Dan Walters

California needs to approve Jerry Brown’s plan to increase housing

President Barack Obama’s administration weighed in Monday on a political issue that’s especially critical in California – local land-use policies that exacerbate the state’s ever-worsening housing shortage.

The White House released a “toolkit” that explains how restrictive zoning and planning policies depress housing supply, raise housing costs and drag down the larger economy.

“We need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing,” the White House paper declared, calling for more density, speedier regulatory permitting and fewer rules that restrict or prohibit auxiliary dwellings – often dubbed “granny flats” – on single-home lots.

While White House involvement indicates that the housing shortage is not confined to California, it’s also evident that the nation’s most populous state has a particularly acute shortage that’s driving housing costs through the roof.

The state’s population has been increasing by over 300,000 people annually in recent years, mostly because we have over twice as many births as deaths. Immigration from other countries is scant and we lose more people to other states as we gain, thanks in part to our high housing costs.

We need roughly 100,000 units of new housing each year to accommodate that growth, but our net increase has been scarcely two-thirds of that, thus increasing the shortage each year.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposed steps similar to those contained in the White House toolkit – fast-tracking for certain kinds of housing to fill the most critical needs. But his “by right” plan went nowhere in the Legislature because environmental groups, labor unions and local governments joined forces to kill it.

By happenstance, the death of Brown’s plan and the White House’s indirect endorsement of its provisions coincide with an especially egregious example of why it’s needed.

Brisbane, a tiny community (fewer than 4,500 residents) on San Francisco Bay just north of San Francisco International Airport, is poised to approve development of a 684-acre waterfront site called Baylands that is a former rail yard and disposal site.

The developer wants to include 4,434 housing units in the development, along with commercial uses, but the city indicates it will only approve plans that exclude housing, arguing that bringing more people into Brisbane will damage its small-town character.

“We’ll provide the commercial,” Councilman Clifford Lentz told the San Francisco Chronicle, “San Francisco will provide the housing.”

It’s a classic case of the not-in-my-backyard ethos that permeates local housing policies, often hiding behind a veneer of environmental protection, with the Bay Area being a hot bed of such sentiment.

Although a city-sponsored survey found that 71 percent of Brisbane’s residents want Baylands to be developed, just 16 percent said housing should be included.

“Local land-use policy is just that – local,” Lentz told the Chronicle, adding, “It is going to be up to Brisbane to decide if housing should go up.”

And that’s why Brown’s proposal, which he did not make a high priority, is needed.