In San Diego (and in many urban areas) businesses lead the charge to solve social problems. I spent 20 years there working on affordable housing, workforce development, and social change, and one of my favorite partners was the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. Their former director, Julie Meier Wright used to repeatedly say, “Unless a social cause has a business champion, nothing changes.” I was fortunate to share the stage with her at the United States Conference of Mayors Workforce Committee where she shared her wisdom and called businesses to action. Her message was simple and clear, what’s good for business is often good for the rest of society. And, when business leaders come together for change, they make stuff happen.
Our subject was workforce development, and we were part of a successful movement to shift the priorities of education and training programs to really focus on the needs of industry — down to the level of specific skills. Yet, the same message applies to homelessness and housing.
In 2016 and 2017, the Regional Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Los Angeles changed the course of housing and services for homeless people in historic ways. According to a recent post from the the United Way in LA, “Since 2016, L.A. has put more than 8,000 units of supportive housing in the construction pipeline. That’s more in three years than was built in the previous 30. Once these homes open their doors, they will permanently end homelessness for people who have had the greatest struggle finding stability.”
The driving force for this success were TAXES (yes, new taxes). In Los Angeles, the business community created ballot measures (HHH and H) that established a bond (paid out of new taxes on property) to pay for new affordable housing, and a sales tax increase to pay for homeless services. It is surprising that people would vote to tax themselves to help others. It is surprising that the way has been paved to build new housing and provide new services. Given the magnitude of the housing and homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, perhaps it’s not that surprising; however, the response and the action are admirable.
In most cities and towns, the development process is led by developers. They find deals, bring plans to the cities, and negotiate for development. This inefficient and expensive process always drives up the cost of development and reduces planning to a series of ad hoc transactions over decades. The results are slow, and rarely, if ever, affordable to working people, never mind the poor.
Business leaders have the power to flip the script. LA shows us that when businesses unite for change, the results can be stunning. Business leaders can call for more collective planning and action to stimulate economic growth through housing production. More housing in city centers means more support for sagging retail, more jobs, and more demand for goods and services. Business leadership starts to look like a win-win-win.
Where I live and work in Santa Barbara county, we have a growing number of people living in cars and on the streets. We have such an acute shortage of housing that 60,000 people commute to an area of about 110,000 (increasing the population by over 50%) every day (before COVID) because there is nowhere for working people to live. The retail corridor of State Street was already dying a slow death because there were not enough customers for the mostly tourist-oriented shops and restaurants. The regional malls in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria are skeletal hulks of concrete and stucco with empty parking lots and darkened department stores.
Clearly, the time is ripe for new, revolutionary thinking that changes our approach to housing, retail, jobs, environmental balance, and social services — but who will take the lead? Who will be the champions for change? I would argue that we need our business leaders to assume a greater role in leading this conversation and shaping our local forces for the new economy emerging out of the ashes of pandemic and crisis.