Politicians missing in action on housing

When the year began, the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom had just two must-do jobs – pass a state budget and do something meaningful about the state’s chronic and corrosive shortage of housing.

The budget is a slam-dunk, thanks to the state’s fat treasury. Housing, however, is a smellier kettle of political fish.

Midway through the legislative session, there’s been no discernable progress on eliminating the structural impediments to the major surge in housing construction that California desperately needs.

Net expansion of the state’s housing stock has actually been declining, scarcely 77,000 units in the most recent annual count, which is at least 100,000 units short of what the state says we need – and a tiny fraction of the 3.5 million homes over six years Newsom pledged during his campaign for governor last year.

There are two major steps to unleashing the tens of billions of dollars in private investment that’s available – overcoming the stubborn resistance of local communities to new housing, particularly high-density complexes, and doing something about the misuse of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by labor unions and local NIMBYs to block projects.

While proposals have been floated about both issues, neither one seems to be moving toward resolution this year.

The most ambitious housing measure, Senate Bill 50, was unilaterally stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee, apparently due to stiff local government opposition to its provisions that would override local zoning laws for high-density projects in “transit-rich” and/or “job-rich” communities.

The author of the bill, Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, offered multiple concessions to the opponents – perhaps too many – to make it more politically palatable, but they didn’t save it from being held in the Appropriations Committee without explanation.

Housing developers and labor union officials have been privately discussing a compromise deal that would streamline CEQA procedures in return for promises to hire more union construction workers.

However, CALmatters housing writer Matt Levin reported this week that those negotiations have not borne fruit, quoting Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Association, as saying, “In my humble opinion, (the negotiations) weren’t close then (earlier this year) and unfortunately they’re not close now.”

The Legislature should reform CEQA because it’s the right thing to do, not because labor leaders need to be enticed not to misuse the law to compel employment of union members.

Newsom, meanwhile, has often declared the housing shortage to be a crisis, but so far has not – publicly at least – pushed very hard for the admittedly difficult political actions to alleviate it. His response to SB 50’s burial was, at best, tepid.

If the Capitol’s politicians are reluctant to do what needs to be done, the larger public gets it, as a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California demonstrates.

The survey found that 52 percent of California adults and 45 percent of likely voters say their housing costs cause financial strains – renters (67%) particularly.

“Solid majorities support two state policy proposals intended to create more affordable housing: 62% favor requiring local governments to change zoning for new development from single‐family to multi‐family housing near transit and job centers, and 61% favor requiring localities to approve a certain amount of housing before receiving state transportation funding,” PPIC reported.

Nearly half, meanwhile, favor changing CEQA to make housing development more affordable, with renters, who feel the brunt of the housing crisis, much more likely to favor that step.

California’s housing crisis won’t fix itself and Californians are waiting for Newsom and legislators to do more than wring their hands.

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