PD Editorial: Let’s not stifle the debate on affordable housing

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Asked about the housing crunch in Sonoma County four years ago, then-Gov. Jerry Brown was characteristically blunt.

“The problem,” he said, “is you don’t want housing up there.”

Brown’s remark triggered a lively debate. One of those who disagreed most vehemently with the governor was Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie.

“The governor can’t tell us we aren’t interested in housing,” Mackenzie said. “We bloody well are.”

At the time, Rohnert Park was on the front end of its biggest building boom in two decades.

In January, with housing still in short supply in the Bay Area and across the state, Mackenzie’s colleagues on the Rohnert Park City Council stripped him of two prestigious appointments because he signed a regional housing compact in his role as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Soon afterward, a committee of Sonoma County mayors and city council members signaled their intention to remove Mackenzie from the MTC, where he has served since 2008, even though no one else had applied for the job.

By themselves, these acts don’t prove that Brown was right about Sonoma County and housing.

But they demonstrate just how difficult it is to systematically address the problem of high prices and short supply in the Bay Area housing market.

Mackenzie was one of two local elected officials who signed what’s known as the CASA compact, which was put together by elected officials from throughout the Bay Area, working in conjunction with transit officials, major employers and others. The other local signer was Supervisor David Rabbitt. Santa Rosa Councilwoman Julie Combs serves on the steering committee but hasn't signed the compact.

CASA doesn’t obligate any local jurisdiction, but it was offered as a framework for state legislation to facilitate development of affordable housing, including multi-story buildings, along certain Bay Area transit corridors, including SMART. Other provisions of the 10-point compact include a cap on rent increases, restrictions on evictions and taxes to subsidize affordable housing. All of them would require legislative approval; some would require voter approval.

The goal is a better balance between the creation of housing and jobs. Since 2010, the Bay Area has added 722,000 new jobs but just 106,000 housing units.

New jobs are usually popular, but housing plans often into stiff opposition from neighbors and their elected representatives.

“If we had a food crisis in the Bay Area, famine, we would take drastic actions,” Rabbitt said. “If we have a health crisis, if we had an epidemic, we would take drastic actions. We have a housing crisis, and everyone looks to everyone else to solve it. And no one wants to step up — ‘I have my house. I don’t have a crisis.’ There’s a lot of that.”

Recent legislative attempts to force cities and counties to approve more housing have failed, with local governments vigorously defending local control. Additional bills, some of them reflecting the CASA compact, are likely to be presented in Sacramento this year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who campaigned on housing, has suggested reducing gas tax payments to jurisdictions that miss housing quotas. His administration recently filed suit against Huntington Beach for failing to set aside land for affordable housing — a stark contrast to Brown signing legislation granting Marin County an exemption through 2028.

Some of these are controversial ideas. We’re not ready to endorse the CASA compact, but if local elected officials are prepared to fire one of their own before these ideas are even subjected to legislative hearings, then maybe Brown was right about Sonoma County and housing. We hope that’s not the case.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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