Not-So-Strange Bedfellows: A Partnership between Apartment Owners and the United Way in California

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September 16, 2015; San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center

As NPQ Newswire contributor Spencer Wells noted earlier this week, the California Apartment Association has been actively opposing renter protection proposals in the city of Richmond, California, population 107,000, located just north of Berkeley and Oakland in Contra Costa County. Wells described the CAA’s petition drive to halt the municipality’s tenant protection legislation as a new, somewhat grassroots tactic for a business group that typically exerts its influence through campaign contributions to local and state government candidates.

Describing it as a “bizarre perverse twist of fate,” Lynda Carson, an IndyBay Newswire contributor and a longtime tenant activist herself, discloses that the CAA is now partnering with the United Way to help the homeless. The partnership between the California Apartment Association – Greater Inland Empire and the Inland Empire United Way will “build on efforts to expand emergency shelter and quality of life improvements for the region’s residents,” according to an article in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Located near San Francisco, Richmond is not part of the Inland Empire high desert, but partnership between the CAA and the United Way, given the strident opposition of the real estate industry to rent control and “just cause” eviction rules, might be an issue for the United Way, unless the UW believes that homelessness isn’t related in some way to lower-income tenants losing their homes due to escalating rents and aggressive landlord eviction actions.

At the Inland Empire United Way, the board of directors doesn’t appear to include the representation of any grassroots organizations, let alone affordable housing advocates. The 23 members of the IEUW board on the organization’s webpage do include five bank representatives, at least two investment firms (including Merrill Lynch), and at least one commercial real estate brokerage. That shouldn’t be surprising. The boards of most United Way entities are business boards, distributing money raised through workplace donations and direct contributions to an array of designated United Way partner agencies. However, because the board, as the IEUW webpage suggests, “is responsible for all local policies, resource development, finances, program/initiative selections and other major decisions,” the political and ideological beliefs of board members can lead to support for some community concerns to the exclusion of others.

Focused on “addressing short-term basic needs and investing in the future of at-risk children,” the IEUW has ten partner agencies that apparently receive funding as part of the UW’s effort to create “a safety net to those in need within the Desert Communities Region,” including a homeless services organization, a food bank, a group that facilitates shared housing for women with children, and other basic needs service groups.

Serving the seven-county area San Francisco Bay Area, the United Way in that region also has a business-dominated board, heavy with bankers and investment people, plus a representative of Chevron, which maintained a sharply antagonistic relationship with former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who had vigorously promoted a plan to use the city’s eminent domain powers to take foreclosed properties from banks and other mortgage holders to prevent the displacement of lower income occupants. Among the entities that went to court to stop the Richmond eminent domain plan was Wells Fargo, which has two executive vice presidents on the United Way of the Bay Area board. As Wells noted in his article for the NPQ Newswire, now-city-councilmember McLaughlin is a supporter of the rent control ordinance and an opponent of the CAA petition to block it.

The CAA has had relationships throughout the state with various United Way programs regarding housing, typically raising money for transitional housing facilities through the United Way or directly. A CAA partnership with a United Way agency is not bizarre or perverse, but actually sort of logical, given the strong business composition of most United Way governing bodies. Both the United Way and the CAA might be well advised to recognize studies that have long documented, in California as well as across the nation, that homelessness is, as John Quigley, Stephen Rafael, and Eugene Smolensky wrote for the Public Policy Institute of California in 2001, “driven more by falling incomes and rising housing costs than by the personal disabilities of the homeless population,” requiring action to preserve housing affordability if there is to be a “cure” for the problem.

Last year, Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, explained how the dynamics of homeless have changed in the last couple of decades along the lines of the analysis that Quigley and his colleagues presented:

What has changed, most significantly, is that then people could earn enough money to keep a roof over their heads. Incomes were sufficient to pay for housing, and someone who lost their place to live could get back into an apartment right away. Today this is not the case, and some people who lose their housing become homeless, spending days, weeks or even years in shelter or on the street before they find a new place to live…The supply of affordable units has dwindled. While there was sufficient housing in the 1970s, today we have seven million fewer affordable housing units than we need. While federal rent assistance can make housing affordable, only one in four eligible people receive it due to insufficient funding.

That explains in part why advocates for affordable housing support rent controls and “just cause” eviction laws—because the lack of them leads to lower-income people in shelters, tents, or on the streets.

So, no, it isn’t bizarre or perverse for the CAA to find a friendly audience in the United Way community for the willingness of CAAs and their members to support services to the homeless. The homeless need the kinds of services that shelters and outreach centers provide—and that some United Ways support. But for the more fundamental causes and solutions of homelessness in expensive housing markets, it would be somewhat bizarre for United Ways, dominated by banking and corporate leaders, to support rent control, “just cause” evictions, and higher fees on rental property owners.—Rick Cohen