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Making great communities happen

Meet a local planner — Kristi Bascom

By Catarina Kidd, AICP

Kristi Bascom is Project Manager at Habitat for Humanity, East Bay/Silicon Valley, a position she took this January.

How did you become interested in planning?

As an undergraduate, I took classes in environmental studies that gave me my first exposure to land use planning. After graduating, I did advocacy for the Sierra Club. The intersection of protecting the environment and creating communities inspired me to return to school at SJSU to get a master’s degree in city planning.

Where did you work after graduation?

I worked for several Bay Area cities, primarily in current planning. I was principal planner at the City of Dublin. I also worked as a planning consultant and most recently as principal with M-group. Over the years, this work inspired me to think, how can we optimize good development? I dabbled in policy planning, but my interest is tangible results, creating neighborhoods and places for people. I was always interested in affordable housing, specifically in the gap between those who can already afford and those who can’t.

How were you able to change from traditional city planning to non-profit?

I asked industry professionals for some advice. What was the likelihood of a career planner pivoting to affordable housing, its own set of technical skills and background? I had no finance or construction background, was at mid-career, and felt in was a late shift.

Then there are the salary differences between most organizations and nonprofits. Is the move feasible or smart? For me, doing something directly meaningful carried more weight. I relied on the advice of several key advisors who made the pivot sound possible.

Any doubts now, after four months?

The idea of switching gears was both exciting and terrifying. Right now, the job market for planners is great. I was comfortable knowing that I could likely move back to planning if needed. I may not have been so bold in a tighter job market.

Can you comment on the idea of managing when you don’t love it?

Most planners will come to a point where they need to decide whether to go into managing people and processes. You have to determine your strength and passion. If your interest isn’t in managing, you won’t be successful. Are you effective at motivating others and good at overseeing people? Managing for any other reason is not going to lead to success. I really enjoy being a mentor and offering guidance, but I don’t think that it necessarily translates to being a good supervisor.

What are your core interests at Habitat for Humanity?

I admire Habitat’s ownership approach to housing. There are a lot of affordable housing developers on the rental side, but building affordable ownership housing is a niche. I appreciate Habitat’s methods, incorporating volunteers and sweat equity. I work with people who are passionate and good at what they do, with whole families building not just their home, but also their future neighborhood. Essentially, I am the architect’s client, involved with multiple facets of the project. It’s a learning process that keeps me optimistic.

The current discussion over local control has some saying that the housing crisis is isolated to specific counties in the Bay Area. Your thoughts?

Is there a housing crisis or an affordability crisis? Some cities and developers are building plenty of market-rate housing. The sales prices target upper tier incomes. But are there units priced for Bay Area workers? No. Hardly anyone wants a project of a scale, architecture, and unit count that doesn’t match their community’s “identity.” I think all can see that it is more desirable to have local community input. Still, there is that reality of how much people must pay and can pay. Typical middle-income workers have to find housing and residents need to find jobs. What kind of housing at what cost would serve people, such as those on the earlier side of their career or those in administrative, service, retail, and restaurant occupations — jobs that support the larger community. It isn’t healthy for people to live too far from work or too many people to a unit, and it is not sustainable for the people or their communities. The issue is a concern throughout the Bay Area, not just in certain counties.

Finding an affordable place to live is one thing, but getting ready to be a homeowner is another. Habitat has an entire department involved with family selection. We work with people to get them on a list for a Habitat home. We help them with credit counseling, developing a savings plan, and preparing to be a homeowner. Ownership speaks to me: people will put down roots and invest in their neighborhood for the long haul. From counterparts in other organizations, we hear that the below market rate housing wait lists are extremely long: 5,000 people waiting for 150 units. That is the real state of housing in California.

What advice do you have for new planners?

I have been an APA mentor for three years. I am so impressed with our new young planners. Land use is very broad and complex. Unless you, as a young planner, know specifically your niche, find an organization where you will be exposed to a lot of different things. Don’t say you don’t like something until you have tried it and worked at it. Keep an open mind. Say yes to new projects and topics.

What advice do you have for mid-career planners?

You bring your experience from elsewhere to your current place. As a consultant, I valued working for a number of cities. I enjoyed going to and learning about different locales. I’m not telling people to jump around, but you definitely will benefit from working for different organizations and in different settings — and you’ll be more likely to come away well-rounded and able to appreciate different perspectives.

There is a time to move on or try something new. Enthusiasm and a quest for knowledge are very important.

Interviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is Northern News’ associate editor. All interviews are edited.

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