Brainstorming to end housing crisis
“On the Table” brings citizens together to talk and possibly inspire advocacy
MOUNTAIN VIEW >> Several dozen women and men sat in a conference room here the other day, preparing for the upcoming mobilization: the thousands of people who will sit down in small groups around the Bay Area this month to talk about the housing crisis and what’s to be done about it.
The goal is to inspire a wave of advocacy and innovation around a seemingly intractable Bay Area problem. Organized by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the region-wide conversation called “On the Table” begins Wednesday. The Foundation has enlisted more than 700 volunteers, including the people in the conference room, to host sessions that are expected to attract thousands of brainstorming citizens — perhaps
the front line of a new movement.
“We are building a platform for civic engagement,” Mauricio Palma, the foundation’s director of initiatives and special projects, told the group. Ask questions, he suggested, but don’t weigh down your guests with any particular agenda. Over coffee or a meal, just sit back and listen to the stories that emerge about how people’s lives are shaped by the spiraling cost of housing, the displacement of low-income and middle-class work-
ers, the long commutes.
“Collect as many data points as you can,” advised host Lauren Bigelow, who helps place people into affordable apartments in her job as an administrator for Palo Alto Housing, a nonprofit organization.
“But it's the stories that make things real for people at the policy level. That's what resonates.”
Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, “On the Table” is one of 10 mass conversations happening around the nation this year, as community foundations attempt to mobilize citizens around matters of public concern.
In Silicon Valley, putting the focus on housing was a no-brainer.
In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, the median price of a single-family home exceeds $1 million. A renter typically needs an annual income of $126,090 to afford a two-bedroom apartment in those counties, according to the California Association of Realtors and Zillow. A poll by
the Bay Area Council found that the cost of housing was the chief concern of respondents — and that 40 percent were likely to leave the region in the next few years.
Housing is the region's Achilles heel and its obsession. Certainly there's no shortage of conversation about housing here. So why will this conversation be any different from the others?
Lisa Conrad, an architect who serves on the housing committee of the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County, presented that question to Palma. She recently had attended a
public meeting about housing in Redwood City where struggling tenants stood up, she recounted, and said, “We've talked to you, we've told our story, nothing's changing. Why are we telling our story again?”
Palma made no guarantees that “On the Table” will change the world.
But it is likely to draw previously silent citizens into a discussion of problems and potential solutions. It will give voice, he predicted, to the “real experts” — people who get stuck in commutes or who can no longer afford to live in the towns where they
grew up. By the end of the last conversation on Nov. 22, those people may have put forward out-of-the-box ideas that ivory-tower policymakers haven't considered. A pair of independent reports, based on surveys filled out by thousands of participants, will broadcast those ideas, including to public officeholders and policy planners.
“On the Table” might also help bridge cultural and political divides, he said. Municipalities are hosting conversations, as are churches, synagogues and Islamic organizations. Conversations, each with six to ten participants, will happen in cities and towns throughout the region, including Palo Alto, Hayward, San Francisco and Pescadero, where Puente de la Costa Sur, a nonprofit group serving agricultural workers on the southern coast of San Mateo County, is hosting several sessions.
“You never know what's going to happen from one conversation,” said Emily Schwing, who works for Veggielution Community Farm in East San Jose. Her nonprofit group expects around 100 people to participate in a dozen or so conversations on Nov. 15 at the six-acre farm in the Emma
Prusch Farm Park in the Mayfair neighborhood.
Picnic tables will be set up, soup will be served from the farm's food truck, “and then we'll sit down and talk about housing,” she said. “Food is a common language and housing is a subject that affects our neighbors who come to the farm and is a huge topic among our own staff. Pretty much everyone is nervous about what's going to happen with their housing situation. There's a sense of urgency, a sense of the unknown.”
Plan of action
Similar themes emerged in conversations with other “On the Table” hosts. It's easy enough to get jaded and throw one's hands in the air: In Mountain View, more than 900 people are on a waiting list for 42 units that rent at below-market rates, Bigelow said.
Still, she feels the conversation about housing has broken out of the shadows: “For the longest time, it was this shameful thing that people kind of struggled with on their own: ‘Oh, my rent is getting pretty high and I don't know what to do about this.' But now it's my hope that we will have enough people talking about these things to create the political will and clout to get the momentum going.”
For Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, “On the Table” is a throwback. It reminds her of the house meetings she attended during the 1990s when she worked as a boycott organizer for the United Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley.
“You would have people coming together at your house, and it wasn't just about storytelling,” said Gonzalez, whose current group advocates for greater investment in lowincome communities. “It had to lead to the next action, the next meeting, who you would bring to the next discussion.
“And today, looking at the Reinvestment Coalition, we have 300 member organizations and they serve thousands of clients, and if we want to tackle the issue of housing and displacement, that's quite a powerful force. So this is not just a conversation. I see this as a catalyst to make a plan of action. First, how do we get them to the meeting? And then, everybody leaves with some homework, right?”
Yadira Diaz reads a survey for “On the Table,” a community-wide conversation on the Bay Area’s housing crisis.
Mauricio Palma, of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, who is organizing “On the Table,” hopes the event will build a platform for civic engagement.