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Walters: California’s housing crisis hasn’t gone away

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

A year ago, California’s most pressing political issue was, by common consent, a housing crisis.

Despite declining population growth, California had for years been falling short of building enough housing to meet demand, especially from low- and moderate-income families.

The state had set ambitious housing goals approaching 200,000 new units a year, but actual construction had been just half of that at best, with net increases even lower. In 2018, for instance, there were 117,000 units of construction, but the net gain was just 78,000 because of losses to old age, fires and other causes.

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Gov. Gavin Newsom devoted most of his State of the State address last February to the housing crisis, particularly homelessness, and legislative leaders pledged to make housing their highest priority.

However, just days after Newsom’s address, he declared a state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic and housing policy moved to a back burner.

A major housing bill to make it easier to build multifamily projects on land zoned for single-family homes crashed due to a squabble among legislative leaders.

Newsom spent some federal pandemic relief funds to house a relative handful of the homeless, but the housing crisis did not go away and in some respects worsened as recession slammed low-income families, often leaving them unable to pay their rent bills and mortgages.

The most important housing development last year was the state Department of Housing and Community Development’s issuance of updated eight-year housing goals.

The new “regional housing needs assessments” were a shock to local governments, particularly those in major metropolitan areas, because they were much higher, sometimes twice as high, as previous goals. They also contained, for the first time, some enforcement mechanisms.

Their underlying aim is to jolt local officials into resisting their constituents’ opposition to new housing, especially in upscale communities where the not-in-my-backyard syndrome is fierce. That also was the thrust of last year’s failed legislation allowing multifamily projects in single-family neighborhoods.

The new housing goals, not surprisingly, have met opposition in affluent suburban bedroom communities with Marin County an obvious example.

For decades, Marin’s bucolic communities have shunned anything other than upscale housing, even at one point purposely restricting local water supplies.

Seven years ago, Marin Assemblyman Marc Levine carried legislation to give the county a partial exemption from state housing quotas. Four years ago, the special Marin County provision was extended by including it in a budget “trailer bill.”

Marin County supervisors are now trying to water down their share of the state’s new eight-year housing goals, 14,000 new units between 2022 and 2030, contending that to meet it would require construction in fire-prone areas.

In a letter to the Association of Bay Area Governments, which set Marin’s share, county Supervisor Katie Rice wrote, “With an increase of this magnitude, the county may not be able to adopt a compliant housing element unless we put housing in environmentally sensitive areas, prone to fires, flooding and sea level rise.”

“New land uses and development could expose people and structures to wildland fires throughout the county,” Rise wrote, “especially in areas with steep slopes, high fuel loads or inadequate emergency access.”

Marin could, of course, meet its quota without increasing fire danger by authorizing denser multifamily projects in established communities, but that would offend entrenched local sentiments.

Marin may be an extreme case of NIMBYism, but it’s not alone. The new housing goals will test the willingness of governors and legislators to confront it, beginning with a new version of last year’s failed legislation.

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.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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