No Limits: Message From the Faculty Director

NO LIMITS

Why Now?  Why the Terner Center?

August 15, 2015

It is with tremendous excitement and enthusiasm that we launch the official website for the new Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

Today, we introduce to you the purpose and people behind this new endeavor at UC Berkeley.  I am honored to lead what will be a unique and results-oriented platform to advance pioneering solutions to our nation’s most vexing housing challenges.

In the few short months that I have been at UC Berkeley, I have had the opportunity to speak to many people in determining the focus for the Terner Center: mayors of cities, former colleagues in the Obama Administration, real estate developers, principals at mortgage and commercial lending institutions, leaders of trade associations and community development nonprofits, researchers at think tanks and in academia, foundation directors, and media professionals.

Their questions have been: What exactly are you going to be doing? How are you different from other research centers or think tanks? Why now?

Let me answer these questions in turn.   First, the Terner Center will identify and develop solutions at the intersection of environmental sustainability and the need for quality homes and vibrant communities that are affordable to families from all walks of life. Our challenge will be advancing ideas and policies that integrate economic growth and equity with climate change goals.

We will focus on regulatory and finance issues for the housing market as a whole, and give particular attention to addressing the needs of those feeling squeezed the most.  We know this increasingly means, at least in higher cost regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area, the backbone of the workforce: families in the middle.  If we fill that housing gap, the lower end of the spectrum will also improve because there will be less competition and pressure on rising rents.

To accomplish this goal, some specific questions must be answered in new and different ways: How do we bring construction costs down?  How do we innovate new financing mechanisms that are more efficient and reliable?  How do we scale up the capacity of such innovations and relevant actors to achieve unprecedented results? It also means we will unflinchingly address: the persistence of racial inequality in housing and land use policies; the need to integrate economic growth with climate change goals and; the need to fairly reconcile public and private rights, interests and responsibilities among parties at odds.

California is at the epicenter of these challenges, but it can also be at the vanguard of solutions.

How are we different?  We’re placing practice first, and letting issues “on the ground’ drive our research and innovations, not the other way around.  Public policy is not sufficient on its own; these problems require research, both public and private sector innovation, and active implementation. We will tap into the unique resources of both UC Berkeley and the Bay Area’s entrepreneurial and technological innovators, to develop new construction products, building methods, and financing tools. We will also draw in new partners to expand the scale and impact of their work along with ours.

Our guiding principle in this work will be inspired by Don Terner’s “Whatever It Takes” attitude. If you haven’t seen the short video on this site, I encourage you to watch it. Don’s spirit—which guided his teaching here at UC Berkeley, his policy work at the state of California’s Department of Housing, and his social entrepreneurship as a non-profit housing developer- is what inspired the many people who have created this Center in his name. Don was my teacher, colleague and friend, and his mission will never be diminished at this center.

So, in that spirit, our mantra will be “No Limits.” By this I mean that we will not be constrained by preconceived notions of the possible, nor will we shy away from ideas or solutions that are a “third rail” for the business interests of private and nonprofit players.  And certainly, government at all levels cannot be immune to change.  After nearly four decades of involvement in real estate, policy development, and government, I can tell you that too many have become calcified in their views or positions, reliant on certain government programs always being there in a particular format, or complacent in their approach. We will advance Don’s brand of forward thinking and a “can do” attitude.

This may make some uncomfortable.  But it is time for “break the glass” ideas.

Why now?  Americans can’t afford to do business as usual anymore.  Climate change, widening inequalities, and too many families without a safe, affordable place to live is not sustainable. This is an emergency for the planet, for communities, and for families. Bold action is urgently needed.

So stay tuned!  As part of the process of building the new Center and bringing innovation to policy and practice, we will publish and discuss ideas as they emerge, identifying both problems and opportunities for change.  We will delve deeper when specific ideas or solutions have merit, drawing on the vast array of talent at Berkeley to truly explore and test what works.  Our work will be guided by an Advisory Group of people with broad knowledge, interests and perspectives.  And we will bring in people from across the country and the world on topics that need critical thought, problem-solving and fresh ideas.

Today, the Terner Center for Housing Innovation team is a small but experienced and talented group.  We are humble enough to know that we don’t have all of the answers but brazen enough to believe that we have the ability, in collaboration with others, to make a difference.  We are dedicated to working with students who may well hold the key to future innovation, to conducting rigorous analysis that leads to new answers, and to fostering communication and dialogue that can craft and advance solutions.

As Don Terner was also fond of saying: “If it were easy, someone else would have done it by now.” We know this won’t be easy, but we are rolling up our shirtsleeves and getting to work!

Welcome to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Join us.