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Congressman, can you please fix this housing thing?

I thought I would sit in the back and listen to the Congressman talk at us. I came to hear Congressman Mark DeSaulnier tell us what was up and what he planned to do about it. Sitting back passively was my idea of participation. But I’d come to the wrong event. This was the Congressman’s “mobile district office hours” which meant each one waiting in the library lobby would have a one-on-one opportunity to air grievances, request help, chat. Now I understood why the freshly showered guy next to me held a dossier, and why the lady next to him clung to a thick packet of paper with sticky notes. They had real business to discuss. I had not come to a town hall.

I reread the flyer I picked up on the way in: Congressman DeSaulnier will be available to share thoughts and to answer questions on federal legislation, and to assist with issues related to Social Security, the Veteran’s Administration, passports, or other federal agencies.

Well, why not? I had questions and thoughts. I needed to know what he could do about housing insecurity in his district. What could Congress do, when the local governments were not doing much? Each local jurisdiction has its own housing plan, or “housing element” that spells out how it will meet its fair share targets for housing by income level. Yet, time and again, these jurisdictions opt to develop for the higher income levels. That’s where the money is. I’ve been learning this as a research volunteer with Zero 2016, a campaign to end veteran and chronic homelessness. [While waiting my turn, Rep. DeSaulnier’s outreach coordinator mentioned that Richmond recently passed the first rent control measure in California in more than 30 years.]

I guess I hoped by “tattling” on the cities to Rep. DeSaulnier, I could convince him to get in there and tell them to shape up. But that’s not how it works. We, residents of jurisdictions that aren’t building sufficient affordable housing, we have to make a fuss. As he patiently explained, Congress can incentivize housing development for lower incomes through federal tax credits to affordable housing developers. But I know that the cities still have to support that development. And they are not so motivated unless constituents motivate them.

Organizations like Greenbelt Alliance and East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), among others, hope to build this political will.  He recommended I support organizations that were pushing for affordable housing locally (you mean I don’t get to sit back and listen to someone tell me what’s wrong and how he’s going to fix it?). So, I’ve signed up for an EBHO event.

Before taking Rep. George Miller’s seat in the House, DeSaulnier served in the California State Senate where he was Chair of the Transportation and Housing Committee. Among other legislation, he worked on bills like SB 375 with State Senator Darrell Steinberg in 2008. The regional transportation bill included measures to curb greenhouse gas through transportation planning and building high-density housing around transit (more here).  He also helped found the Ending Poverty in California Caucus while in state legislature.

But, at the federal level, he can’t do much for our local housing crisis. That’s up to us.

In Oakland, where I lived for 14 years before being priced out, people are organizing to demand change. Eric Arnold of Oakulture and former writer for East Bay Express and Oakland Local, reports on gentrification’s affect on the cultural class that attracted investment in the last several years. In “As Development Boom Bubbles, Oakland’s Art Scene Increasingly Troubled,” he writes: If ever there was a time to organize Oakland’s creative arts community, this is it. For the past several months, the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition has been attempting to do just that… OCNC has coined the hashtag #KeepOaklandCreative and holds organizational meetings to try to rally the city’s culture creators around a policy platform which aims to make a sustainable future for artists, by taking a proactive stance against displacement.

My move from Barbara Lee’s district to Mark DeSaulnier’s was not by choice. Despite being displaced, I like it here just fine, and I like what he’s doing for his constituents in his short time in office. But, it’s up to me, to all of us affected by this housing crush, to be less comfortable sitting back and listening.

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