Two crises should not be wasted

A crisis, it’s been said, is a terrible thing to waste.

Stanford economist Paul Romer coined the phrase in 2004 in referring to the nation’s waning education levels and it’s since been adopted and adapted by others.

If exploited adroitly, crises spark needed societal changes that might not otherwise occur, just as otherwise destructive warfare often drives technology that later benefits civilians.

California’s biggest crisis these days is a chronic shortage of housing, particularly for those living at the economic edge, that contributes to our having the nation’s largest homeless population.

It is, however, also an opportunity for California’s politicians to pare away the nonessential, cumbersome processes we impose on housing projects and to encourage the tens of billions of dollars in investment capital that the crisis demands.

Human beings are naturally skeptical of how they would be affected by any change. When it comes to housing, local communities and officials resist losing their traditional authority over land use, fearing that multi-family projects for low-income families will adversely affect their neighborhoods.

That’s the essence of the housing policy stalemate in the Capitol that shows no signs of being resolved.

Another, much-smaller crisis, just a couple of miles from the Capitol, could be a way to demonstrate the virtues of streamlining housing construction.

For more than a half-century, California’s state fair, which dates back to 1858, has been staged each year at Cal Expo, a state-owned complex that borders the American River.

Cal Expo was envisioned as a year-round attraction, somewhat patterned after Disneyland, complete with a monorail. It never happened and today, Cal Expo is just a collection of somewhat shabby, architecturally bleak and deteriorating structures surrounded by immense parking lots.

The state fair itself, meanwhile, has lost most of whatever cachet it once had. Notwithstanding a slight upward bump last year, its attendance, mostly from the Sacramento area, has been steadily declining — down 40% in the last two decades.

While the fair is supposed to be a showcase for California’s agricultural output, artistic talents and crafts, attendees are mostly drawn by the carnival and arrays of trailers serving deep-fried everything. It doesn’t generate enough money to pay for Cal Expo’s upkeep and its managers have been desperately seeking new revenue streams.

Last year’s version of Cal Expo’s annual financial audit contained this gloomy passage: “Cal Expo has suffered recurring losses from operations, has aging infrastructure which requires significant capital improvements and has stated that doubt exists about Cal Expo’s ability to continue operations into the future.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he wants vacant state-owned land to be made available for shelters to house the homeless. Cal Expo’s crisis is an opportunity for him to take that notion a bit further by offering its mostly unused property as a showcase of how streamlined housing regulation could work.

Housing developers could be lured to propose mixed-use projects of both market-rate and low-income housing with the promise of exemptions from the usual red tape. We could see how well and fast such housing can be constructed on a site that’s very close to jobs, including a Kaiser medical complex just across the street, and services, including Sacramento’s biggest shopping center.

Selling off land for housing, even cheaply, would provide Cal Expo with much-needed money to reconfigure the fairgrounds for a smaller but more focused annual exposition of California’s bounty — a source of pride rather than of derision.

These two crises should not be wasted.

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