More housing, fewer prisons: California outlines game plan
Hanging over the heads of California’s newly sworn-in state lawmakers — and likely to be top of mind when they return to Sacramento next month — are the state’s intertwined housing and homelessness crises.
That was made clear Tuesday, when Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco introduced for the third time a bill to make it easier for religious organizations and nonprofit colleges to build 100% affordable housing on their property. The proposal — part of the YIGBY, or Yes In God’s Back Yard, movement — would allow those groups to bypass local zoning laws and California’s landmark environmental review process, both of which can delay projects for years and tack on millions of dollars in additional costs.
(The state itself wound up on the losing end of an environmental review lawsuit Tuesday, when a California appeals court ruled that the state Department of General Services didn’t sufficiently analyze the environmental impacts of its more than $1 billion project to demolish and replace the nearly 70-year-old Capitol annex building that houses offices for Gov. Gavin Newsom, lawmakers and their staff. The ruling will likely result in project delays.)
- Wiener said in a statement: “California has a deep housing shortage, and we need every available tool to create the housing we so desperately need.”
- About 40,000 acres of land currently used for religious purposes — an area roughly the size of the city of Stockton — could be unlocked, though numerous barriers to development would remain, according to a 2020 analysis from UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation.
- A previous version of Wiener’s bill fizzled out during the last legislative session, as did a similar proposal in 2020 amid opposition from the state’s powerful union of construction workers, which argued it didn’t contain enough job protections and quickly raised similar concerns about the new bill.
- But, after a major breakthrough earlier this year, when lawmakers and unions reached a deal on two housing bills with different labor standards, Wiener is optimistic about his proposal advancing this time around.
The high-profile bill announcement came the same day that police searched Wiener’s home after he received a bomb threat from a person who accused him of being a pedophile and of grooming children. Wiener, who received a similar death threat in June, attributed the threats to “my work to end discrimination against LGBTQ people in the criminal justice system and my work to ensure the safety of transgender children and their families,” in addition to “homophobic” tweets from Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and “MAGA activist” Charlie Kirk.
Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story
State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)
State Senate, District 11 (San Francisco)
Time in office
Member, Board of Supervisors
Sen. Scott Wiener has taken at least $896,000 from the Finance, Insurance & Real Estate sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 13% of his total campaign contributions.
- Citing a “rising tide of political violence,” Democratic Assemblymember Mia Bonta of Oakland introduced a bill Monday to make it easier for candidates and elected officials to use campaign funds to pay for electronic security systems and personal security for themselves, their families and staff. The bill would, among other things, eliminate the requirement that law enforcement verify a threat before funds are approved.
Back to housing: As policymakers consider seemingly every avenue to create more housing — some California lawmakers are pushing to turn empty state office buildings into homes, while the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday advanced a plan to fast-track housing development on gas stations and parking lots — concerns are mounting that California’s rapidly cooling housing market and economic headwinds could hinder development.
Still, there’s no time like the present to build. That was a key takeaway of a Tuesday report from California YIMBY, or Yes In My Back Yard, that outlines a roadmap to ending homelessness. It suggests that California — which has a growing unhoused population — might do well to follow in the footsteps of Houston, which cut homelessness in half from 2011 to 2020.
One big reason for Houston’s success, Ned Resnikoff, California YIMBY’s policy director, argued in The Nation: “While California cities have spent decades throwing up obstacles to housing construction, Houston has declined to even impose a citywide zoning code,” allowing it to build more homes faster and keep “prices lower than in much of California, even as the city’s population has grown significantly faster.”
In other development news: Amid a declining inmate population and with “an eye toward fiscal responsibility,” Newsom’s administration plans to shutter its third state prison — Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County — in March 2025, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced Tuesday. The state prison system also plans to terminate in March 2024 a $32 million annual lease with CoreCivic, a private company that operates the California City Correctional Facility, and deactivate certain facilities in six other prisons.
The announcement could prove divisive: The city of Susanville in rural Lassen County, for example, unsuccessfully sued the state over its plans to shutter by June 2023 the California Correctional Center, arguing that it would also shut down the city’s economy. (State labor officials recently announced $1 million in grants to help local workers.)
But criminal justice advocates cheered the news: “Research backs up decades of lived experience that over-reliance on incarceration only compounds the conditions that create violence and does nothing to actually prevent crime in the first place,” Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said in a statement. “It is far past time we … prioritize investing in the creation of a treatment and crime prevention infrastructure that millions of Californians have needed for generations.”
Make your voice heard: If you’ve always wondered how exactly California state government works, now’s your chance to ask: CalMatters is putting together an explainer and is seeking questions to answer and confusing processes to clarify. Submit your questions here.
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1 A legal labyrinth of labor laws
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to begin hearing oral arguments in a case that could dramatically reshape the process of drawing congressional districts in California and the rest of the country — but the Golden State is still dealing with a June ruling from the nation’s highest court that restricted the use of PAGA, a unique state labor law that allows workers to collectively sue their employers for labor violations in the name of the state.
- However, the ruling seemingly left the door open for California lawmakers or courts to decide that employees bound by arbitration agreements — job contracts that require them to settle disagreements with their employer through a private third party — can still bring PAGA claims to court on behalf of a group of workers.
- Attorney General Rob Bonta cited that interpretation in a Monday filing with the California Supreme Court, in which he argued that an Uber driver whose claim was sent to arbitration still has the right to bring a PAGA claim to court on behalf of his coworkers and the state.
- Adding to the complexity of the case: California voters will likely decide whether to keep or repeal PAGA through an initiative placed on the 2024 ballot by business groups. Meanwhile, Uber contested the driver’s claim in part because it said he was an independent contractor, not an actual company employee — a separate issue scheduled for hearings next week in a state appeals court. (A California judge last year declared unconstitutional Proposition 22, a 2020 ballot measure funded by Uber, Lyft and other gig-economy companies to exempt themselves from a state labor law making it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees. The rideshare companies appealed.)
PAGA was also one of the main culprits in a Tuesday report from the American Tort Reform Foundation labeling California as the nation’s third-worst “judicial hellhole.” The report says PAGA has resulted in a mountain of “frivolous” litigation and that although “its initial purpose was to protect workers … the plaintiffs’ bar has been the true beneficiary.” Bonta said in a statement, “PAGA remains a critical tool for standing up for the rights of workers” and all Californians “benefit when the state has more mechanisms to ensure robust enforcement of our labor laws.”
2 Flu now circulating at high levels in CA
From CalMatters health reporter Kristen Hwang: In the past 10 days, flu activity across California has jumped from “moderate” to “high” or “very high,” with hospitals in some regions of the state reporting that fewer than 12% of pediatric intensive care unit beds are available, the state Department of Public Health said Tuesday. The seasonal virus is spiking early this year in conjunction with increasing COVID-19 cases, and officials are worried the dual stress on the state’s hospital system will “rival some of the hardest moments of the pandemic.”
- Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said during a Tuesday press briefing: “These curves are getting steeper each week around flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. Taken separately, these infections are manageable, but when all come together the difficulty posed to the system is pretty extreme.”
- He added: “People forget that in the last couple of years, even though it’s been very difficult, we have been spared with multiple threats at the same time.”
Even as cases of respiratory syncytial virus — commonly known as RSV — plateau, Ghaly said hospitalization numbers for COVID and flu are approaching rates not seen since last winter’s omicron variant surge. Roughly 6,100 flu and COVID patients are currently hospitalized, a number expected to reach 10,000 by the end of the month, Ghaly said. (Flu season typically lasts through February in California.) More than 15,000 COVID patients were hospitalized during the peak of the omicron surge in January.
Despite the numbers, Ghaly said the state is not considering reinstating a mask mandate. Instead, Ghaly said the state will continue emphasizing the benefits of masking, getting a flu shot, and requesting antiviral treatment if you do contract the flu or COVID.
- Despite high rates of initial COVID vaccination, less than two-thirds of eligible Californians have been boosted, and only 18.3% have received an additional bivalent booster, which accounts for new subvariants, according to state data.
- And, despite the increasing availability of Paxlovid, a COVID antiviral treatment, few Californians are using it, as CalMatters’ Ana B. Ibarra has reported.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: It’s time to close a deadly loophole in Proposition 57 that allows felons who commit violent crimes not legally defined as such to earn early parole.
California jails underreported COVID infections: Many jails failed to track crucial pandemic data, making it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of COVID policies, writes Aparna Komarla, founder and director of the Covid In-Custody Project.
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