Housing is Policy with Pedro Galvao

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ISAAC HANEY-OWENS: Hello, this is Isaac Haney-Owens, and you’re listening to the Leaders for Inclusive Community Podcast hosted by The Kelsey, covering topics related to housing and disability. Welcome. Thanks for listening. Each episode, I’ll meet with different community leaders to learn about what they do and ask them questions about how their work can make housing and communities more inclusive for people with disabilities. [upbeat theme music starts]

PEDRO GALVAO: And affordable housing is central to making sure that people can have enough money to just live their everyday lives in a way that allows them to thrive. And so, if you’re paying rent that is affordable to you, you’re going to have more leftover money for groceries, more leftover money for healthcare. You’re not going to have to choose, for instance, do I eat enough this month, or do I pay my rent? Chances are you’ll have enough money to get the food that you need.

ISAAC: Today, Wednesday, September 30th, we’re interviewing Pedro Galvao, the Policy Director at Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. The topic today is focused on housing  as policy. [music slowly fades away]

So, tell me about the work that you do. 

PEDRO GALVAO: Hi, yes. Thank you for having me here, Isaac. So again, my name is Pedro Galvao. I’m the Policy Director at the Non-Profit Housing Association Northern California, NPH for short. And NPH is a 40-year-old affordable housing advocacy organization. What that means is our mission is to advocate for a Bay Area where everyone has an affordable and stable place to call home. We work in all nine counties from Silicon Valley all the way up to wine country, and we represent organizations that build affordable housing: cities, non-profit groups, individuals, all who believe that everyone should have an affordable place to call home. And my work as Policy Director is to oversee our policy work. And we do work at the local level, regional level—and that includes multiple cities and counties—and at the state level, pushing for better laws and regulations that will help build and preserve more affordable housing and protect tenants from displacement. 

ISAAC: Yeah, affordable housing is important. And it’s important that the people who it’s intended for get the access to the housing. 

PEDRO: Absolutely. And even just thinking about the question of access, that is just something that is so critical and something that comes up a lot: who are we building housing for and where? 

ISAAC: Yeah. 

PEDRO: And how do we make sure that people get it? 

ISAAC: And how do we make sure that the people who the housing is for gets the information to let them know that it’s available? 

PEDRO: Absolutely. 

ISAAC: ‘Cause not everybody has access to the same forms of communication. 

PEDRO: Yes. And typically speaking, when, say, there’s a new building that’s built, and it has apartments that are affordable—and what that means is that they’re really below market and that they are charging rents that a low-income person would be able to afford—once a building like that is built, there is a whole outreach plan where the organization that built that building and the city reach out to communities from all across the city where that building was built, and including immigrant groups, people with disabilities, people who typically are more likely to be able to thrive by having an affordable home and who struggle to find affordable places to live. 

ISAAC: Yeah. What are the three Ps? How do they help people afford housing? 

PEDRO: So, the three Ps of housing are the way that, the work that we do at NPH, is how we guide the work that we do at NPH. And what they are is they’re really just a North Star, a way to say this is how we are going to focus our work. And it begins by the first P is protections. We need to protect tenants from being displaced or losing their home. And so, helping people stay in place is the first P. The second P is preservation of existing affordable homes. And what that means is there are homes that are currently charging below market-rate rents. And we need to make sure that those homes can keep doing that for the long-term. And the last P that’s critical is we must produce new homes, especially new affordable homes. And so, we need to build more housing to ensure that everyone who needs an affordable place to live can get it, can live in an affordable home. 

ISAAC: What is zoning? 

PEDRO: So, zoning are the rules that are set by a local government that determine what you are allowed to do or not in a given area of a city. And so, for example, there’s industrial zoning because typically, you don’t want there to be factories and other polluting uses of land right next to a residential neighborhood. And so, zoning regulates what can go where in a city. It regulates what kinds of buildings you’re allowed to build, what kinds of heights, etc. In terms of housing, what it does is it regulates the kinds of homes that you can build. And so, in many communities, you actually can only build what are called single-family houses, which is just a fancy term for what you think of as just your typical home that has a backyard and has a front yard. And in most of California, you’re only allowed to build that kind of housing. And building multi-family housing is generally—and so, multi-family housing is anything from a duplex, so having two homes to a large building—and those are generally restricted to only certain parts of town. 

And why zoning is such a big deal is because when you build affordable housing, you need to generally build multi-family homes so more people can have affordable places to live. Rather than just having one single house, you can have multiple in the same amount of space. And zoning’s a really big deal because if you’re not allowed to build multi-family homes in most of California, you are not able to build these affordable homes that are just so desperately needed right now. 

ISAAC: Do you think the zoning laws will change to allow that a multi-family housing be more able to be built? 

PEDRO: That’s a big thing that we’re working on. And so, last year, or rather, earlier this year, there was a bill that we were working on that would allow for housing to be built on land owned by churches, synagogues, mosques, any place of worship, and as well as non-profit colleges, so any land owned by non-profit college. All that land, you would be able to build affordable housing on it, regardless if the local zoning only allows for just a one home or one lot. This would have allowed you to build affordable housing no matter where it’s located in the city, so long as it’s owned by a church or a non-profit college. Unfortunately, that bill didn’t pass for various reasons, but it went quite a ways. And it would’ve opened up quite a bit of land in many communities where you can’t build multi-family housing. And so, we see the issue of zoning as really critical because zoning is often used, it’s often used as a tool to keep communities whiter and more segregated and higher income. 

And so, by allowing for multi-family housing to be built in more communities, you can build more affordable housing in general, and you can help bring in more different kinds of people who are making money at different levels to more communities. Whereas right now, what you see in the Bay Area is there’s quite a bit of separation. You have higher income, whiter communities. You have more. And then you have communities that are less white and lower income. And if you look at where multi-family housing is allowed or where you’re allowed to build more than one house per one lot, you’ll find that places where there’s more multi-family housing, those tend to be less white and with people who are lower incomes living in those places than places that just allow one home per one lot. 

ISAAC: What is the Fair Housing Act? 

PEDRO: So, the Fair Housing Act is a law that regulates how all housing is built in the state of California but also the country. And so, there’s the Federal Fair Housing Act, which is meant to guarantee access to housing to people no matter their race, religion, sex, family status, disability status, color, or nationality. So, that’s a lot of things. But it was put in place in the 1960s to really combat housing segregation, because back in the ‘60s, you could literally say you will not sell this house to an African-American person or to an Asian person. You’re not allowed to do that. And so, the Fair Housing Act made such practices illegal. 

And it also created a duty that for every government agency, that they must not just ban these illegal practices that allow for outright discrimination, but that they need to be actively working to combat segregation and overturn these racist practices. And so, if they do something that they didn’t mean for it to have an impact that ends up really being a racist impact, so they do something, and suddenly African-American people or Latinx people can no longer live in a certain neighborhood, the Fair Housing Act would say, that would be illegal under the Fair Housing Act. And that would be something that they would need to correct immediately. And so, it’s a law that is meant to prevent the worst kinds of abuses that would keep people from getting housing based on their race, religion, sex, family status, disability status, color, nationality.

And in California, there’s a layer on top of that called the Fair Housing and Employment Act. And that adds in other protections that don’t exist in the federal Fair Housing Act that includes things like sexual orientation, gender identity, and various other statuses that, under the federal Fair Housing Act, are not protected. But they are protected under California law. 

ISAAC: Does the Fair Housing Act work like it’s intended in areas where it’s already hard for these folks to afford housing? 

PEDRO: You know, that’s a great question. And that kind of gets at the core of the problem. Because you can outlaw some of the racist practices. Let’s say, you can’t lend to an African-American family. Well, that’s racist and would come up under the Fair Housing Act as such and would need to be corrected. So, that’s something that the law does remedy. But in the Bay Area, consistently, the number one issue that keeps people from, that’s considered a barrier to fair housing is housing affordability. And so, if we are not able to build more affordable homes in more communities so that everyone who needs an affordable place to live can live in an affordable home, then we’re going to continue to having major problems to actually enforcing the Fair Housing Act. Because while technically, anyone who has $2 million can buy that $2 million home, very few people actually do. And those folks tend to be whiter, and because the price point is so high, they’re clearly wealthier. And so, that’s a huge barrier to actually getting the Fair Housing Act enforced. And so, it works in the sense that it prevents overt discrimination. But when it comes to the core of it, which is to really create more communities that look like America, that have people who look different, people at different income levels living in all neighborhoods, it hasn’t yet achieved that. 

ISAAC: What is affirmatively furthering fair housing? 

PEDRO: So, affirmatively furthering fair housing is a duty that was created by the Fair Housing Act, which says that whatever policies and practices that local governments put in place, it cannot have an intentional or unintentional discriminatory effect. And so, what that means is, a, you can’t do overtly discriminatory things. But even if you didn’t mean to do something that ended up discriminating against people, like against people with disabilities for instance, but you may not have intended to do it, but the action still does discriminate, then that is something that would fall under the failure to affirmatively further fair housing and would need to be corrected. And so, it’s not enough to say you’re not doing the overtly discriminatory thing. You have to also look at your actions as a local government, as a local agency to make sure it doesn’t have this unintended consequence. 

And even go further to be actively looking to further fair housing, which is to expand who has access to housing and ensuring that all the people who are protected by the Fair Housing Act have access to a home. And that is why, going back to affordable housing, that is a huge barrier to fair housing, because if people can’t afford a place to live, then you can’t really have true enforcement of fair housing, just because communities will end up segregated, and it does end up causing discriminatory practices to happen just because people don’t have access to an affordable home. 

ISAAC: Why is affordable housing so important? 

PEDRO: So, affordable housing is tied to all of this. It’s tied to the Fair Housing Act, making sure that people of different races, people with disabilities, people with different sexual orientations can live in any neighborhood of their choice. And affordable housing, really at its core, is good-quality housing where people pay what they can afford. And so, no matter what your income is, you would only need to pay about a third of that income, and that would be considered an affordable home. If you make $10,000 a year, let’s just say, and you pay no more than $3,000, or a third of your income, in rent or mortgage. And the result of that is that you have more leftover money to help you pay for essential expenses like medical bills, groceries. And as a result of having an affordable home, people tend to lead happier and healthier lives. Because home is central. And if you can have this just central part of your life taken care of, that’s stable, that you can afford, that ends up having a lot of other positive effects, too. Like you’ll have better health, you’ll have more money to help pay for unexpected expenses, and it just helps with so many other social outcomes in general. 

ISAAC: What is naturally occurring affordable housing? What is income-restricted affordable housing?

PEDRO: So, naturally occurring affordable housing are homes that they tend to be older. They tend to be less maintained. But they’re homes where people living in them, lower-income people, can afford the rent. They’re only paying one third of their income in rent. But those homes are not reserved just for lower-income people. So, you can have a higher or high-income person live in a naturally occurring affordable house and pay these lower rents. They’re called naturally occurring because they exist in the market. And they’re charging the lower rent, but they’re not reserved just for people with lower income. 

Now, income-restricted affordable housing, those are homes where they’re reserved for people making under a certain income level. So, let’s just say you are a family of four living in San Francisco, and you make under $50,000 a year. Well, that family would be considered very low income. And they would have homes that would be affordable to that income range, to people making under $50,000 a year, that would charge them one third of that income. And say that family making $50,000 a year lives in an affordable home, eventually the heads of household are able to make more money, they get better jobs, and eventually, they make a $100,000 a year. And they no longer qualify for that house, for that home, well, then they could transition to a market-rate house, but their apartment would be reserved for people with lower incomes for the foreseeable future, generally for 55 years. 

And so, income-restricted means that the home is reserved for people of lower incomes, and they have to be reserved for people of lower incomes for a period, generally in California, of 55 years. So, they have to stay affordable for people at a lower income level for that long. Whereas naturally occurring, there’s no guarantees that it will stay affordable. So, if the landlord decides to raise the rent next year and lower-income people can no longer afford to live in that home, then they can do that. And so, that’s what we mean by housing preservation, in that we want to make sure that both the naturally occurring affordable housing can stay affordable for the long-term and that existing affordable homes, that can also stay affordable, too. And after the restriction of time ends for when you have to keep it affordable for, that those homes can also stay affordable forever, in perpetuity. 

ISAAC: What role does the federal government play in housing policies? 

PEDRO: The federal government plays a huge role in housing policy in that the federal government is the entity that provides a lot of subsidies for affordable housing. It also provides loans for people who want to buy their first homes through the Federal Housing Authority. And the federal government in the past played a huge role in determining where people got to live. And so, one of the things that the federal government did in the ‘50s, ‘60s, well, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and even ‘70s that we’re still living with is called redlining. And that is determining who gets loans for mortgages, loans for their first homes, and where, based on the neighborhood where they’re going to live. And so, what the federal government did at the time was it classified some neighborhoods as red. And what that meant was it was nearly impossible to get mortgages to African-American people, Latinx people. Asian people could get mortgages because they were more racially mixed. And other neighborhoods that were considered blue or green or places where the federal government considered more desirable, generally because they were whiter, those places, generally speaking, only white people couldn’t get loans to live in those neighborhoods. And there were all sorts of practices built around that where it said that if a neighborhood had a certain percentage of non-white people living in it, it would be classified as yellow and eventually red. And if you were not a white person, you could generally only live in those red neighborhoods, which is why it’s called redlining. 

And so, the Federal Fair Housing Act was, in part, meant to undo these practices that really created these neighborhoods that were segregated by race. And the federal government’s loans through the Federal Housing Authority and HUD and other entities are really a way to try to open up who can buy homes and where, and the federal government plays a huge role in determining that. And also, just nowadays, it plays a role in enforcing federal fair housing law and also in funding affordable housing and providing the subsidies that are needed to build the housing and keep rents low. 

ISAAC: What role does the state play in housing policies? 

PEDRO: The state plays a very similar role as to the federal government. The state also guarantees loans. The state also subsidizes housing. But because the state just has less money and resources than the federal government, its role is more geared towards regulations and what are the laws that govern how housing is built in California and where. But in general, it’s very similar to the role that the federal government plays. It’s just to a lesser extent. 

ISAAC: What role does local government play in housing policies? 

PEDRO: Local governments, they are the ones in California that are responsible for approving what housing gets built and where. And so, going back to my earlier point around single-family housing or just one home per one lot, that is a policy that right now is set by the local government. The local government can decide to have just one home per one lot in vast swaths of cities. For instance, in San Francisco, you think of San Francisco. It has skyscrapers, big apartment buildings. Well, still 75% of the land in San Francisco, you still can only build one home per lot, and that’s determined by the local government. The local government also has ultimate approval of the housing that gets built. So, just because you want to build a single-family home or you want to build a multi-family home, and the zoning says you’re allowed to do it there doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be allowed to do that by the local government. You still have to go through the process, and the local government gets to approve or disapprove that. 

ISAAC: How can people get involved in housing policies in their local community? 

PEDRO: So, there are many ways. The first question I would encourage everyone who wants to get involved in housing policy is to ask, is there a local group that is fighting for better housing policies that you agree with? And in the Bay Area, we are lucky in that we do have multiple groups that are working to push for better housing policies. There’s us, NPH, in the East Bay and Oakland, there’s East Bay Housing Organizations, in the South Bay, San Jose, there’s Silicon Valley At Home, in San Mateo County, there’s Housing Leadership Council, San Mateo County, in San Francisco, there’s the Council of Community Housing Organizations, and in the North Bay there’s Generation Housing. So, we do actually have quite a rich, rich number of organizations that are fighting for better housing policy. And so, I would ask, is there a local group? And then I would look at well, what is that local group doing, and can I get in touch with them so that I can get involved? And they will generally be able to plug you in to whatever work that they’re doing because they need people to be involved. 

I know NPH, for instance, when we’re pushing for better laws, better regulations, we really do rely on folks, on people who are impacted by this to call their representatives and to let them know that, “Hey, we want more affordable housing built in our community. We want more funding for affordable housing.” And so, being involved with a local group is a really great way to do that. If that local group doesn’t exist, then I would actually contact your local City Council and ask them, “What are you doing for housing policy? How can I get involved?” And generally, they’ll tell you what’s coming up, and you’ll have an opportunity to just hear what are the issues being considered. [theme music very slowly fades back in and plays until the end] And you can always form a group of neighbors, a group of friends that can help track these issues. Because all these meetings are supposed to be public, and you’re supposed to have access to that information to be able to influence it as these decisions are made at the local and state levels. 

So, first, I would recommend look up to see if there’s an organization. And second, I would say contact your local City Council and see what’s coming up. And then just go to that meeting and see how you can get involved.

ISAAC: Thanks for listening. For more information on The Kelsey or to check out more of my podcast episodes, visit TheKelsey.org. If you have a topic you’d like me to explore or a person to interview, email me at Isaac@TheKelsey.org. Goodbye.