Newsom makes big political wager

Gavin Newsom is rushing in where angels — and more cautious politicians — fear to tread by devoting virtually all of his second State of the State address to California’s seemingly intractable housing and homelessness crises.

Newsom is staking his governorship, and perhaps his hopes of climbing further up the political pecking order, on jump-starting housing construction and moving tens of thousands of men, women and children off the streets.

While beginning his 40-plus-minute address to the Legislature with boilerplate paeans to the state’s vibrant economy and patting himself and lawmakers on the back for last year’s accomplishments, he quickly segued into the issue that polls say is uppermost in Californians’ minds.

“No amount of progress can camouflage the most pernicious crisis in our midst, the ultimate manifestation of poverty, homelessness,” Newsom declared. “That’s why I’m devoting today’s remarks to this crisis. Let’s call it what it is, a disgrace, that the richest state in the richest nation — succeeding across so many sectors — is falling so far behind, to properly house, heal and humanely treat so many of its own people.”

So what would Newsom do?

He said he wants “a coordinated, crisis-level response” involving multiple state agencies and local governments to not only create more shelters and permanent housing, but to deal with the homeless population’s issues with drugs and physical and mental health.

Newsom embraced, at least conceptually, laws to compel the severely mentally ill to receive care via conservatorships, and drug addiction programs because “we need to stop tolerating open drug use on our streets.”

While pledging hundreds of millions of new state dollars for a comprehensive approach to homelessness, he also hinted that he might propose new taxes as well, saying “We need significant sustainable revenue.”

Turning to the larger housing shortage, Newsom told legislators, “When we don’t build housing for people at all income levels, as a consequence we worsen the homeless crisis.”

During his campaign for governor in 2018, Newsom more or less pledged to build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025. He’s since backed off and didn’t give any new goals last week while saying he wanted “to massively increase housing production.”

Newsom didn’t overtly support legislation, Senate Bill 50, that would have overridden local land use controls for some kind of housing, and saw it fail in the Senate due to opposition from local governments. But he said he wants something along those lines.

“Look, I get it, cities need to meet their housing goals in a way that matches their community,” he said, “but doing nothing is no longer an option. As a former mayor, I respect local control, but not at the cost of creating a two-class California.”

Newsom deserves credit, certainly, for taking political ownership of these two serious crises, but they are very tough nuts to crack — textbook examples of why a state as large and complex as California, with so many often disparate interests, is inherently very difficult to govern.

Newsom inherited them because previous governors, Jerry Brown particularly, saw them as virtually impossible to conquer and were unwilling to spend political capital on them. Newsom is willing, even eager to try and if he pulls it off — if housing construction doubles, as the state says it should, and the makeshift camps of the homeless vanish — he rightfully will claim victory.

If, however, Newsom hasn’t moved the needle on them three years hence, he’ll be pilloried as being all talk and no performance. It’s a big political gamble.

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