California’s housing crisis looms large for Gavin Newsom

California’s housing crisis looms large for Gavin Newsom

The median home value in California has eclipsed $800,000. Tenants in the state are among the highest cost burden in the country. More than 100,000 residents sleep outside or in their cars each night. A crisis, a disaster, a religion of misery, a disgrace – whatever journalists and politicians call it, people across the state, including all major candidates for governor in the recall vote this week, agree that the situation is untenable.

The question is what can the governor do about it. This is something that Governor Gavin Newsom has spent the last three years talking about. And now that he has won a decisive victory in the recall election, which has cost nearly $300 million and attracted state and governor attention for several months, Mr Newsom is turning his attention to housing problems.

In many ways, the answer is different from when he took office in 2019.

Right now the focus is Senate Bill 9, which would allow duplexes in neighborhoods across the state and is one of hundreds of unsigned bills that piled up on Mr Newsom’s desk during the recall campaign. But even if Mr Newsom signs it, which he is widely expected to do in the coming days, his legacy on housing may be less about laws passed under his watch than his administration’s ability to enforce them. is likely to. That’s because the executive branch wields a lot more power over state housing policy than it did a few years ago, following the state’s dismay at how difficult it is for local governments to build housing in California.

Mr Newsom’s administration has come to play a role, such as suing cities for not building enough with population growth and forming a team to ensure that cities approve new housing. The moves are part of a nationwide shift in power — away from city councils and toward state homes — over the $1 trillion annual residential construction market.

“It used to be that housing was run by local planning departments and California governors didn’t really care,” said Ben Metcalf, managing director of the Turner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. “he changed.”

Mr Newsom, a Democrat, has tried to get through the pandemic emergency by extending the state’s moratorium on evictions, even if the federal one lapses, and adding to the state’s budget surplus and various coronavirus relief packages. Has tried to pour money into homeless funding and programs. Turn hotels into supportive accommodations.

But California remains one of the hardest places in America to build housing, leading to an imbalance in supply and demand. It is the key end to a nationwide problem that is driving middle-income households out of ownership and one in four rental households that pay more than half of their pretax income in rent.

Planners, economists and both political parties have long called on states to use their power to reduce housing shortages by breaking local impasse. They point out that suburban governments have little incentive to fix the problem because they are accountable to homeowners who prefer that prices only go up. The conundrum would be housing reformers from at least the 1970s, and emerged in Republican debate during California’s recall campaign, where candidates talked a lot about adding more housing, but shied away from discussion of whether that would be housing. Where will you go

These often contradictory comments were a perfect encapsulation of the mood of Californians: They are universally unhappy with the state’s cost of living and tent cities that have appeared on freeways, parks, and beaches. But homeowners fiercely defend their power to say what makes up for what they have. Former San Diego mayor and Republican candidate in the recall election, Kevin Faulkner, ran away from his own pro-density policies in California’s second-largest city, saying, “When we see some of these pieces of legislation that are wanted in California.” Abolishing the single-family sector, it is wrong.”

Mr Newsom has tried to follow the same lines. In 2018, he campaigned on the “Marshall Plan for Housing”, which aimed to deliver 3.5 million new housing units by 2025. He regretted the figure after being in the governor’s chair, and it became fodder for his major recall rival. , talk show host Larry Elder, who seized on 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 for about 100,000 housing units a year, providing 3.5 million – 35 years of housing at the current pace – is close to a physical impossibility. .

Mr Newsom has since remained mostly silent about the larger zoning law. He did not take a position on Senate Bill 50, a controversial measure that would have allowed apartment buildings in neighborhoods across the state. And that Senate was largely silent about Bill 9 as it passed through both houses of the state legislature and lay on its table.

What it has done instead is enforce existing laws more aggressively than its predecessors. Two weeks after Mr Newsom took office, California’s attorney general sued Huntington Beach for failing to plan for adequate 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 would oversee local governments’ housing decisions and intervene if state law was not followed.

Zoning defines the physical character of a neighborhood and who can live next door, so it has attracted the most attention in the California housing debate. But over the years, the legislature has quietly passed small measures that, when combined together, have fundamentally changed the relationship between state and local government. The new rules change how many housing cities have to plan, make it harder for developers to stop building them and ultimately deprive them of funding and local control if they go too far from state mandates.

As they move much of the oversight of housing to Sacramento, the question has fallen to the executive branch about how aggressively those laws are enforced. It’s one thing for the state to pass legislation to segregate neighborhoods, set aside more land for subsidized housing, and require cities to allow backyard cottages. If enforcing them is not a priority – which has long been the case with housing laws – then they are bound to be overlooked.

In an interview after the recall vote, Jason Elliott, a senior adviser to Mr Newsom who works on housing policy, dismissed a series of bill numbers and the plan code’s cryptic text to indicate dozens of housing regulations, mostly untested. live. Environmental measures that support increased density to reduce car trips. Various laws permitting backyard units. A way for developers to prosecute cities that don’t follow their own zoning rules. These are the kinds of laws that the new Housing Accountability Unit will try to implement.

“I would never say that we have passed the law and we can’t do more,” Mr Elliott said. “But what we really need to do is if we want to see units spring up so several dozen people think about this and only do that, and empower them to reach cities.”

Will Mr Newsom ever get close to 3.5 million new units? No, even if it were politically possible, it would affect the timber and labor supply.

It took California decades to get into this bad housing crisis. It takes lofty rhetoric and promises for millions of units for a campaign slogan, but the reality looks like a process of slowly digging in.

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