Editorial: What crisis? Assembly leaders are letting an important affordable housing bill die

Construction of the Arrowhead Grove  housing development in San Bernardino
An aerial view of construction of the Arrowhead Grove energy efficient housing development in San Bernardino in November.
(Los Angeles Times)

What could explain the imminent demise of a bill to help solve one of Los Angeles County’s most pressing problems — the lack of affordable housing — that has widespread community and political support, and is modeled on a Bay Area bill that sailed through the state Legislature just two years ago?

Political dysfunction? Lack of courage by legislators? Egos and personal antagonism?

For the record:

11:06 a.m. Sept. 15, 2021The editorial previously stated that the State Building and Construction Trades Council “didn’t budge” in negotiations. In fact, the union proposed amendments to help resolve the stalemate.

Probably all of the above. But ultimately, the apparent death of Senate Bill 679 is a failure of leadership, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).

For months, the bill was stalled in the Assembly. The session ends Friday and it looks like the bill won’t even be put up for vote. If that happens, it means legislative leaders chose to abandon a transformative proposal to address L.A. County’s affordable housing crisis rather than resolve a long-standing political standoff with a labor union over the use of apprentice program graduates on construction projects.

It’s important to recognize how SB 679 came to be and why it’s so frustrating that it became a bargaining chip in a larger political struggle. In early 2020, the Los Angeles delegation of legislators got together and decided that their top priority was addressing the region’s housing and homelessness crises. SB 679 by Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) was expected to be one of the delegation’s most significant efforts.

The bill, which is modeled on 2019 legislation creating a Bay Area housing finance agency, set the stage for a big expansion of the housing safety net in the region by creating the Los Angeles County Housing Solutions Agency. This independent authority would build new affordable housing, preserve existing affordable housing and provide renter protections and support.

The timing of the bill was especially important. To fulfill its mission, the new agency would need funding. The housing and social justice advocacy groups behind the proposal envisioned a November 2022 ballot measure to enact a countywide tax on multimillion-dollar property sales. The tax could raise more than half a billion dollars a year for affordable housing and tenant aid programs, potentially allowing the new housing agency to build or preserve 100,000 affordable units over the next decade.


But you can’t collect signatures for a tax measure to fund an agency that doesn’t exist. SB 679 needed to pass by this week so the agency could be formed in January, giving advocates enough time to collect signatures to get the tax proposal on the November ballot. Unless the bill is suddenly revived before midnight Friday, that plan gets scrapped.

SB 679 isn’t the first bill sacrificed to the dispute.

For the last two years, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 450,000 plumbers, roofers, pipe fitters and other skilled laborers, has opposed bills to streamline housing approvals or loosen local zoning regulations unless developers guaranteed that at least one-third of construction workers on the projects would be graduates of apprenticeship programs. Most programs are union-run and most graduates are union members. The Trades Council wields tremendous political power in Sacramento, and many state lawmakers are loath to vote against its interests.

Developers counter that the “skilled and trained workforce” requirement the Trades Council wants would add yet another mandate that would make construction even more expensive. That, plus possible shortages of union labor in residential construction, could result in less housing and higher prices, which is a big concern for affordable housing developers.

Apparently frustrated by the stalemate and the Trades Council’s hardball politics, Rendon held up key housing bills, including SB 679, to force negotiations, CalMatters reported last month. It didn’t work. The union proposed some amendments to help resolve the stalemate but the sides couldn’t reach a resolution before the end of session. Lawmakers’ failure to make a deal means the state has, once again, failed to move important legislation that would help ease the housing crisis.

Kamlager said she’s incredibly frustrated with the process, as she should be. She and advocates worked hard to build support among L.A. County’s 88 cities and lined up more than a dozen co-sponsors in the Legislature. The bill passed the Senate easily before stalling in the Assembly.

“Here we are two days before the end of session,” Kamlager said Wednesday, “with no hearing and no help for working-class folks in Los Angeles who need something like this agency to help us address the affordability crisis around housing.”

And that’s a shame. Housing and good jobs are key issues in California, and it’s difficult to balance competing priorities and demands. At the end of the day, residents rely upon lawmakers to compromise and strive for the greatest good. This time, with SB 679, it appears legislators failed to do that essential work.