San Diego Union
The decision by several Democrats in the California Legislature to already start pushing their 2017 housing proposals is a welcome sign that they grasp the cost of housing is the biggest issue in California, responsible for the Golden State’s emergence as the center of poverty in America and a constant, never-ending problem for the poor and much of the middle class alike.
Unfortunately, even if all the proposals made it into law, the cumulative effect is unlikely to be nearly as positive as what would have happened had the Legislature approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s rejected proposal to streamline regulatory approvals of market-rate housing in residential-zoned areas. So far, state lawmakers are not rising to the occasion.
Assembly housing committee Chairman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, Assembly Speaker pro Tem Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, and Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, have proposed four housing-related bills.
The measure that got the most attention would end the mortgage-interest deduction tax break for second homes, freeing up $300 million for a state program that pays for affordable-housing construction. The measure that may have the most potential would provide funding to the Attorney General’s Office with the intent of getting it to begin enforcing existing state laws obligating local communities to approve housing. The other measures would create incentives for local approval of high-density, transit-oriented infill housing and create a state program to fund housing for chronically homeless individuals on Medi-Cal who receive county-funded services.
On the Senate side, the most notable housing legislation to emerge is from Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who have revived the idea of adding a $75 fee to real estate transactions to generate funding for low-income housing construction. They also propose asking state voters in 2018 to approve a $3 billion bond to finance low-income housing.
The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board accepts the good intentions of these lawmakers — but not their appreciation of history. Whether or not they’re robustly funded, housing strategies that heavily rely on state-subsidized construction have no record of broadly addressing affordable housing because they don’t create nearly enough new housing stock. A McKinsey Global Institute report says California needs an additional 3.5 million homes by 2025 but is on track to only add 1 million.
Yet of all the state’s high-profile Democrats, only Gov. Brown seems willing to jump-start the needed construction boom by weakening environmental laws to automatically approve properly zoned residential projects that set aside as few as 5 percent of their units as affordable. Instead, these Democrats heed the wishes of two of their most powerful factions — unions and environmentalists — who have long used these laws to extract concessions or payoffs for their pet causes or to block projects that won’t pay union-scale construction wages or are found unacceptable.
This conundrum at some point needs to trigger genuine soul-searching among California Democrats. If they believe in social and economic justice as much as they say, how can they tolerate a housing situation statewide that’s so extraordinarily punitive to so many struggling families? That’s going to force many young residents to leave the state? That imposes a constant, gnawing pressure on millions of Californians?
Good intentions won’t begin to address a problem that’s becoming insurmountable. That will take something much different: political courage.