In summary

A constitutional amendment pending in the Legislature would declare a “fundamental human right to housing,” but its virtue signaling could backfire in the real world.

Virtue signaling is the bane of contemporary civic life.

Politicians, political parties, nonprofit organizations and even corporations loudly proclaim support for whatever cause is either trendy or beloved by a certain segment of the population – while lacking the ability, or often even intention, to see it prevail.

While such expressions of moral support may warm the hearts of a cause’s fervent believers, they mean little in the real world where, as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

Examples of virtue signaling abound, such as a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to create a commission to recommend reparations for Black Californians whose ancestors were enslaved.

Newsom, et al, were enthusiastic supporters of the cause when it was proposed. As he signed the 2020 legislation, Newsom said it would correct the “structural racism and bias built into and permeating throughout our democratic and economic institutions.”

However, with the commission now on the verge of makings its reparation recommendations, which could be very expensive, enthusiasm has clearly waned.

“Dealing with that legacy is about much more than cash payments,” the governor said in an initial reaction to the commission’s preliminary report, while praising it again as “a milestone in our bipartisan effort to advance justice and promote healing.”

Another classic example of political virtue signaling is now making its way through the Legislature – a constitutional amendment declaring that Californians have a “fundamental human right to adequate housing.”

Everyone knows that California has a chronic shortage of housing, particularly for the millions of Californians with, at best, subsistence incomes. The shortage drives up housing costs, which are the chief factor in the state’s very high rate of poverty and its equally high level of homelessness.

The proposed amendment, which is pending in Assembly after winning committee approval, declares “It is the shared obligation of state and local jurisdictions to respect, protect, and fulfill this right, on a non-discriminatory and equitable basis, with a view to progressively achieve the full realization of the right, by all appropriate means, including the adoption and amendment of legislative measures, to the maximum of available resources.”

Noble sentiments, perhaps, but how would it affect the housing crisis?

Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton who now advises Newsom on poverty-related issues, argued in a CalMatters commentary that it could compel local governments to accept affordable housing projects, require tenant-friendly laws, such as rent control and making evictions more difficult, and lead to more direct government investment in housing.

Perhaps it would, but not automatically. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 10 is full of the vague language that lawyers love because it requires lawsuits and judicial interpretations to have real-world meaning.

In other words, it would invite even more litigation on an issue that is already awash in contentious legalism.

The most bothersome aspect of ACA 10, however, is its assumption – as Tubbs suggests – that state and local governments have the innate ability to solve California’s housing dilemma.

They don’t.

Building enough housing requires, above all, lots of money, much more than those governments can muster on their own. That money can only come from private investors who must be persuaded that building homes and apartments in California will be reasonably profitable.

Officialdom’s most important role is reducing the bureaucratic hassle and costs of such investment, as Newsom and the Legislature have sought to do through streamlining legislation.

ACA 10 is not only virtue signaling but sends the wrong message to potential housing investors that California could make development even more difficult and potentially less profitable.

Editor’s note: This commentary was corrected June 25 to reflect the status of ACA 10. It was also later amended to clarify former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs’ commentary argument for what the proposal would do if enacted.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...