Editorial: The houses Newsom hasn’t built
Author: Chronicle Editorial Board
Published: San Francisco Chronicle
During his campaign for governor, Gavin Newsom signaled a new and appropriately urgent approach to the housing shortage by vowing to put up 3.5 million homes over seven years, which would require more than quintupling the state’s anemic housing production. So far, however, California’s new approach to the crisis looks a lot like its old approach to the crisis.
The governor has since hastened to qualify his promise, calling it “audacious beyond words” in a recent interview with The Chronicle’s editorial board. But the aspiration alone acknowledged what too few California politicians have: that the state’s failure to build enough homes for its residents is the foundation of the crisis. It’s in that respect — tackling local government obstructionism and other forces arrayed against housing construction — that the state continues to fall short.
Granted, the governor is only six months into his administration and has already fired a warning shot in the direction of Huntington Beach and other cities determined to resist every attempt to admit a few more residents. Moreover, the budget he and the Legislature approved over the past two weeks dedicates an extraordinary chunk of money to the problem: $1.75 billion for housing development and $1 billion for homeless services.
That isn’t, however, the strategic departure suggested by the governor’s audacious pledge. California’s preferred response to the housing crisis — if not most crises — has been to spend more money. Two months before Newsom took office, voters agreed to borrow more than twice what his budget spends for housing and homeless services, while local measures in the Bay Area and beyond have dedicated billions more over the past few years.
Certainly the state’s lack of sufficient subsidized housing, homeless shelters and support speaks to the need for such resources. But government spending hasn’t made a dent in the housing shortage and can’t be expected to within the confines of the budget or borrowing capacity. Nearly $5 billion in bonds approved by voters in the 2000s produced under 60,000 units, according to one analysis, or not enough to cover a year of the housing shortfall.
Newsom has done more than spend money on housing. While he backed off a threat to tie cities’ share of gas taxes to housing production, the latest budget legislation allows steep fines against cities that refuse to plan the residential growth required by state law. The trouble is that current housing law is so flawed that it deems over 90% of cities in compliance — including the entire Bay Area, the epicenter of the crisis.
Transforming California housing requires transforming housing law, and while Newsom has expressed general enthusiasm for doing so, he has yet to do as much for specific legislation as he did to, say, water down a contentious vaccination bill.
Newsom praised the Legislature’s signature housing production bill but only in the aftermath of its inglorious demise at the hands of Democratic legislative leaders. SB50, by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would address restrictions at the heart of the crisis by overruling zoning that prohibits apartments, especially near mass transit and job centers. More incremental legislation to limit local obstruction and boost production — by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, respectively — could yet pass.
Though the governor has said he is eager to sign “a good package on rent stability,” it remains to be seen whether he will get the chance. Legislation by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, to prohibit extraordinary rent increases statewide narrowly survived an Assembly vote in weakened form, but a companion bill setting eviction standards failed. Chiu recently amended his bill, AB1482, to incorporate the defeated eviction protections, and it’s expected to be considered by a Senate committee this week.
The crisis, meanwhile, isn’t easing, with the latest counts of homeless populations revealing astonishing increases over the past two years: 17% in San Francisco, 21% in San Mateo County, 31% in Santa Clara County and 43% in Alameda County. Even President Trump has noticed lately, ordering up a “White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable HousingDevelopment” and blaming California homelessness on the “liberal establishment.”
Pointing out the president’s enthusiasm for cutting federal spending on homeless services, Newsom retorted that Trump had apparently realized he “has work to do on this issue.” He isn’t the only one.
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