California housing crisis weighs heavily on Gavin Newsom

The median home price in California has eclipsed the $ 800,000. State tenants are among the most expensive in the country. Every night, more than 100,000 residents sleep outside or in their cars. A crisis, a catastrophe, the religion of sorrow, a disgrace – whatever journalists and politicians name, people all over the state, including all the top gubernatorial candidates in the recall vote this week , agree that the situation is untenable.

The question is what, if anything, the governor can do about it. This is something Governor Gavin Newsom has spent the past three years talking about. And now that he has won a decisive victory in the recall election, which cost nearly $ 300 million and captured the attention of the state and governor for several months, Mr Newsom is once again looking to issues like housing.

In many ways, the response is different from what it was when he took office in 2019.

Right now, the focus is on Senate Bill 9, which would allow duplexes in neighborhoods across the state and is among the hundreds of unsigned bills that have accumulated on the office of the Mr. Newsom during the recall campaign. But even if Mr Newsom signs it, which he is largely expected to do in the coming days, his housing legacy will likely be less a matter of laws passed under his watch and more of his administration’s ability to enforce them. This is because the executive has gained much more power over state housing policy than it had a few years ago, after years of state frustration with the difficulty of housing. local governments to build housing in California.

Mr Newsom’s administration has come to take on that role, taking steps such as suing cities for not building enough to keep up with population growth and creating a team to make sure cities approve new housing. The moves are part of a nationwide shift in power – from city councils to state houses – in the annual $ 1 trillion residential construction market.

“Housing used to be managed by local planning departments and the governors in California didn’t really pay attention to it,” said Ben Metcalf, executive director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley. “This has changed.”

Mr Newsom, a Democrat, attempted to overcome the pandemic emergency by extending the moratorium on state evictions even as the federal moratorium expired, and pouring money from the budget surplus to state and various coronavirus relief programs in funding and homeless programs as an effort to turn hotels into supportive housing.

But California remains one of the most difficult places in America to build housing, causing an imbalance between supply and demand. It’s the vanguard of a nationwide problem that is depriving middle-income families of home ownership and where one in four renter households pays more than half of their income before rent taxes.

Planners, economists and both political parties have long called on states to use their power to alleviate the housing shortage by breaking local deadlocks. They point out that suburban governments have little incentive to solve the problem since they are accountable to homeowners who prefer prices to only go up. This conundrum has annoyed future housing reformers since at least the 1970s and emerged during California’s recall campaign in Republican debates, where candidates have talked a lot about adding more housing but avoided discussions about the place where this accommodation would go.

These often contradictory comments were a perfect synthesis of the mood of Californians: They are universally unhappy with the cost of living in the state and the tent cities that have sprung up along highways, in parks, and on beaches. But the owners remain fiercely protective of their power to say what is being built near them. Kevin Faulconer, former San Diego mayor and Republican recall candidate, almost fled his own pro-density policies in California’s second-largest city, saying, “When we see some of these Legislation that wants to eliminate single-family zoning in California is wrong.

Mr. Newsom tried to follow that same line. In 2018, he campaigned on a “Marshall Plan for Housing” which aimed to deliver 3.5 million new homes by 2025. He came to regret that figure once he was in the market. governor’s chair, and it became fodder for his main recall opponent. , talk show host Larry Elder, who used it as an example of broken promises. Mr. Elder didn’t need sophisticated research to find fault with the numbers: In a state that allows about 100,000 housing units per year, providing 3.5 million – 35 years of housing at the current rate – is close to d ‘a physical impossibility.

Since then, Mr. Newsom has remained silent on the major zoning laws. He did not take a position on Senate Bill 50, a contentious measure that would have allowed apartment buildings in neighborhoods across the state. And he was largely silent about Senate Bill 9 as he walked through both houses of the state legislature and lingered on his desk.

What it did instead was enforce existing laws more aggressively than its predecessors. Two weeks after Mr Newsom took office, the California attorney general sued Huntington Beach for not planning enough new housing. Since then, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development has sent hundreds of letters asking cities to change or simplify their planning codes to comply with state law.

The governor’s most recent budget allocated $ 4.3 million to staff a “housing accountability unit” made up of planners and lawyers who will oversee and intervene in local government housing decisions. do not follow state law.

Zoning defines the physical character of a neighborhood and who is likely to live next door, so it has received most of the attention in the California housing debate. But in recent years, the legislature has quietly passed a series of smaller measures that, when chained together, have dramatically changed the relationship between state and local government. The new rules change the amount of housing cities need to provide, make it harder for them to stop developers from building, and ultimately rob them of local funding and control if they stray too far from state mandates.

Because they are transferring more control of housing from communities to Sacramento, the question of how aggressively these laws are enforced has fallen to the executive branch. It is one thing for the state to pass laws to desegregate neighborhoods, set aside more land for subsidized housing, and require cities to allow country homes. If their enforcement is not a priority – which has long been the case with housing laws – they are doomed to be ignored.

In an interview after the recall vote, Jason Elliott, senior adviser to Mr Newsom who works on housing policy, listed a series of invoice numbers and the esoteric text of town planning codes to highlight dozens of regulations in housing which remains mostly unused. Environmental measures that support increasing density to reduce car travel. Various laws authorizing backyard units. A way for developers to sue cities that do not respect their own zoning rules. These are the types of laws that the new Housing Responsibility Unit will seek to enforce.

“I will never say that we are done passing laws and that we cannot do more,” said Mr. Elliott. “But what we really need to do if we want to see units springing up is to make several dozen people think about this and only that, and empower them to reach the cities.”

Will Mr. Newsom ever get nearly 3.5 million new units? No. Even if it were politically possible, it would strain the supply of wood and labor.

It took California several decades to enter such a severe housing crisis. Lofty rhetoric and pledges for millions of units are content with a campaign slogan, but the reality is more like a gradual digging process.

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About Mary Moser

Mary Moser

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