Bay Area Cities Fight Development Targets

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has assigned Bay Area cities the task of building 441,000 new homes and apartments between 2023-2031 to meet the region’s dire need for housing. But chances are slim they will be able to meet this goal. More than a quarter of Bay Area cities are protesting the state’s proposed guidelines, and 27 towns, cities, and counties have filed appeals against the ABAG to reduce their quotas. These appeals are concentrated among the wealthiest communities – 11 of the 18 cities with the highest median household income are requesting the largest quota reductions. These include Saratoga, Los Altos, Los Altos Hill, Palo Alto, and the East Bay cities Alameda, Lafayette, Pleasant Hill, and Marin County.

It is easy to point fingers and accuse those cities of refusing to sacrifice some comforts to make room for others. But some cities have valid arguments. For example, Santa Clara County has argued that their limited infrastructure, including water and sewage, cannot sustain the many units they are being asked to build. They have agreements with cities to acquire land to develop in less dense areas and have claimed that regional planners ignored this fact in their analyses. Other towns like Mill Valley and Dublin have argued that they already put in considerable effort to plan for future growth, only to find that their housing allotment is overwhelmingly more than they can sustain.

California’s goal is simple – to provide enough housing to support every household that wants to live here. If 441,000 families need accommodation, they need to build 441,000 units no matter where in the Bay Area they are. If a city refuses to contribute its share of housing, then another nearby municipality will need to build that much more. Dublin, in particular, feels that it has received the brunt of other city’s unwillingness to yield. Dublin has grown by over 50% and has approved twice more homes than requested in the past ten years. But with the housing allotment asking for another 3,700 homes and dwindling available space, city administrators feel they have not received their due credit for their earlier efforts and think they are being penalized. It is easy to understand their point – the housing mandates don’t feel fair for those that have made efforts to accommodate the requests.

The Bay Area’s largest cities – San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland – have accepted their development targets and are working to construct more high-rise apartment complexes. These cities have large homeless populations and have had the opportunity to witness the consequences of the housing shortage every day.

Every city is looking out for the interest of its citizens – that is healthy and expected. But in the end, if some cities are unwilling to yield and we can’t build the infrastructure needed to keep talented workers in the Bay Area, then we all lose.

Someone Please Buy My Mansion!

Our CEO Kiai Kim recently showed me an article about a mansion in New Jersey that was initially listed at $39 million but sold at just $4.6 million eight years later – an 88% discount! From 2013 to 2021, the price dropped from $39 million to $25 million and went through more than five rounds of re-adjustments to the current price of $4.6 million. I thought to myself, “Why even wait that long? How can a homeowner have the patience to deal with the upkeep for eight years? And what a massive waste of space to leave a huge house like that empty?”

In San Francisco’s ritzy Cow Hollow neighborhood, a luxury Italian-style mansion sold earlier this year after sitting idle on the market since 2008. The initial asking price was $29.5 million and sold for $17.5 million. The price drop wasn’t as drastic, but the fact that the owner was willing to let the house sit empty for 13 years is just another example of sellers’ unwillingness to compromise.

The issues of the super-rich are far removed from those of us working-class folks, but I think in these extreme cases, we can also see to some extent what perpetuates the high Bay Area housing prices – the desire to make the highest profit even if it takes years and years to sell. And in the case of the New Jersey mansion (and probably many other homes owned by the uber-wealthy), the house was not even occupied. When sellers are unwilling to budge on the high sale price, it means houses remain unaffordable for that much longer.

The strategy of waiting years hoping that a desirable offer will appear doesn’t always pan out. The New Jersey mansion had earlier been offered a price higher than the final selling price but had refused it, later to realize that they wouldn’t get an offer that high again. Unfortunately, these lessons aren’t apparent until the end – sometimes many years later.

Cob, a Cheaper Alternative to Lumber

We at Care Association have been trying to stay on top of issues concerning affordable housing for lower and middle-class Bay Area residents. We worry about the psychological cost of high rents and the growing rates of homelessness. At the same time, we are also actively participating in the discussion around innovative ways to bring down the costs of new structures.

One of the developments we have been following is the growing interest in cob as a (much!) cheaper alternative to lumber in North America. Cob is a mix of clay-soil, straw, water, and sand, used to build walls that alone are strong enough to support a roof. Cob was used for thousands of years in ancient times throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. Here in Northern California, the stringent codes regulating seismic strength, fire resistance, and insulation have made cob a tough sell.

Cob’s growing visibility

The soaring housing costs led Bay Area architect John Fordice to revisit cob in the late ’90s to see if he could address those deficiencies. He set up The Cob Research Institute (CRI) in 2008 to ramp up visibility and research efforts into the viability of this cheap and clean alternative. The CRI began working with local university engineering labs to build cob wall prototypes and develop solutions to address its structural weaknesses. They compiled the results of their years of research into a guideline to help others overcome the common hurdles that past cob projects have faced when trying to get approval from their local planning departments.

We are delighted to share that this guideline has been formally approved for inclusion into the International Residential Code (IRC) just this year! It is now accessible to any interested builder as Appendix U, the Cob Construction Appendix, in the 2021 IRC. We were also excited to hear that the appendix was accepted by an overwhelming 93 to 6 majority. A lot of people are as excited about cob as we are!

Remaining obstacles to cob-based housing

Inclusion into the IRC is not a green light to start building cob housing for human habitation, but speeds up the permit process for other types of buildings, like storage units. Nevertheless, it is a very encouraging sign that we are getting closer to the possibility of cob-based homes. Other types of earthen building solutions, such as strawbale and light straw hay, also started as appendices in the IRC and were gradually adopted into local building codes. “Then why hasn’t Care Association started promoting strawbale or light straw hay?” you may ask. Strawbale will result in a sturdy home, but the walls will need to be 2 feet thick to meet the insulation requirements. If we are looking to build at volume, the area requirements will be prohibitive. Cob, we believe, can be as narrow as 12-16 inches with proper insulation. Straw is also difficult to find locally, and there is concern that straw is environmentally unclean.

Cob will result in thinner walls, but we don’t know how thick or thin the final product will be. Cob alone can not pass the requirement for an insulation R-value of 13 in Northern California. In layman’s terms, a cob wall is not “breathable” enough; vapor needs to be able to pass through the wall with some quantifiable measure of ease. The CRI and other organizations are working on this problem. They are researching possible solutions, such as replacing the heavy components of the cob mixture with lighter substitutes, adding more straw/hemp, or wrapping the outside of the cob wall with less dense mixes of clay or straw/hemp. Our CEO, Kiai Kim, has also been attending cob workshops to stay up to date on the latest research and help pose some solutions.

Our vision

Because cob is heavy, the labor costs to build cob structures will be high. If cob gets adopted into Bay Area building codes, our initial vision is to use a volunteer force of builders to provide labor. Luckily, building with cob is easy to learn. The savings from volunteer labor and the cheaper materials will offer an affordable housing solution for those in immediate need.

There are a lot of people rooting for cob. It is non-toxic, can be molded into beautiful shapes, environmentally friendly, and so fire-resistant that some make ovens out of cob. This is a great advantage in this new era of yearly wildfires. (Imagine fleeing a wildfire and returning to see your walls fully intact!) At Care Association, we are thrilled with cob’s newfound recognition and have great hopes for its future adoption, especially with lumber’s skyrocketing costs. With 21st-century engineering advances, perhaps the cob structures that housed our distant ancestors can also provide safe, warm, and affordable places for us to sleep as well.

Why we want to build truly affordable housing

It is well known that San Francisco’s housing prices are consistently higher than those of other cities across the United States. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Many well-known technology companies and high-tech talent converge here. However, people with low-income can’t afford the high rental rates.

Let’s first take a brief look at the current state of San Francisco rentals. We have to admit that the overall rental prices in San Francisco have dropped this year because of the pandemic. According to the statistics, the price of studio has dropped from $2,596 last year to $1,895, down 27%, and the price of one-bedroom has also dropped to $2,600, down 25% compared to last year.

The above is the current situation of rental prices in San Francisco. Due to the impact of the pandemic, many companies are working from home. Many people are starting to move out of the Bay Area to cheaper places to live. However, are these rental prices acceptable for people who cannot move further away?

I think it is not. For someone making $15 an hour, rent at $1,895 takes up 78% of his salary. The rest of the money is also not enough to support his other expenses for a month. Even though the price of renting in San Francisco has decreased significantly compared to last year, it is still unaffordable for people earning lower income.

This also shows the need for truly affordable housing, not housing for which people spend more than half their income. We expect the rent for an affordable home to be nore more than $780 per month per household earning $15 an hour. This rate is extremely below the current rent rates in San Francisco.

Currently, our country is facing one of the worst affordable housing crises in its history. Without a doubt, those living in poverty are the most severely impacted.

To California’s Public Officials Re: Affordable Housing

Dear California Public Officials,

I am writing to encourage you to promote opening up more locations in the state where Tiny Homes are approved. I am an active senior/still-working artist in Oakland who is going to need a new place to live in the near future. I am currently living in the house of a wonderful, elderly landlady, who may decide/need to move to easier housing at any time. To be honest, after this space is no longer available, there is no way I could afford to stay in my neighborhood and keep all the resources that I have come to know. I have applied to several subsidized senior apartments, but know that actually getting a place can require a long wait, if they manifest at all.

I could afford to acquire a simple live-in studio on wheels, or a trailer, but do not know where I would be able to park. Especially with the amount of homelessness and now complications from COVID-19, I don’t understand why Tiny Homes are not seen as a potential solution for so many people who are struggling and suffering.

I know the limitations for ADU’s are opening up, but this does not help the person who does not own the property, as they are mostly required to have a foundation, rather than be on a trailer.

Please do what you can in this regard, and let me know who I should speak to locally in the Oakland/Berkeley area. Thank you for all you are doing to keep California safe during this tragic time.

Sincerely,
Judith Schonebaum
Oakland, California

How to spot a fake Craigslist rental ad

Fake ad

A very common trick scammers use is to copy a legitimate ad and lower the price to lure unsuspecting victims. Especially in the San Francisco Bay Area where high rents is a major issue, it takes perseverance to find a home in the area. Unfortunately, there are scammers taking advantage of innocent people looking for a roof over their heads. Thus, you always need diligence especially if it involves large sums of money.

Here are some ways to spot fake Craigslist rental ads.

They refuse to meet you in person

One of the biggest signs of a scam is the seller refuses to directly meet you for some odd reason. Whether it’s because they’re out of the country, vacation, or elsewhere, if you can’t meet in person, it’s a red flag.

Photos look better than other listings

Photos are very important in regard to housing. What is tricky is if the photos are legitimate or not. Often scammers will download photos from the internet posing as legitimate photos. Luckily there are ways to counter this scam tactic. The first method is to Google search the images or see if it contains any watermarks. Second, check for the small inconsistencies in the ad especially in regards to the photos.

How to verify photos through Google Images

1. For most browsers, simply right-click on an image in the Craigslist ad and choose “Copy image address.”

2. Open images.google.com and click the camera icon. Mousing over the icon, it says “Search by image.” Paste the address you copied from step 2.

3. Look at two part of the Google image results page that says “visually similar images” and  “Pages that include matching images.”

4. If the image matches any of the results, it’s with high certainty that it could be a stolen image. If the image from the other source comes from a webpage advertising a higher cost, then the ad is a scam.

Back to the list…

Asking to wire money

When you are asked to pay through a third party like Western Union, MoneyGram, etc, rather than cash/check, it’s a red flag, especially if they ask for money before you even see the property yourself. Scammers are trying to avoid dealing with you directly. Also, to cover their tracks as well.

Suspicious sense of urgency

Ads or listings that create a false sense of urgency. What I mean is essentially anything that forces you to make an irrational decision without giving yourself the time to think things through is a scam. If they say you have to make a decision today to buy it or lose it forever or anything like that, it’s a red flag. For anything involving houses, it’s ultimately a research game, not an emotional one.

Too Good to be true

If the deal is too good to be true, it’s a red flag. Why such a low price in an area where the rent is a lot more? Note that the ad above includes “cats are OK,” “dogs are OK,” and “attached garage” among other amenities.

Sob stories

If a listing has a sob story, it’s most likely a scam. Serious lessors are unlikely to mention their personal problems in a listing. If they do include a sob story, they may be scammers trying to bait you with emotions to trick you in giving your hard-earned cash away.

Typos and grammar errors

Typos and grammar errors are common among all types of scams. Fake listings are no exceptions. Scammers for some reason or another do not take the time to ensure their fake listings are typo-and grammar-error-free.

Lack of information

Scams may give a lack of very important information. If it’s just a paragraph of scant info, it’s potentially a scam. However, scams could give lots of important information in which you need to rely on other signals to tell if it’s a scam or not.

Conclusion

Protect yourself from fraud, especially from the internet. Even with the efforts of moderators, there is no excuse for not being diligent in looking for a place to live.

Sources

https://www.foxnews.com/real-estate/how-legit-is-that-listing-five-signs-its-a-fake

https://support.trulia.com/hc/en-us/articles/206731187-Rental-Listing-Scams-Read-Before-You-Search

https://realestate.usnews.com/real-estate/articles/8-red-flags-to-help-you-spot-a-rental-scam

https://www.consumerreports.org/consumerist/5-warning-signs-that-a-craigslist-rental-listing-is-probably-a-scam/

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0079-rental-listing-scams

https://www.zillow.com/info/beware-of-scams-and-other-internet-fraud/

Changing Our Strategy

We set out with a grand vision of helping thousands of people find homes. But there was a grand barrier: our plan didn’t appeal enough to those who needed the help. We had launched an effort to find participants for a demonstration version of the Care For Us site. Should be easy, right? It wasn’t. While people found the concept “interesting,” it wasn’t enough to get them to sign up. Out of a dozen people we invited, only one person signed up. The people we asked were sober, had income, and could not be picked out of a crowd behaving as an outlier. Some had non-vehicular roofs over their heads; some didn’t.

We didn’t ask their reasons for not joining, though one person declined after reading our waiver which stated that this program had no guarantees and that participants were responsible for the information they share on the site.

We are Learning

Learning from this failure, we decided to pursue affordable housing in a more practical manner: build housing. We still believe that connecting people to vacant units is possible, but the approach needs to be different. Since building a web platform and building housing both take time, we weighed their differences and decided that providing places to live — with consideration of my architectural design study in Scandinavia — is the direction that is wiser and more likely to be effective.

Focused on Outcomes

At the same time, we want to produce outcomes. So far, Care Association has provided individuals and charities with goods, and we have supported individuals’ mental health assisting them in emotional regulation. While providing goods is intended through the still-planned Care For Us website, mental health support requires one-on-one contact. To provide this support, we are currently exploring ways to expand our reach.

These changes require more manpower, which seem to be timely since the number of volunteers on our roster increased from zero in May 2018 to twelve as of this month, including five who are currently active. We hope that by June we will have a volunteer taking over Executive Director duties to help us grow.

Slow and Steady

Building Care Association is like construction. It’s taking longer than expected. In spite of the setbacks, we are still hopeful and remain focused on our vision of affordable housing for all.

It’s too soon to share the details of our plan to create positive outcomes. I will say this: history has a lot to teach us, and we are applying those lessons to our approach.

Join our mailing list to be updated on our progress.

The Care For Us Website

Care Association is developing an affordable housing technology solution, a platform to enable homeowners with vacant rooms or units to offer housing to lower-income tenants who tell their stories on the CareForUs.us site. We have found that many homeowners wish to help those in need of affordable housing yet don’t know where to find tenants who are suitable for them.

The Care For Us site will also enable donors to search for, choose, and give goods and services to individuals and charities in need. Goods provided through the program are items that assist individuals in achieving a U.S. standard of living or quality of life and nonprofits in procuring supplies and equipment for their charitable operations. Services may be educational, legal, financial, or health-related. Beneficiaries are verified by Care Association as “in need” based on financial criteria and knowledge of individuals and organizations.

When I first started this nonprofit, I was providing nonprofits with equipment and supplies. I was also providing pro bono emotional regulation care. The website idea came after talking with people about their hesitance getting rid of things that are meaningful to them. Knowing who benefits from donations gets lost when donating to thrift stores. How can we find recipients who would appreciate them? Others mentioned their desire to help people, but didn’t have a way to help without committing to a program. Care For Us would enable pro bono services directly to people in need. But I realized that lack of affordable housing is probably the cause of most low-income stress. If the Care For Us site can connect donors to beneficiaries, why not connect landlords to prospective tenants?

The Care For Us Demo

Today, the Care For Us demonstration website is under construction. We need a demo in order to raise funds, and to show that the Care For Us site will work. Results will enable us to effectively apply for grants. For this demo, I wanted at least five participants who needed affordable housing to be “users” and beneficiaries of the site. I put together an online form where prospective beneficiaries could upload photos and write their stories. I learned that few people are willing to allow someone else to choose housing for them, and that those who struggle with low income do not want to broadcast their needs. Our society looks down on people with low income, leading to shame and embarrassment. Only one out of ten people invited to become participants of the demo completed the form.

The demo site is meant to be a working prototype. So far, the participant who completed our form has a live page hosted at careforus.us. We have been reaching out to landlords and property managers and will soon place an ad to find the participant’s family a home.

Volunteers Are the Heart of Care Association

While we wait for more people to sign up for our demo, there is a lot of work to do. I have been building the demo site by typing out the html markup. It’s not super pretty, but it functions. One volunteer is working on our technology infrastructure with Salesforce at its center. Another volunteer has written an article to boost marketing. Soon we will look for a web architect to plan construction of the launch site. Since we were unable to raise enough funds to hire an engineer, I will be coordinating site construction with volunteers. We had an original beta launch date of January 2019, but it will be much later than that. I am also a volunteer, enabled by loved ones to carry on with this venture. This means 100% of funds received will go toward operations and housing assistance. Currently, we have a GoFundMe campaign to raise a security deposit to help our participant find a home.

Six months ago, when someone told me that nonprofits take a long time to make accomplishments, I thought that I would be the exception and be able to launch our project expeditiously. Now humbled with a fourth revision to our business plan, I still have hope to make this world a better place for some.

Humble Beginnings for a Grand Plan

Building a business is difficult, but building a nonprofit has its own unique challenges.  For starters, nonprofits like ours don’t have anything to offer in return for revenue except a sense of goodwill.  Many nonprofits rely on donations to complete their missions.

To make things more difficult, our project is based on technology — the WWW.  The site needs to provide an easy-to-use interface, to be safe with its data secure, and to connect to secure third-party software for income verification.  And it needs to look good. Building a site that accomplishes what we want, provides the security its users need, and functions in a way that benefits and doesn’t frustrate is no small feat.  To accomplish this successfully, we need money, and a lot of it.  Unfortunately, relying on volunteers is neither efficient nor effective for a technology product that is not about technology.  The computer platform Ubuntu was built by volunteers but for computer purposes.

On September 1, we began fundraising so that we can hire developers to build the site.  We found a table for free on Craigslist and covered it with an old sheet with Sharpie-colored words, “Make Affordable Housing Happen Now.”  Since we are starting from nothing, we had to start somewhere.  At least a picture of our table gave us something interesting to post on our Instagram account (@careforus.us).

Beginning Care Association

When this project first started, it was just me with an idea: create a networking site where people who needed things for a better quality of life could connect with people who had something to give.  Care For Us went on the drawing board.  Unfortunately, someone else in California had the name, another nonprofit that serves children with autism.  As opposed to supporting a silo of people who had differences from others, I wanted to create a nonprofit that could involve anyone in the United States.  With Bruce Wolfe as Treasurer and Cedric Bertelli as Secretary, and with the help of Larry Ross, CPA, we formed Care Association and applied for 501(c)(3) status, but kept the Care For Us name for the project.

When our status letter arrived in the mail, it came as a surprise having been months after the window of time in which the IRS said they would inform us of our status. By then, I had started graduate school thinking the project would never happen unless I funded it myself.  I needed to make money if I were to fund it, and there weren’t any jobs out there that interested me enough.  Someone at the Internal Revenue Service believed in what we want to do… or we just completed Form 1023 correctly, thanks to Mr. Ross.

More than a year after applying, our business plan is written, the organization’s website is up, and wireframes are in process.  Most important, our focus has changed to affordable housing.  While writing the business plan and looking for feedback, I realized that exchanging goods and services wasn’t on the forefront of people’s minds.  But many people, perhaps most in the San Francisco Bay Area have been struggling with the lack of affordable housing.  Even people with money that can afford the high prices are unhappy with the costs.

As with any business, building a nonprofit takes a lot of work.  But unlike for-profit businesses, we rely on donations to help us get started.  Having a business plan and applying for a loan isn’t really an option right now.  Our first project is the Care For Us site, and it won’t be providing revenues right away if at all.  Not only are we not for profit, we are also tech-related.  We don’t have a program with active volunteers going out and meeting people’s needs, but we do have a plan and a vision.  That vision includes bringing the nonprofit world to the frontier of technology.