The California Influencer Series

How to solve California’s housing crisis: Influencers have ideas

A contractor moves roofing material on a San Ramon home under construction. Advocates are massing for a November battle over California housing costs.
A contractor moves roofing material on a San Ramon home under construction. Advocates are massing for a November battle over California housing costs. Bloomberg

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The California Influencers Series

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Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.

Homeowners are commuting an hour or more to find a house they can afford.

Middle-class workers are crowding into San Francisco apartments with multiple roommates.

Twenty-somethings are back in their bedrooms at their parents’ house.

It should come as no surprise, then, that The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers last week ranked the rapidly rising cost of housing as a top-level priority for state lawmakers.

“The concept of affordable housing and California has almost become an oxymoron,” said Rosalind Hudnell, the former Chair and President of Intel Foundation, and one of the Influencers, a group of the state’s most respected experts in public policy, politics and government.

Bee readers who responded to our online survey were just as emphatic: the housing crisis in California is out of control. Influencers had plenty of suggestions for combating the crisis: Fewer regulations and lower building fees. Tax incentives for construction. Rent control. Less NIMBY-ism when affordable housing projects are proposed.

“We need a “Butch and Sundance” moment … “I’ll jump if you jump.” said Carl Guardino, President and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “… Democrats need to accept the need for reforms on (environmental regulations) that impact housing costs and construction. Republicans need to appreciate the need for funding affordable homes. It takes revenue and reforms.”

Labor leaders agreed with the business community’s emphasis on a multi-pronged approach, one that eliminates obstacles to development while providing support and protections for residents.

“There isn't a ‘one size fits all’ solution to California’s housing problems,” said Cesar Diaz, Legislative and Political Director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council. “Regions should seek to… streamline the approval of housing projects in cities that do not meet their housing obligations … (But) a project must include housing for certain income levels where there is a shortage of production, include important protections for construction workers, and meet all objective affordability, density, zoning, historic and environmental standards.”

Other Influencers also emphasized the need for flexibility, pointing to the dramatically different housing requirements in urban, rural and suburban communities.

“What may work in the large urban areas are not good solutions for other parts of the state and vice versa,” said Ashley Swearengin, former mayor of Fresno and now the President & CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation. “Our state's leaders ought to… create a tool that incentivizes and increases housing supply in places where it makes sense at the regional level and penalizes local governments for not implementing what they commit to…."

The challenge is a particularly daunting one for students and other young people, who enter the housing market at a time when entry-level salaries make the prospect of home ownership very unlikely.

“We need to provide more housing support for students and build more housing in urban communities. We also need to recognize that most young people can no longer afford to buy a home, and rents keep going up,” said Eloy Oakley, Chancellor of California Community Colleges. “We should consider tax breaks or other incentives to making living in California more affordable for the dwindling middle-class and struggling students hoping to live and work in California.”

Kim Yamasaki, Executive Director of Center for Asians United for Self Empowerment (CAUSE), who at age 25 is the youngest California Influencer, agreed with Oakley.

“ …Young professionals are moving out of their parents’ homes later rather than sooner. When young adults and low-wage workers begin to make more money, we need to have the next affordable option readily available,” Yamasaki said. “… We need to create policies that incentivize developments that are considering the working, middle-class — not just affordable housing and luxury units.”

Dorothy Rothrock, President of the California Manufacturers & Technology Association addressed the question of affordability not from the perspective of cost but of earning capacity: “California employment is more concentrated in lower-wage service jobs or the highest wage professional categories where housing affordability is not an issue. We can lower the price of housing by increasing supply, but to close the gap on affordability we need more middle-class employment.”

Cassandra Pye, President of California Women Lead, and CEO of 3.14 Communications, issued an election-year warning:

“This is one of those issues that won’t be well-served by soundbites or unrealistic promises. Both gubernatorial candidates should take the time between now and November to educate and then engage voters in the reform conversation. If we want to build more housing, there will be short-term sacrifices for most of us. Let’s get real about it.”

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