Walters: Another chance for (in)action on housing
When he was running for governor three years ago, Gavin Newsom promised, rather absurdly, that he would spearhead a drive to build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.
It was absurd because it would require California to escalate new construction from about 100,000 units a year to 500,000, which would be financially and physically impossible.
Once elected, Newsom backed away from that pledge, calling it “aspirational,” but he did attempt, a year ago, to once again focus attention on the state’s housing crisis by devoting nearly all of his State of the State address to it and the closely related homelessness issue.
Within weeks, however, his attention shifted to the COVID-19 pandemic and housing went on the Capitol’s back burner.
Meanwhile, California’s housing shortage has gotten significantly worse. This month, Newsom’s Department of Finance revealed that just 102,800 residential building permits were issued in 2020, down 8.8% from 2019’s total, which itself was a 3.8% drop from 2018.
Not only is overall construction headed the wrong way, but all of last year’s decline was in apartments and other forms of multifamily housing where shortages are the worst. Moreover, when housing lost to fires, old age and other causes is included in the equation, the net gain last year was only about 75,000 units, under half of the state’s official yearly goal.
The cold fact that housing construction is headed the wrong way, and that housing shortages and high housing costs are feeding a high poverty rate and pushing employers and workers out of the state doesn’t seem to be having much effect on the Capitol.
Newsom and other politicians talk a good game, but don’t back up their words with action. What happened, or didn’t happen, to last year’s major housing bill is a telling example.
The measure, carried by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, was a modest stab at the housing issue’s biggest roadblock — the not-in-my-backyard attitudes in local communities. The bill would have made it easier to build duplexes and other low-impact multifamily projects on lots zoned for single-family homes.
Atkins’ measure cleared the Senate easily and had enough votes to pass the Assembly. However, due to conflict between Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon over legislative procedures, it was held in the Assembly on the last night of the session until just minutes before the midnight deadline, leaving too little time for a final Senate vote.
Newsom could have intervened in the petty squabble to get the bill to his desk, but didn’t, for reasons best known to himself.
The Legislature is back in session and its leaders and Newsom have another opportunity to match their words on the housing shortage with action — or not.
Atkins has introduced a new version of her failed bill, now known as Senate Bill 9, and others have proposed measures to speed up construction, most notably a four-bill package by Sen. Scott Wiener. The San Francisco Democrat has emerged as the Legislature’s leading housing advocate with a willingness to challenge the reluctance of many cities to build their fare share of low- and moderate-income housing.
The most important of the four is Senate Bill 478, which would neutralize local ordinances that effectively prevent construction of multifamily projects on land zoned for them by imposing unworkable land-to-building ratios.
The Atkins and Wiener bills challenge local governments’ much-cherished powers over land use, which is the most contentious but most important piece of the housing conundrum. They also will test the willingness of California’s political leadership to do something more than talk about the crisis.
Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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