In summary

Some cities have failed to build housing for decades and are willfully ignoring state laws designed to create more of the housing we need.

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By Courtney Welch, Special to CalMatters

Courtney Welch is an Emeryville City Council member and the former director of policy and communications with the Bay Area Community Land Trust.

California currently has a deficit of more than 2.5 million homes across our state – and every city is going to have to step up and do its part to close that gap. 

That’s the key finding in the California Department of Housing and Community Development’s recently released housing plan, which sets a target for the number of homes we need to make sure that everyone in our state has an affordable, secure place to live. 

Sadly, too many of our cities are still resisting the opportunity and need to address our housing crisis collectively. While a few California cities are acting in good faith by meeting or exceeding their state housing goals, some cities seem utterly disinterested in the problem. They have failed to build housing for decades and are willfully ignoring state laws designed to create more of the housing we need to address the housing shortage and affordability crisis. 

In some instances anti-housing activists, primarily made up of wealthy homeowners, are abusing environmental laws to delay or completely block housing construction. 

In  Berkeley, these groups used their past successful efforts to block student housing as a pretext to force the University of California to restrict enrollment of new students. The result: more than 3,000 students now face an uncertain future as the university scrambles to address the legal ramifications of the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) lawsuit. 

The city of Woodside found an even more creative (though unsuccessful) way to distort environmental laws to block homes. When faced with the prospect of allowing duplexes, Woodside claimed that the entire town is a protected mountain lion habitat.  

These efforts to block urgently needed housing have very little to do with environmental protection, and everything to do with preserving the status-quo: expensive, exclusionary cities with no pathways for working people to live near their jobs, schools, recreation and services. 

Meanwhile, our working families continue to face ever-mounting challenges to their existence in our state. According to the Housing and Community Development’s report, the average renter wage of $25 is well below the $39 needed to pay for the average two-bedroom apartment. With 45% of Californians living in rentals, higher income communities that refuse to build more housing is a recipe for disaster.

Thankfully, the state is taking steps to make sure all cities are planning for – and building – the housing we need. While anti-housing cities may find middle-income and affordable housing distasteful, and decry any state oversight of their housing plans, these cities have made their own beds. Now they have to sleep in them. 

On the flip side, cities that are doing their part are demonstrating the rewards of building more affordable housing. Recently, Sacramento became the first city in California to earn the state’s “Pro-Housing Designation” for its housing-friendly policies. That designation gives Sacramento an advantage  when competing for funds from the state for affordable housing, transportation and infrastructure, as well as federal tax credits for affordable housing projects.

Emeryville, where I serve on the City Council, has been called one of California’s “most YIMBY” (i.e., pro-housing) cities. We have made great progress with our below market rate housing program and are focused on building more deeply-affordable housing. 

Safe and stable housing is the foundation of a healthy life. We recognize this and urge other cities in our region to do the same. Here in the East Bay, a 15-minute drive may easily pass through five cities. But many of them leave their housing responsibility on the doorsteps of pro-housing cities like Emeryville, forcing longer commutes and perpetuating inequitable and exclusionary housing practices. 

We need to ensure that every city in California is doing its fair share. That requires state oversight – and  consequences – for  jurisdictions that block housing, along with  incentives to encourage cities to legalize more homes. In Emeryville, we prefer carrots. But we also realize that, for some cities that oppose housing, it will have to be the stick. 

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