May Day rally brings out community voices around housing crisis. (Photo by Amir Saadiq)

In the chaotic environment of the Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis, few suburban cities personify the region’s rent woes more clearly than Concord, where tenant groups say political leaders have failed to protect the city’s most vulnerable populations.

Contra Costa County’s largest city has been buffeted by the same forces that have descended on nearly every Bay Area community – a growing population, increasingly scarce housing supplies and a widening income gap that leaves low-income households and communities of color struggling to afford roofs over their heads.

“Across the region we have a housing crisis that is impacting renters, especially low-income renters and renters of color. That’s increasing and that’s true in Concord,” said Sarah Treuhaft, managing director at PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy group working to advance racial and economic equity.

The city of 130,559 appears to be particularly vulnerable, however, because of its significant number of renters (nearly 40 percent of residents, according to city officials), its declining income levels, its lack of affordable housing and its growing Latino population.

The median income in the city dropped by more than $1,300 from 2010 to 2015 and the majority of renters in Concord have household incomes of less than $50,000, but no neighborhood in the city is affordable to people at this income level, according to data from the Bay Area Equity Atlas, an analysis tool and database focused on the metrics of inequality in the region.

Also, from 2000 to 2015, the percentage of renters in Concord who spent 30 percent or more of their income on rent rose from 44 percent to 57 percent, according to the atlas, which was developed by a partnership between PolicyLink, the San Francisco Foundation and the University of Southern California.

That’s 7 percentage points higher than the nine-county region as a whole and 13 percentage points higher than San Francisco, where the high cost of housing has been blamed for the displacement of black and Latino communities for years.

This type of housing insecurity reaches beyond people’s inability to find affordable places to live by acting as a brake on the local economy, Treuhaft said.

For example, if all renters in Contra Costa County paid less than 30 percent of their income on rent, they would have an additional $582 million in disposable income to spend on things like childcare, transportation, education, food and other essentials, Treuhaft said.

For lower-income, rent-burdened households, that’s an average of $8,350 per year that could be pumped back into the economy.

“You address this by raising incomes … and lowering housing costs,” Treuhaft said.

In terms of housing costs, however, it appears that just the opposite is happening in Concord.

According to a city rental housing report, there are currently 1,811 affordable units in Concord, where, according to the atlas, median monthly rents increased by roughly 46 percent to $2,427 between 2011 and 2017.

This is compounded by the fact that, according to data from the Association of Bay Area Governments shared in the Bay Area Equity Atlas and city officials, no affordable units were built between 2007 and 2017.

“You need strategies that address the supply-side and produce housing at all income levels, especially at lower income levels,” Treuhaft said. “And we need strategies that protect renters from skyrocketing rents and evictions and displacement, and we need to preserve the existing affordable housing.”

Over the past few years, the city has been grappling with policies that would do just that, largely in response to demands from tenant advocacy groups.

Concord Mayor Carlyn Obringer points out that the city has established a Residential Rent Review Program, improved its multi-family building inspection program and is spending $7.8 million on a 62-unit affordable housing project, among other things.

At its June 19 meeting, the City Council had the opportunity to move forward with eight new policies, including improvements to its rent review process, extended notifications for evictions, mandatory relocation assistance for displaced tenants and a just cause eviction mandate.

The council opted not to pursue the just cause eviction option and in the past has rejected demands from tenant groups that were pushing for rent control.

Rent control lacks support from the majority of Concord voters, who rejected last year’s statewide Proposition 10, which would have made it easier for cities to enact such policies, Obringer said.

Rent control could also discourage investment in new rental projects and the acquisition and rehabilitation of existing properties, she said.

The lack of new affordable housing construction, indeed any new residential rental construction, Obringer said, is a problem built in to Concord’s rental market.

Because rents in the city are below the Bay Area’s average, developers are pursuing projects in neighboring cities where the potential for a return on investment is greater, she said. 

“It’s a balance,” Obringer said. “We’re trying to find a fair and balanced solution.”

Tenant advocates, however, say the city’s most vulnerable populations will continue to struggle with housing insecurity and displacement unless Concord implements more robust renter protections.

“I feel like this is common sense and it shouldn’t be such a struggle to decide that you’re going to prioritize families over greed,” said Nicole Zapata, a community organizer with East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a regional advocacy group that has been working for immigrant and tenant protections in Concord.

“How do you want the world to look? Is the Bay Area just going to be a place for the rich,” Zapata asked. “For me, at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.”

The City Council’s refusal to explore rent stabilization or just cause eviction policies is “a complete dismissal of Concord tenants and working families,” according to a letter sent to councilmembers by the advocacy group Raise the Roof.

“Housing stability for Concord tenants is a racial, economic, and social justice issue and Concord City Council is on the wrong side of history in this housing crisis,” the letter says.

The letter notes that other cities such as Hayward, Richmond and Mountain View, among others, have implemented such policies and “investment in these cities is alive and well.”

“The goal of increasing the production of housing and protecting tenants are not mutually exclusive,” Treuhaft said, noting that rent control does not apply to new construction in California.

“I think that the political dynamic is such that (landlords and) developers have a lot of power and are always coming out against tenant protections, that’s a given, and our elected leaders and government officials need to take a stand for tenants who have less power in that situation,” Treuhaft said.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.