Brain­storm­ing to end hous­ing cri­sis

“On the Ta­ble” brings cit­i­zens to­gether to talk and pos­si­bly in­spire ad­vo­cacy

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Richard Scheinin rscheinin@ba­yare­anews­

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.

Hous­ing crunch

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.

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