Communities across California are being challenged by rising housing costs. For example, in reports about recently released data from the California Realtor’s Association, only 27% of Californians have adequate income to buy a median-priced home. That’s less than half the 56% peak rate in the first quarter of 2012.

In California’s San Mateo County, the rate is even lower:  14% of residents can afford to buy a median-priced home. In between San Francisco and San Jose, the county is experiencing a dramatic increase in jobs yet slow growth in housing. For the past several years, only one unit of housing has been built for about every 15 jobs.

The County of San Mateo’s Home for All initiative is a cross-sector leadership group committed to finding the land, funds and community will to address this jobs-housing gap. Many local residents have been unsettled by the fast rate of change and the impacts on housing costs, traffic and community supports; some have adopted a stance of being vocally opposed to new development.  This creates a challenging environment for local officials to get a clear picture of the broader community’s perspective on housing.

Partnering with leaders in city management, Common Knowledge “Plus” was invited to help develop a Community Engagement Pilot Program. The program began with research conducted among all cities and towns in San Mateo County to help assess the greatest needs and opportunities for generating more positive community momentum for housing. Additionally, a Learning Network that is open to representatives from all cities and towns has met regularly since Spring 2017.

In Fall 2017, four jurisdictions were selected to participate in the initial pilot program: Burlingame, Half Moon Bay, Portola Valley and Redwood City.  Each City formed a team with representatives from the Council, City Manager’s office and Planning Department. Common Knowledge Plus facilitated a collaborative design process to create community education and dialogue that helped ease existing tensions and achieve a greater sense of what the community can do together about housing.  The project used these key strategies:

  • Reach out to people who care about the community but are not involved in civic process         
  • Have learning oriented dialogues upstream from decisions
  • Provide culturally competent introductory information about the community and housing options
  • Provide decision makers with a chance to listen to community members talk to each other
  • Give people multiple options to stay informed and contribute to housing progress

Specific council actions on housing were refined through community input gained from interactive outreach and learning-oriented CLEAR Community conversations. The primary outcome of this work demonstrated that a far broader cross section of each community was interested in housing solutions, especially affordable housing solutions for families that live and work in the community, than had previously been evident to city officials. An equally important outcome has been a greater awareness among community members about their interconnectedness, reduced misunderstandings and stereotypes about “others” and a desire to stay involved.

An outside evaluator has reported that the pilot cities have agreed this work had positive effects and was worth the effort. Home for All is in the process of inviting a second round of cities in San Mateo County to participate in the Community Engagement Program. We applaud their sustained commitment to this work.