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    Alternative Housing: Reality Check

    By Derek Barnes–

    Have you ever wondered what people mean when they use the term “alternative housing”? Does it induce visions of safe and aspirational environments for the thriving human spirit, or make you think of substandard places of shelter where facilities and amenities are scarce and barely meet minimal levels of expectation? For most, it’s probably somewhere in the middle but leans toward the latter scenario.

    Comparatively speaking, what is it an alternative to or substitute for when more adequate housing isn’t available? What baseline are we using in the comparative analysis? These are vital questions to consider in our quest to identify root problems and solve the Bay Area housing crisis.

    There is internal anxiety when I hear our leaders and legislatures make statements that suggest people are “choosing to live” in inadequate shelter, illegal residential units, RVs, mobile homes, and tiny houses in Bay Area cities. This position demonstrates being really out of touch and promotes subtle propaganda that suggests we’re making significant progress in solving a crisis by adopting more solutions like these. In fact, the reality is that the “alternatives” are chosen because there are not better options for a growing number of people living here. 

    As an advocate for many Bay Area housing providers, I support more development of safe and affordable homes, greater homeownership, and increased innovation in the industry. Treating accessory dwelling units (ADUs), tiny homes, RVs, and mobile housing like traditional single-family homes may make sense, theoretically. While this might increase the inventory of available homes, the devil is always in the details and execution. Fast-tracking development also has consequences. For example, if we make exceptions or have fewer requirements to place or operate mobile/non-stationary housing, where might we loosen compliance mandates and restrictions operating more traditional housing structures to achieve parity?

    Today, there’s so much focus on the cost of building homes and less emphasis on the cost of maintaining housing that many property owners and managers must endure. We have both an inventory and an operating overhead crisis. With new homes in the Bay Area costing between $600–$800 per square foot (sqft) to construct, we can’t just build our way out of this crisis, as most experts already know. For new home affordability, we need to get that down below $250 sqft—which is why “alternatives” seem so attractive. For many cities, the current reality is that the vast majority of “affordable housing” has already been built. This includes alternative forms of housing that are often owned or managed by small independent rental owners/operators. 

    We have to reform and innovate housing policy, zoning, and onerous operating restrictions if we’re ever going to realize the several million units of additional housing Governor Newsom campaigned on to close this enormous gap.

    Not without some flaws, Senate Bills 8–9–10 are extraordinary pieces of recent legislation that attempt to create ease in the housing industry—addressing density, costs, and policy. Legislation can only get us to a certain point. Compliance, accountability, and commitment are also needed. For example, while there might be “permitted zoning” for ADUs, there’s evidence that building ADUs in municipalities still takes way too long, costs too much, and meets with too much resistance and uninformed bureaucracy.

    Communities like Neighborship in West Oakland may pave the way for alternative and affordable forms of housing to keep people sheltered cost-effectively—if they are healthy and can operate safely. Reducing municipal red tape and creating incentives (or penalties) is a priority, so other neighborhoods and homeowner associations adopt a YIMBY attitude. The collective goal should make it easier to operate, cut bureaucracy, and create equitable incentives/penalties. In turn, this will lower construction costs, reduce building times, and bring down operating expenses.

    As we look to solutions that promise alternative and affordable housing, we should also be wary of legislation or policies that pit renters against property owners (and vice versa). These political tactics can be a distraction, do little to increase the housing stock, and create more operating overhead for rental property owners/managers, typically small family businesses. Unvetted legislation and policies can also restrict new construction.

    Ultimately, it shifts the burden of decades of underproduction in California to small rental property owners who don’t have similar restrictions or protections on skyrocketing operating and building costs. Good legislation and policies should promote more development of alternative and affordable housing.

    Derek Barnes is CEO of East Bay Rental Housing Association ( He currently serves on the boards of Horizons Foundation and Homebridge CA. Follow him on Twitter @DerekBarnesSF or on Instagram at DerekBarnes.SF

    Published on November 4, 2021