Local governments must step up and fix the housing crisis they helped create

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High housing prices and a shortage of houses threaten California’s future

In light of a dismaying history of voting down legislation vital to mitigating California’s housing crisis, state officials announced that they will finally prioritize finding solutions to the soaring housing and rent prices, increased homelessness and severe undersupply of houses afflicting counties across the state.

It’s disheartening, though not entirely surprising, that California’s politicians have stalled so long on tackling the affordability problems that have clearly been escalating over the past several years. The state’s median house cost clocks in at $500,000 — two times the national median cost. Due to a shortage of homes, California also accounts for 22 percent of people living without permanent housing in the United States, despite accounting for a mere 12 percent of the nation’s overall population. And about one-third of those who can afford to rent housing in California spend more than 50 percent of their income on simply keeping a roof over their heads.

Most of the blame falls on local governments, which — due to a lack of effective enforcement — have consistently failed to follow affordable housing quotas established by the state. Stringent zoning laws, environmental regulations and outdated procedural laws have made it easy for cities and counties to discourage developers and create barriers to home construction. Community members — wanting to keep their housing prices high and championing “not-in-my-backyard” attitudes, as evident in Davis — have maintained a strong influence on elected officials, especially since homeowners are more likely to vote in elections and donate to campaigns.

Governor Jerry Brown has continually attempted to revise some of the most obstructive measures, such as the California Environmental Quality Act, in order to streamline development and bypass some of the towering roadblocks. But environmentalists, elected officials and homeowners have just as fervently shot these proposals down. One of their main complaints is that such bills would take power away from cities — even though they would really just eliminate cities’ ability to sidestep the affordable housing guidelines that they have promised but failed to honor.

The inability to reverse the housing crisis will undoubtedly jeopardize the prosperity of the state. California champions some of the most robust companies in the nation — from the tech industry in the Bay Area to the entertainment industry in Los Angeles to agriculture in the Central Valley. But housing prices in many of the metropolitan areas where these companies’ headquarters are stationed, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, have skyrocketed as much as 75 percent in the last five years alone. If cities with thriving industries fail to decrease their housing prices, how are recent graduates and other young adults supposed to afford living where they want to work?

Out of the 130 housing measures proposed this year, the Senate has passed three bills, two of which — SB-2 and SB-3 — would increase funding for affordable housing. But with the state needing to subsidize a staggering $250 billion to fully combat the housing crisis, setting aside money for development cannot be the only step.

Far more crucial to solving the housing catastrophe are bills like SB-35, which would permit development projects to be streamlined through any city council or board of supervisors that have failed to meet the state’s quota for affordable housing. This would cut back on the time and money necessary for building houses as well as prevent community members from thwarting much-needed and legally-mandated neighborhood development.

But lawmakers have already provided reason to be cynical about the prospect of constructive reform. It’s a good sign that they’re focused on housing above all other issues when they reconvene this month. It’s not a good sign that they also just passed a bill that exempts the affluent Marin County — where a considerable amount of big-money campaign donors live — from adhering to affordable housing laws. If we hope to see a future in which California’s housing market is healthy, lawmakers must get serious about generating efficient change for all of their constituents — and not just appeasing those who will secure their reelections.

 

Written by: Taryn DeOilers — tldeoilers@ucdavis.edu

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