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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 8:42 pm | Fair 44º


Pete Peterson: Citizen-Driven Housing Policy Emerges in San Mateo County

To solve a seemingly intractable challenge, an unprecedented public engagement campaign is under way.


Pete Peterson

While residents of Santa Barbara County may think their housing prices are out of control (even with the recent downturn), San Mateo County has the highest median home prices in California. At $880,000, it takes an annual income of $260,000 just to be able to purchase the median-priced home. Renting in the county only affords a slight break, as the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment is $1,769, requiring an income of $71,000 to make the monthly payments.

Housing is a vital element of public policy in that it determines not only who can live in a community, but who can work there as well. This is especially true for public servants like teachers and police officers. In San Mateo County, for example, not one of the 200 or so sheriff’s deputies actually lives in the county he or she patrols. In fact, special housing has been built next to the Courthouse so these officers who have to commute a long distance can stay over the night before a trial. Extrapolate this situation across to teachers, nurses and lower-income service workers and one can see the beginnings of a crisis that affects public safety, education, and health care — not to mention small businesses and economic growth.

What can be done?

As in Santa Barbara County, city planners and city councils make all decisions relating to the building of affordable housing in San Mateo County. The loudest “voices” in these debates usually spring from the grassroots level in the forms of neighborhood associations, open space/environmental groups and housing advocates. In most cases, the two former organization types line up against housing additions, while housing advocates are joined by a developer or two in supporting construction. But a question remains as to whether these voices are truly representative of their communities.

In San Mateo County, a group of citizens from a variety of perspectives has gathered together to find the answer. Comprised of business leaders, housing advocates and open space supporters, they have named their organization, “

Threshold 2008/Building a Public Voice San Mateo County

,” and are in the process of conducting a public engagement campaign of historic proportions — centering the deliberations around the building of affordable housing throughout the county.

These organizers, led by Threshold 2008 executive director Greg Greenway, have developed a unique three-stage approach to involving citizens in the decision-making process. Importantly, many of the major “stakeholders” or partisans were involved in the early information-gathering stage, writing the materials to be used in the facilitated conversations around the county.

The first stage of the public engagement process was a “Deliberative Poll,” which involved more than 200 county residents, conducted over two days at Canada College in Redwood City. Developed by Stanford University political scientist James Fishkin, the methodology involves gathering a statistically representative group of citizens, surveying the participants about a particular issue at the beginning of the two-day event, then having them participate in a series of discussions with housing experts and fellow residents, and then surveying them again at the conclusion.

Click here

to view the results of this first stage of the process.

The second stage of Threshold 2008 is currently under way online. This electronic dialogue has more than 400 citizens participating in a two-week, facilitated “chat room” environment. Like the Deliberative Poll, this dialogue involves both learning about the issue from a variety of perspectives while also participating in a “conversation” with other concerned citizens. Unlike the Deliberative Poll, participation is self-selected (anyone can join), not pre-selected.

The last stage of citizen engagement is due to begin next month when volunteer — and trained — facilitators will hold a series of 50 “community conversations” throughout San Mateo County. Area residents will be invited to participate in these two- or three-hour dialogues about housing to both learn more about the issue and offer their opinions.

Final results from all of these stages will be announced in a report due out in the early fall. Of course, what remains to be seen is how the actual policy decision makers will receive this “public voice,” but great efforts have been made to include public officials in each of the stages. In fact, San Mateo County’s housing coordinator is on Threshold 2008’s advisory committee, and a county supervisor is on the Board of Directors.

Threshold 2008 shows what can be done when citizens get together to try to generate a representative “voice” around a particular policy issue. But it also demonstrates a continuing trend toward greater “citizen engagement” in particularly difficult public policy decisions in California. Efforts like Threshold 2008 are becoming more commonplace as citizens and municipal leaders attempt to make more informed choices.

Pete Peterson is executive director of

Common Sense California, a multipartisan, nonprofit organization that supports Threshold 2008. He is also a Lecturer of State & Local Governance at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy


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