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Clayton looks for local control in addressing housing crisis

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Is there a housing crisis in Clayton? It depends on whom you ask.

Clayton Vice Mayor Julie Pierce thinks there could be, especially in the years to come. But Councilman Jeff Wan doesn’t think so.

“In Clayton specifically, I’d have to gain an understanding of how the term ‘crisis’ is being used,” he said. “Overall, I think Clayton is one of the few places in the Bay Area that strikes a good balance between a high quality of life and affordability.”

That’s something that will be debated on the floor of the council, on social media and in living rooms throughout the city. But there is a housing crisis in the region, which resulted in the Bay Area-wide CASA compact.

Brought together by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), CASA is the comprehensive and controversial result of 1½ years of meetings among local politicians, developers, builders, planners, affordable housing advocates, BART and other stakeholders concerned about what they consider a housing crisis in the Bay Area.

The value of local control

But Wan says the housing crisis is centered around the large cities and employment centers in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties – not a small city like Clayton.

“It is a loss of local control,” he said at a council meeting last month where he introduced his objections to the compact. “From the process itself to the overall output from CASA, it was flawed.”

Pierce said most cities agreed the plan had problems. But nonetheless, “they compiled everything they had decided and sent it to Sacramento to make sausage,” said Pierce, the former president of ABAG.

According to Assemblyman Tim Grayson, D-Concord, the state effectively dissolved the plan. Most of its ideas were absorbed into the many housing-related bills now being written, discussed and voted on in the state Legislature.
“CASA was brought together with good intentions,” Pierce said. “But there were too many competing issues, including who would pay for it? Who would administer it?”

The Contra Costa Mayor’s Conference wrote a letter opposing many of the principles of CASA, released May 8, one day after the Clayton City Council approved a letter of its own, penned by Wan, that outlined the city’s objections. Issues included the loss of local control over building and the creation of yet another regional agency to oversee housing issues.

“The City of Clayton values local control to improve and maintain the quality of life for its residents,” the letter begins. “As the smallest city in Contra Costa County by area and population, the needs and interests of our residents are those of a small, close-knit city on the outskirts of the Bay Area and are often different than other large cities in the region.”

Helping the middle class

Grayson, the former mayor of Concord, agrees with that sentiment. “Many cities, especially smaller ones, already have a good handle on their housing needs in their local communities,” he said. “Clayton is one of those cities, making sure that the needs are addressed.”

He said the CASA compact started with good intentions to address housing availability and affordability in the Bay Area, including promoting high-density housing near transit hubs, like BART stations and some major bus stops. But he made it clear that Clayton should “never be a target” of such developments.

He advocates creating affordable housing for the middle class as well as those who are facing homelessness. “Even people who have good jobs who commute to San Francisco can’t afford housing,” he said. “We have to address their needs as well.”

Wan doesn’t exactly see it that way, especially in regard to Clayton. “The approximate median home price in Clayton is about $800,000,” he said. “In 2015, the median household income in Clayton was $136K a year. An $800,000 home at 4.25 percent, 30-year loan would yield a monthly payment of approximately $3,100.”

Going with a “conservative” one-third debt-to-income ratio, that would fall under the median household income, according to Wan.

“Of course, more modest homes are available, which increases the affordability,” he said. “We strive to meet the needs of all of our residents at all income levels.”

Looking for alternative housing

Despite that, Pierce sees that Clayton could be facing a housing crisis. “What happens when seniors want to downsize, yet stay in the communities they live in, where their friends and family are? Where do young professionals live if they have good jobs yet still can’t find housing?”

She is a fan of additional dwelling units, or ADUs. These are “granny units” or other methods that create extra living spaces on one property.

“Maybe the homeowners can move to the smaller unit on the dwelling and a young family – or even their own grown children – can move into the main house,” she said. “This is a way to keep families close and allow them to stay in the community they love and don’t want to leave.”

“If people can live, work and play in the same place, it greatly increases the quality of life,” Grayson noted.

The issue of affordable housing for everyone is a massive tangle, mixing fees, the cost of development, union wages that may dissuade some builders from committing to work in the Bay Area and oversight. Pierce says Clayton’s letter of opposition to CASA may be too late in the process, but that at least it “establishes our principles.”

According to Pierce, some locations zoned for retail in Clayton would be better off used for housing. “Basically, we need more choices in housing, even in Clayton,” she said. “I’m frustrated by our lack of options. And Clayton is a microcosm of what’s going on in other places.”

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