Few can afford 'affordable housing' 

Wendy Brown was ecstatic when her two-year search for a home finally landed her and her 10-year-old daughter in government-subsidized housing earlier this year.  But Brown's income as a teacher couldn't cover the down payment.

The pair moved into a two-bedroom condo in a 200-unit development at Westborough and Gellert boulevards inJanuary with assistance from the state and South San Francisco, where Brown teaches fourth and fifth grade. Not only did she qualify for special financing, but she won a lottery for one of 70 below-market-rate units in the complex, saving her an estimated $200,000 off the $545,000 market price, said Brown, 37.

Even then, she needed help from her parents with the down payment.

"I feel like I’m just above the poor level," said Brown, a single mom who makes roughly $45,000 a year. "It’s very depressing."

A teacher with five years of experience, she has considered leaving the profession for a higher-paying job.

Brown, like an ever-increasing number of middle-class residents in the county and Bay Area, isn’t what most people picture when they think of someone who needs housing assistance. But thousands of teachers, firefighters, nurses and public employees face the dilemma of whether to remain lifetime renters or purchase houses in cities as far away as Tracy, according to Chris Mohr, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County. The council works to coordinate corporate, public and nonprofit efforts to build more affordable homes on the Peninsula.

"The current climate disproportionately affects new homebuyers, who don’t have equity already built up in a home," according to Geoffrey Craighead, president of the San Mateo County Association of Realtors.

Indeed, a growing number of local residents are being priced out of a housing market where a $147,700 annual income is needed to pay the mortgage and taxes on a starter home, while the median household income is $73,000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and California Association of Realtors.

"More Bay Area residents are losing out on the American dream of owning a home," Craighead said.

The reality is that it is getting more difficult for people to get into the market, said Walter Zhovreboff, director of First Home, a finance company that has a standing relationship with the nonprofit Bay Area Home Buyer Agency focused on finding homes for people like Brown.

"‘Close your eyes for 10 seconds and picture the home you want in your mind,’ I tell potential first-time homebuyers who come to my seminars. ‘Now open them; that’s your third home,’" Zhavreboff said.

Residential development faces hurdles

In spite of the high demand and premium prices that can be reaped from multifamily housing projects, many are undermined before they can begin by a combination of high land costs, a preference for retail by city planners and neighborhood opposition.

From a 17-tower residential project proposed for Redwood Shores killed in a voter referendum in November 2004 to the five-year approval process needed for the 83-acre redevelopment of San Mateo’s Bay Meadows horse racing track, neighborhood perceptions can make or break a project, said Andrea Papanastassiou, development manager for local nonprofit developer Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition.

Even the affordable Rotary Floritas senior housing complex developed by Mid-Peninsula had to be downsized in San Mateo to 50 units from a proposed 70, due to density limits approved by voters in 1991 and renewed in 2004, said Fran Wagstaffe, senior project manager for the nonprofit affordable housing developer.

"You have a lot of the housing units opposed by people who do not want to see the urbanization of the county," said Geoffrey Craighead, president of the San Mateo County Association of Realtors.

In addition to high real estate prices, the state’s Proposition 13 — which capped real estate taxes — has caused cities to favor retail developments because they rely on sales taxes to pay for schools, libraries and infrastructure, experts said. "It’s a disincentive for cities to develop housing," Craigheadsaid.

But some progress is being made, according to Chris Mohr, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County. In San Mateo County — which recently ranked dead last among nine Bay Area counties in meeting its state mandate to create affordable housing from 1999 to 2006 with just 52 percent — officials have begun an initiative that would allow local cities to swap affordable housing credits for cash to encourage cities that have the room to expand housing development, Mohr said.

Even more promising, perhaps, is legislation making its way through the state Assembly that would allow the county to charge a $25 fee for filing legal documents. The fee would generate about $2 million a year in steady income for the county’s affordable housing trust fund, according to Board of Supervisors President Rose Jacobs Gibson’s office.



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