BY ANTONIO LOPEZ
The struggle to house all in one of the richest places in the world is Silicon Valley’s greatest social riddle; it flies in the face of our professed calls for equity, and leaves cities like mine to focus on housing at the expense of other debilitated sectors. In 2022, as other jurisdictions implement state housing quotas with the speed of desegregation, the onus is still on EPA to be an island of affordability in a sea of opulence.
On Tuesday (March 1), we will consider one of those tools designed to tackle affordability: the Opportunity to Purchase Act (OPA). It is an ordinance whose spirit is aligned with our city’s historic mission to protect the most vulnerable. It would provide tenants, nonprofits, and even the city itself a time window to purchase the properties of absentee landlords. But if our goal is to improve the lives of tenants, I am unsure if this is the best approach.
Why exhaust so much political capital, why risk the litany of lawsuits that potentially wait for us at the door of its passage, for an ordinance that at most would benefit about a half dozen or so families per year? This is not to say that each of those renters are not our utmost concern. Again, it is a question of cost, of whether we’ve explored other avenues to support tenants. I do not believe we have. Worse, I am worried that we’ve gotten ourselves mired in a political quicksand, deciding to center hundreds of combined hours of staff for a single policy that in the end might hurt us more than help.
A symbolic gesture
The approach seems backward. Should we not, before passing such an ordinance, pave the way for tenants to be in a position to become homeowners? A single-family home in East Palo Alto now sells for upwards of a million dollars. Most tenants cannot afford that, and I seriously doubt that the city has the fiscal capacity to take on a substantial role in acquiring properties.
OPA then will be a paper tiger, a symbolic gesture to our commitment to affordable housing, strong in principle, but ineffectual in practice.
In all likelihood, nonprofits would become the primary actors who would engage in real estate transactions, a topic that, to put it mildly, has many community members, including some executive directors of those very organizations, concerned.
Many residents are wary of ceding their bargaining power to the single-most powerful asset of wealth they own, their homes, to a slew of nonprofits and their staff. To be clear, I am tremendously grateful for the advocacy and work of our community-based organizations. The question is whether we as legislators should place nonprofits in the business of being real estate brokers?
Asking the tough questions
The issue goes beyond OPA. Behind closed doors, many leaders are fearful of speaking out. They are afraid of labeled as “not progressive enough.”
On the other side of the debate, residents have threatened recalling council members who vote in the affirmative. My concern is not about OPA, but what it says about my city that it has abandoned civil discourse, the ability to dialogue candidly and earnestly with one another, because we are too afraid to ask the tough questions.
To be clear, we can get in this fight. The question is, should we?
I am a progressive deeply rooted in home ownership for all in EPA, including and especially our low-income communities.
My biggest concern is that OPA without proper financing is a dream deferred. I am not saying OPA is a bad idea. We are pursuing a controversial ordinance at the expense of deprioritizing the most basic services a city is obligated to provide for its residents. OPA is a high gamble — legally, economically, politically, and otherwise — with, at best, a modest payoff.
There are much more popular ways of supporting our renters that we haven’t discussed because our bandwidth is spread so thin we can’t even imagine other options. What we need to do is to strengthen the economy of our community, increase wages, education, so we are not solving the problem on a block by block basis, but generationally.
Antonio Lopez is an East Palo Alto City Councilman.