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Opinion

Editorial: California’s housing costs are driving its citizens into poverty. Lawmakers need to act now

HOLLYWOOD, CA, TUESDAY, MAY 10, 2016 - Rande´ Zell, 65, from Laguna Beach, lives in an encampment al
A homeless encampment along the 101 Freeway near the Fountain Avenue overpass in Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

If California lawmakers needed another reason to pass legislation to address the state’s housing crisis, the U.S. Census Bureau has provided one.

Annual data released this week again confirm that when housing costs and other living expenses are figured in, California has the nation’s highest poverty rate. One in five Californians lives in poverty. Why? Because the staggering cost of paying for a roof over one’s head has left people struggling to survive.

This should be no surprise. The evidence of California’s housing crisis — and the poverty that results — is right in front of our eyes. It’s there in the tents and homeless encampments that have sprung up in recent years, and in the prevalence of people living in campers on city streets. It’s also there in the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways every morning and evening as people commute to their city jobs from far-flung, somewhat-more-affordable suburbs.

Given all that visible evidence, it has been truly mind-boggling to watch California lawmakers hem and haw over whether to pass a handful of bills that would begin — just begin — to fix the problems that have led to the state’s housing crisis. Those include both the general shortage of housing construction for people of all income levels and the lack of funding to build affordable housing for the poorest residents.

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Three key bills are designed to address those problems. Two of them appear to have enough support to pass, thankfully. SB 35 would streamline housing approvals in communities that have fallen behind on their “fair share” housing construction goals. SB 3 would put a $4-billion bond on the June 2018 ballot to help construction of new affordable rental housing and to provide low-interest loans to veterans buying homes.

But SB 2 is in jeopardy. That bill would impose a new $75 fee on certain real estate transactions, such as mortgage refinancings or liens filed by contractors. That’s a minor additional cost, but the payoff for the state would be a permanent source of funding — $250 million a year — to help build affordable housing.

The bill requires approval by two-thirds of the members of each house of the Legislature. Some lawmakers have balked because they don’t want to be accused of approving yet another tax after a session full of hard, tax- and revenue-raising decisions, including raising the gas tax to pay for road repairs and extending the cap-and-trade program.

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Those lawmakers ought to take a serious look at their own districts. Do they have homeless people living in parks or under freeway overpasses? Are poor, working families choosing between rent and food? Are good companies closing shop and moving to other states where their workers can afford housing? The lack of affordable housing is driving poverty in California. It’s time to change that.

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