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California

Column: Does it have to be so hard to pass a housing bill? Not really, and here’s a bold path forward

Gavin Newsom 211
State Senate leader Toni Atkins, shown in San Diego in August with Gov. Gavin Newsom, say she and Newsom hope to pass a housing production bill this year, despite the failure of Senate Bill 50.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rents, up.

Homelessness, up.

Housing bill, down.

Senate Bill 50, which could have produced a massive amount of desperately needed new housing in California, didn’t even die a humane death last week in Sacramento.

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It was clubbed, kicked to the ground and pecked to death.

So now what?

I’ve got answers, but first a quick review.

The bill by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) was a sharp stick, which is just what we need, but too many people got poked in the eye.

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Regardless of local zoning, SB 50 would have allowed mid-rise apartment buildings within half a mile of transit stations or job centers. So local officials naturally bellyached about the loss of control even though they would have had two years to get off their duffs and come up with their own remedies.

It would have required projects of 10 units or more to kick into an affordable housing fund or price up to 25% of the units for low-income residents. But critics argued that wasn’t enough affordable housing and some argued the result of SB 50 would be more gentrification.

And it would have allowed single-family homes to be converted into fourplexes, which naturally ruffled those determined to maintain low-density suburban aesthetic. Maybe the bill went a bit too far there, and some critics have argued that the bill’s specifics were too vague or didn’t mesh with Southern California’s specific housing needs or with remedies already in the works.

But I thought my colleagues George Skelton and Kerry Cavanaugh neatly sized up the demise, for the third year in a row, of SB 50.

Skelton wrote that sprawl won out over denser housing, with L.A. legislators leading the SB 50 death squad. Cavanaugh wrote that those same L.A. lawmakers did their deed “without offering any meaningful proposal that could reverse the state’s debilitating housing shortage.”

As all this was happening in the last week, I was scoping out a story on one particular group that’s squeezed by the high cost of housing in California.

Teachers.

Hundreds of brand-new instructors are about to graduate from Cal State Northridge, and I’m meeting with some of them this week.

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In L.A. Unified, where many of them will soon be working, the starting salary is just above $50,000. In December, The Times reported that the average rent in Los Angeles was $2,527 monthly, a 65% increase in the last decade.

I always hear from readers who argue that if people can’t afford to live in high-rent areas, they should go elsewhere.

Really?

Tell that to a teacher in West L.A. or a nurse in Beverly Hills. Do we want them schlepping in from Riverside and San Bernardino counties every day, even as the planet melts?

“We’re not going to be able to keep enough of the workers who need to live in these communities to be able to stay here,” said Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego).

Five years ago I toured San Diego with Atkins, who was promoting the Building Homes and Jobs Act, a bill that added a fee of $75 to $225 on the public filing of certain real estate documents.

“I just don’t feel like we can leave people behind,” she told me at the time.

It should have taken 10 minutes to pass that bill.

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It took seven years.

And people were left behind because it took too long and it wasn’t enough. Now we’ve just seen legislators strike out on a bill that could have been a big part of the solution.

Atkins told me on Tuesday that she and Gov. Gavin Newsom still hope to wrangle a housing production bill into existence this year. Voters, she said, list their top concerns as homelessness, lack of new housing and lack of affordable housing. So legislators have to find a way, and residents need to step up as well.

“The message to communities is — you have to be a part of the solution too,” Atkins said.

Look, I understand why people wouldn’t want a high-rise apartment building jammed into the middle of a tract house development. But SB 50 was an imperfect yet reasonable attempt to address a raging crisis, and people need to stop thinking “density” is such a horrible thing. When I lived in cities with high density, I didn’t need a car, and I didn’t miss having one.

If you don’t like hearing that, you’re surely not going to like hearing how I would finance more affordable housing in California.

But here goes.

Homeowners in the U.S. are sitting on more than $15 trillion in equity, and California is one of the leading equity-rich states, thanks to various public policies created for their benefit.

Anybody paying off a loan gets a nice mortgage deduction, and Proposition 13 keeps property tax rates low. And many benefit from exclusionary zoning that reduces density, which keeps the housing supply down and raises the value of their homes while rents soar.

Those homeowners played by the rules, presumably worked hard for what they’ve got and shouldn’t be criticized for becoming equity rich. But when they sell, is it too much to ask that a tiny fraction of their windfall be pumped into a housing fund to build new housing for those left behind?

Randy Shaw wrote “Generation Priced Out” — which looks at how public policy has increased economic and racial inequality and helped drive the housing crisis — and he told me he likes that idea. And he took it one step further.

“Do it only in neighborhoods that have not allowed more housing,” Shaw said. “If you allowed more housing, you wouldn’t pay” the equity tax.

There you go. Carrot or stick, take your pick.

When many of our children can’t afford to buy homes or rent near the areas they grew up in, when housing costs put so many working people on the brink of homelessness, when teachers and nurses and so many other working folks in the state with the world’s fifth-largest economy find themselves priced out, drastic measures are called for.


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