By Nik Wojcik
Concord, tucked away in the outskirts of the East Bay, close enough to urban centers to commute into work and far enough away to find some peace and quiet when needed – a place with a diverse community and emerging opportunities – a place drenched in history but on the cusp of innovation, and it’s quickly shaping up to be the next frontier in the development of the Bay.
Located conveniently along a direct BART line to San Francisco, it is the largest city in Contra Costa County with approximately 125,000 residents, according to 2014 Department of Finance numbers. That’s near twice the size of Berkeley.
What puts the city on the radar at the moment is the 5,600 acres at the Concord Naval Weapons Station where nuclear weapons once traveled in underground tunnels between ports and inland bunkers, as reported in a 2015 East Bay Times article. The undeveloped parcels are now free for the city to use and build upon, an opportunity befallen on a city struggling to provide feasible housing solutions.
Concord is already experiencing a demographic shift as people migrate from places like San Francisco and Oakland. As tech companies push up the cost of living closer to the Bay, many long-time residents are priced out of their neighborhoods and forced to find new, reasonably priced digs. Concord has become a workable solution for many.
There is a rational expectation that the trend will only intensify as development plans move forward and provide new housing, work opportunities, schools and open spaces. We sat down with Concord’s new mayor, Edi Birsan, to discuss how the city can move forward in the best interest of its residents and meet the increasing housing challenges. How will it respond to the Bay Area’s greater needs and manage to avoid gentrification pitfalls that have plagued marginalized communities?
DG: Concord continues to attract tech companies hoping to attract higher wage jobs. What else is the city planning for the development of the Concord Naval Weapons Station?
Mayor: It’s about 5,600 acres of the weapons station – that’s total area. About 3,000 and some change is going to be a regional park – 2,200 to 2,600 is going to be developed. The current plans are for about 28,000 people, 13,000 dwelling units – apartments, homes, duplexes, multiplexes – and 6 million square feet of commercial space, some light industrial, retail and a tournament field of about 75 to 100 acres, so we can host statewide championships and stuff like that. Plus a school, about 100 acres for a college, if we can convince someone to build it.
DG: In light of how other cities have gentrified, Concord has already seen early signs of displacement and rapidly rising rents. How do you avoid pushing out current residents that won’t be able to afford to live here much longer either?
Mayor: I tried over the last year and a half to get rent stabilization, and that’s for the 8,886 dwelling units/apartments that were built before ‘95. Under the California State law, you can’t have anything like rent control that applies to things built after 1995 – that’s the law. What I proposed is what was considered by the apartment owners’ association as their best practices, which was only one increase a year of not more than 10 percent, and eviction with basically just cause, so you can’t just say ‘You’re out of here.’ I was the only one who voted for those. To be fair, I should direct you to ask them (City Councilmembers) why.
The Monument (Corridor) got clobbered with rent increases the past two years. It’s since stabilized, but that’s because it went up 20 percent, 40 percent, and a lot of people were forced out. The city was not able to react in time to stop that. The city was unwilling, even in the case of default for safety repairs, to stop the (landlords) from raising the rent.
I think we’ve lost a major section of low-income, mostly Hispanic – and that’s what I’m expecting to see in the census.
Here’s the conflict. People want to have good paying jobs in their community. Well, what comes with good paying jobs? People that make money and you want to reduce traffic because you want them to live here. What does that do for the demand for housing?
Now, people say they want affordable housing. I want affordable housing. We have the weapons station with a requirement of 25 percent of affordable housing. When you talk about affordable housing to average people, they think, ‘yeah, that’s a great idea, but that’s Section 8 and we don’t want Section 8.’
If you look around here (Todos Santos Plaza), there’s a lot of Help Wanted signs. Well, who are they trying to get to help? People who are making $12 and $15 – retail. Now, where are those people going to live? They’re going to live in a bedroom in their grandparents’ house, they’re going to live in the backyard, they’re going to live far away and commute here. Nobody says ‘we want low paying jobs’ – nobody.
DG: What about all the construction happening beyond the NWS development? Is there any housing relief expected out of that?
Mayor: The market is demanding more housing here. Well, what’s going up? We have within a mile of here, we have almost 2,000 units being built. They will go for between $2,000 and $3,000 a month in rent.
Something I’m interested in is studios. I put in a program for what used to be called mother-in-law units, casitas. The cost (charged by the city for water connection and fees) to do this was outrageous. I got them to drop it down, but I haven’t seen it really begin to kick in.
DG: Often, cities experiencing similar growth also see a rise in absentee landlords – something that doesn’t always go over so well with other established homeowners. Do you have plans to mitigate those concerns?
We can get code enforcement, we can do the health department, we got housing, but there are certain limitations that we have. As we develop further, everything that’s going in is fairly new. One of the things I kicked around and I’m expecting to complete this year is an increase in our funds for affordable housing – to keep people in their houses so they can refurbish their houses.
We have low-income people hanging on by their bare minimums even though they’re paying their mortgages from 20 years ago. They’re living on next-to-nothing, and seniors are on Social Security.
Housing is a problem of balance. Communities are a problem of balance. The city is changing.