Francisco with very specific time frames to get it in and out of the door in terms of permitting. You can see the cost reduction. The other issue that people are starting to look at is: Should we take into account the risk to the housing developer in terms of the amount of subsidy that we're providing? Some of these subsidies are in fact very rich when there's very little risk to the developer themselves. We probably need to somehow tweak the formula so that takes into account that risk-based factor so the cost of the money ends up driving it down unless there is associated risk with it.

Sethna: We're wrapping up in a few minutes. Any final thoughts from the panelists or questions you didn't get to answer? I know we didn't get to every single question so we'll try and answer some of them as follow-ups if we were able to as a group.

Roeder: I just want to say that I’m grateful to be part of this conversation and grateful to have all of you as attendees be part of the conversation. We'd like to continue the conversation. We as panelists had a chance to chat about this, and we thought, “Oh my gosh, we'd love to keep talking about this and keep talking about it with you.” Please reach out to us. I think that Anna will provide that information. Send us an email to keep the conversation going. I think these are very important  discussions.

Sethna: That's a really good point, Barry. We at Exygy really want to view this as a series on housing. This was the first of many and a primer. In the survey that Anna's sending you, we definitely want to hear if there's topics you want to dive deeper into. All the panelists mentioned there are specific topics that we just brushed on for 60 seconds that we could have a whole panel on. We're happy to set those up in the future if that is interesting for folks.

Anna: Thank you, everyone! Our panel, as Barry said, really wants to continue this conversation with all of you outside of this one hour. They have graciously included their contact information which you can see on the right side of the screen. Feel free to contact them individually if you had questions for these awesome folks. Lastly, this is an event series, so the best way to find out about the next event is to join Exygy’s Bloom Housing newsletter at We would love to have you there. It's a great community of folks who are all working on affordable housing. Thank you all for joining. We really appreciated this conversation. It's a really critical time and we hope to have more in the future. Thanks, everyone!

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