SAN FRANCISCO -- By the time protesters started blockading private buses carrying tech workers to and from work last month, the Bay Area Council had spent nearly a year working behind the scenes with city officials on a pilot program -- announced this week -- to charge shuttles to continue picking up and dropping off workers at public bus stops.
Protesters used the blockades to highlight their concerns about rising rents that have resulted in mass evictions of longtime residents. As 2014 begins, the Bay Area Council -- which helped create BART in the 1950s -- is working once more to focus its members on the issues of affordable housing and regional transportation in the face of dwindling funds and government resources.
Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, sat down recently with this newspaper to talk about the challenges facing the 101 cities that make up the nine-county Bay Area -- and the influence the bus protests have had on the issues of housing and transportation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q Do the recent protests against tech-worker buses deserve credit for highlighting the growing problem of affordable housing?
A The problems that are being raised are very real and get to the heart of our community. We have to take it very seriously. People in San Francisco were saying, "What's going on with these big buses picking up people in my neighborhood?" We feel that the transportation issue is a transportation issue and should be taken as that. But as time went on, these buses became a symbol of other things -- rents going up, evictions on the increase, housing costs rising.
About 50 percent of the region is suffering a housing burden, which occurs when more than 30 percent of household income goes to housing. In San Jose, the percentage is 53 percent, higher than the Bay Area average. In San Francisco, it's around 47 percent. In Santa Clara County in 2011, 60 percent of households could afford an entry-level home. Now it's down to 45 percent. That's a big drop in just two years, so the trend is very poor.
Q Where are the solutions?
A We can't rule out any form of housing. If you build in outlying areas you have to invest in a transportation network that would support that, which we don't have. Building affordably in San Jose and San Francisco is not going to happen. The economics aren't there to support it and the government programs aren't there to back it like they used to be. We no longer have redevelopment agencies, tax increment finance, or HUD supporting public housing and subsidized housing. We've lost some of the tools in the toolbox, so we're going to need new tools.
We're the trade office for China so we're engaged in a lot of discussions with Chinese investors who'd like to come in and purchase real estate and build projects as developers. We haven't seen that before and we're definitely seeing it now and we're encouraging it. We've got closed military bases throughout the region, waterfront property of 1,500 acres or more.
So far we haven't figured out how to make use of these properties but we're working on it. Alameda Naval Air Station, Mare Island, Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard, Treasure Island are all great opportunities for big ideas to become big reality. The conversation in Washington is that everyone has to have a smaller appetite. In our region we shouldn't buy into that. We need to think big.
Q What about affordable housing outside of the urban centers?
A We have 10,000 scientists in two laboratories in Livermore. Livermore Valley could be the next Silicon Valley if we enable it. We're looking into the economic opportunities that exist out there. There's land, good school systems and people already living there. If you combine that brain power with Silicon Valley and push out toward the Central Valley, we would like to see manufacturing become more a part of our economy. But BART doesn't go to Livermore and there's a major traffic jam called Interstate 580. Until we fix that, it's a tremendously limiting factor.
Q How can we afford to develop more public transportation?
A It's discouraging and we need to do something about it. We've done a lot of projects throughout the region from the bonds we passed in 2006 and from the stimulus program that came out of the early years of the Obama administration. Those funds have dried up and you're about to see us fall off the cliff when it comes to new transportation funding. You're looking at about $300 billion in transportation funding of which almost all goes to operate the current system.
We don't have $50 billion that we know we need for projects that have already been approved and are waiting to be funded. We're really in trouble, so we need to come together regionally from a common perspective and determine what our priorities are and fund them locally.
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.
Current job: President and CEO, Bay Area Council
Previous jobs: Worked for then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and was chief of staff to former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan. Also was vice president and general manager of two Bay Area waste collection, disposal and recycling firms
Education: Associate degree in business administration, Kingsborough College, City University of New York; political science degree, San Francisco State
Family: Two daughters and two sons
Residence: Pleasant Hill
Five things about Jim wunderman
1. He went from politics to waste management, and then back into politics. "I don't know what to say about that."
2. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, where he was a die-hard San Francisco 49ers fan.
3. Loves attending rock concerts and this summer had front-row tickets to see Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson at the War Memorial Opera House. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven."
4. Regularly drives in rush-hour traffic from his San Francisco office to the East Bay to see his sons play indoor soccer, giving him an appreciation of the need for transportation solutions.
5. Considers his mentor to be Dianne Feinstein, his former boss and former San Francisco mayor. "Any time in life when I'm wondering what to do, I think, 'What would Dianne do?' "