The California Influencer Series

California housing costs: 'When will they start paying enough for people to afford to live here?'

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

One of the top issues facing California this year was clear in reader’s responses to the launch of our California Influencer series.

Over and over again, “affordable housing” appeared in Your Voice, the online tool capturing suggestions for this election-year conversation.

One frustrated reader put it simply: “When will they start paying enough for people to afford to live here?”

In other words, how hard can it be to fix this problem?

We asked the Influencers, a group of the state’s most respected experts in public policy, politics and government, how to address California’s housing crisis. They had plenty of thoughts on the matter.

But their prescriptions for possible solutions varied widely, reflecting the ideological divisions that have prevented more far-reaching remedies from advancing in the Capitol.

Conservative activist Jon Fleischman argued that the goals of housing availability and affordability were directly related.

“We reduce the cost of housing by increasing the supply,” said Fleischman, who publishes the influential Flash Report website. “This is done by reducing the taxes and regulations that increase the cost of building housing ...”

Other Influencers offered a much different approach, advocating instead for more aggressive government involvement.

“New developments must focus not just on profit but with the mindfulness of the wages earned by those in the community,” said Pastor Les Simmons of the South Sacramento Christian Center, who supports inclusionary housing and financial subsidies for prospective homeowners. “Our target should be on the teachers, the grocery store workers, mechanics, as well as the historical residents of our urban communities.”

Madeleine Brand of Los Angeles’ KCRW Radio agreed with Simmons, saying that lawmakers should “require developers to create affordable housing as part of their market-rate developments.”

California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman went further, calling for the state to “extend rent control, underwrite house down payments, and guarantee lower interest rates for purchase.”

And Bay Area consultant Catherine Lew argued for “increasing inclusionary housing requirements on all new development and enacting strong tenant protection laws to limit skyrocketing rents.”

“Slash regulations and taxes that discourage building new homes, including rent control, high property taxes, environmental regulations and mandates…,” countered Harmeet Dhillon, Republican National Committeewoman and former vice chairman of the California GOP. “Builders should not be required to subsidize lower income housing — but should be enable to build more housing without so much red tape.”

While bitter and divisive fights over rent control and housing subsidies will dominate the debate this year, the greatest potential for progress may come in identifying a middle ground on questions of permit streamlining and zoning reform.

“I’m often asked what is the one thing I would do to solve (name your) crisis. I always give the same answer: the one thing is to stop thinking there is one thing,” said California Influencer Manuel Pastor, Director of Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California.

“This is a complex problem, which… boils down to a simple one of supply and demand,” agreed Loyola Law Professor Jessica Levinson. “There is no silver bullet…”

Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of Bay Area Council, took Levinson’s analysis a step further. “There are two principal drivers of this crisis: we are building far too few new homes and the ones we do build far exceed what many Californians can afford,” said Wunderman, who cited California’s 3.5 million unit housing shortfall and stressed the need to bring down construction costs.

“Funds for affordable housing are extremely important and must be dramatically expanded. But we can’t subsidize our way out of this…”

Two of the state’s most recognizable partisan leaders identified components of a potential legislative package.

“Land cost is a significant (cost) driver,” said former Assembly Speaker and former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, a Republican. "That can be addressed by encouraging cities to increase density in certain areas within their community. Government fees and mandates should be reduced.”

Former Governor Gray Davis focused on a specific point of contention in the debate over regulations.

“To deal with the high cost of housing we must come to terms with the elephant…in the room, The California Environmental Quality Act,” said Davis, a lifelong Democrat who argued that its initial intent, to protect the environment, “has been hijacked by litigants to advance their political, social or economic interests.”

“This is madness, but there are solutions,” he said. “Here is one: exempt from CEQA any projects that shelter or service the homeless.”

As important as policy change in the Legislature may simply be a better attitude among stakeholders, according to Maria Mejia, the Los Angeles Director for Gen Next, a young professionals’ organization that advocates for policy reform.

“Greedy developers and no-growth cities exist, but so do good actors,” said Mejia, who previously worked for the California League of Cities. “And my experience … has taught me that there is common ground.”

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