Over the last several years, an increasing number of San Mateo County residents have come to see the light regarding the pressing need for more affordable housing. Their kids' teachers are not returning in the new school year; "help wanted" signs paper storefront windows in their downtowns and shopping centers; and for the renters among us, every call or letter from the landlord sparks panic over the possibility of another rent hike ahead – one that could be the final straw that pushes them out of the Bay Area.
With the growing awareness of this problem and the damage to our communities that it's causing, county residents are primed to consider reasonable measures by our government leaders to ease the affordable housing shortage.
The Board of Supervisors signaled last year that county leaders view the housing shortage as a top priority and notched up the commitment to address the problem, which was a welcome development. But the main strategy that supervisors and county officials devised to support housing affordability countywide is an unwelcome let-down.
With Measure K on the November ballot, county residents are being asked to extend by 20 years a 10-year half-cent sales tax – an existing tax that won't expire for another seven years. A top spending priority for the estimated $85 million annual revenue from the tax, the supervisors say, would be housing for "seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and families."
A close look at this ballot measure raises a number of questions. County officials are appealing to voters' concern over the affordable housing crisis, but because Measure K is a general tax measure that requires a simple majority to pass, it cannot be designated for a specific purpose. So there is no real guarantee that, once the tax is extended for 20 years, and perhaps new members are seated on the Board of Supervisors, the revenue will be used for affordable housing.
Supporters say that extending the tax now, essentially making it a 27-year source of revenue, would ensure that the county has a stable, long-term revenue stream that can help it raise money in the bond market to finance the building of affordable housing. Yet County Counsel John Beiers has indicated that legal questions surrounding the use of Measure K tax revenues to pay off bonds that finance affordable housing have yet to be answered.
With a current tax that will be in place for another seven years, voters have the right to wonder: Why are we being asked to commit ourselves and another generation of residents to an additional 20 years of the higher sales tax when the spending plan is so vague?
Two other Bay Area counties, including Santa Clara County, are asking voters to approve bond measures to pay for affordable housing programs. That option was considered by our supervisors as well, but unfortunately polls indicated that a bond measure generating enough revenue to make a difference wouldn't be supported by the two-thirds of voters needed to pass it.
We believe the county is doing the right thing in trying to find the means to address the affordable housing shortage. But Measure K is not the answer – at least not now. More legal clarity is needed, and specifics on how exactly the money will be used should be prerequisites to placing ballot measures before voters. There is time to renew the sales tax before it expires, and the county should come back with a more firm plan and stronger arguments as to why voters should support it.