Tackling the Bay Area housing crisis, now compounded by COVID-19 

Tracy Choi, MPP'13

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just a health care issue. As stay-at-home orders lead to furloughs and layoffs, people are increasingly unable to afford necessities like food and rent. That’s where Tracy Choi, MPP’13, comes in. She’s a housing and community development supervisor in San Mateo County, California, which has the highest income inequality in the state. Now, she and her colleagues are working to make sure the most vulnerable residents get the aid they need, and considering long-term policy implications as the crisis exacerbates a tenuous affordable housing situation. 

How is the COVID-19 crisis affecting housing in San Mateo County?

San Mateo County and the Bay Area in general are some of the most expensive areas to live in the country because of the booming local economy. We’re living with the negative consequences of a market-driven society. 

For example, the county has added 93,000 jobs since I moved back to California in 2013, but only created 8,500 new housing units. That’s a 11:1 ratio. There’s incredible pressure on our housing market. Another issue is the income gap: the top 5% of households make $810,000 or more per year, while the lowest 20% make $20,000 or less. And last year, the median rental apartment cost $3,500 a month—you need to earn $11,000 a month to make that rent affordable. 

So given all these economic factors and pressures, we were already in a housing and homelessness crisis pre-COVID. So many working households were rent burdened, meaning they were paying more than 50% of their income for housing costs. They were already unable to afford basic needs, such as food, utilities and healthcare. And people of color were being completely displaced out of our area, sometimes moving 100 miles away but commuting here for their jobs. 

When COVID-19 hit, it exacerbated everything. For people experiencing homelessness, the shelters have had to shift the way they are providing services because of distancing and sanitation protocols. People are also stuck in shelters longer than they would be, from the average 30-45 days to much longer because landlords are reluctant to accept new housing placements. That’s a major setback for people on their way back to self-sufficiency. 

On the housing side, we have so many households unable to pay rent or homeowners who are unable to pay their mortgages. We have a lot of small property buildings with 4-5 rental units, and those owners don’t have significant assets to fall back on. 

Before this, we said many people in our area were one paycheck or life event away from being homeless. COVID-19 is that one event. 

How are you and your office responding to the pandemic? 

As the County’s Department of Housing, our mission is to create and preserve housing opportunities for people in our county. We’re preserving existing affordable housing stock and helping to finance new construction of affordable housing through a local sales tax we’re able to leverage. We also administer federal, state and local funds to support housing and community development activities that help provide housing or keep people housed.

My role is primarily to oversee the federal housing programs. Day to day, I oversee management to make sure the funds are spent down and basic grant administration duties. But with COVID-19, a significant portion of the CARES Act stimulus bill goes to those federal housing programs. So we’re working to get those funds out ASAP.

Right now, we’re gathering public input and feedback from local city councils, affordable housing providers, service partners and the general public on how the county needs to prioritize and best use those funds. The biggest need we’re seeing right now is around requests for rental assistance. The other big need is capacity building for the nonprofits we work with. They’re understaffed and overburdened, and yet they are getting an exponential demand for their services, so they need to hire additional staff and support their operations. 

Another aspect of our work at the department is to help drive policy for the county. One of the first things we did during shelter-in-place was put a moratorium on evictions, and we followed that with a moratorium on rent increases. We have a longer-term programming and resources strategy, but we chose this policy strategy to help mitigate the immediate impact. 

As the crisis continues, what are some of the long-term impacts you’re planning for?

That’s one of the biggest challenges we’re facing. The health part of the pandemic may be controlled, but the economic impacts will be permanent. It’s just that the magnitude is unknown, so it’s difficult to plan for that. How many households will be impacted? How long will they need our assistance? To be brutally honest, we are just doing the best we can—we are just trying to brace for it.

For example, there is some affordable housing that isn’t supported by rental subsidies. But because of COVID-19 the low-income tenants can’t afford to pay their rent, and if there’s no other financial intervention, those properties might fall into default and foreclosure. And in California, affordability restrictions last for 55 years—or until default or foreclosure. So then we’ll lose precious affordable housing stock. Those are the longer-term, bigger-picture issues we need to keep our eyes on while also trying to manage the day-to-day needs. 

How did you become interested in housing issues, and how are you drawing on your MPP in your work today?

After college, I worked for Massachusetts State Rep. Byron Rushing, who represented the South End of Boston. One of his biggest priorities was to eliminate homelessness in the state, and a lot of that passion rubbed off on me. 

Every time I write a policy memo or make a presentation, I’m drawing on my Heller MPP. A lot of what I do is pump out memos, emails or papers about an issue and provide a policy recommendation to my director or our County Board of Supervisors to help them make an informed policy decision. Completing all the class writing assignments and presentation exercises really help me in my job now. I’m also able to succinctly summarize and communicate my work to other departments and stakeholder groups, given that affordable housing can be a complex issue.

With the poverty alleviation concentration, all of the courses on structural racism and the intersections of race and poverty help me have a deeper understanding and perspective as I do my job now. I can really see from a historical or racial injustice lens how to approach my work, because we serve the most vulnerable and underserved populations in the community. I’m grateful for my time at Heller—everything I learned and the friendships I’ve made—and can’t imagine being as effective in my work without my MPP.