Dan Walters

Californians see big housing crisis but don’t agree on solutions

The Eviva apartments are being built in midtown Sacramento, but California as a whole is far behind in building housing to match its growing population.
The Eviva apartments are being built in midtown Sacramento, but California as a whole is far behind in building housing to match its growing population. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Those in California media and politics understand – finally – that there is a housing crisis.

However, there’s no agreement on what precisely it is or how it might be addressed.

To many, it’s homelessness – the 100,000-plus people who live in California but have no place to live, by far the largest number of any state.

To others, it’s sharply rising housing costs. Our rents average more than $2,000 for a two-bedroom unit, 50 percent higher than the national average, and in high-cost regions they are double that figure.

To a small band of demonstrators who showed up at the Capitol on Monday, it is that the “powerful real estate lobby buys and sells the Legislature.”

Housing experts tell us, however, that the underlying issue is a lack of housing. Recent reports indicate that over the last decade we added just three-fourths of the housing our growing population needed, and are still falling behind by about 25,000 units a year.

Our political responses are as varied as our interpretations of the problem.

Left-wing groups want more rent-control laws and mandates on developers to provide more undermarket housing.

A proposal on the June ballot in San Francisco, where housing costs have exploded, tests the theory. It would raise the “affordable” housing required in new developments from 12 percent to 25 percent, but even low-income housing advocates in the city are warning that it could squeeze the market further by reducing production.

Southward, in Los Angeles, two competing measures are headed for the November ballot, one to freeze housing development in the name of preserving neighborhoods, the other to fast-track projects whose developers agree to hire local – and unionized – workers.

Meanwhile, at the Capitol, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León is pushing a “no place like home” proposal that would divert $2 billion from a special income tax on the wealthy, passed by voters in 2004 to finance mental health services, into housing for the homeless. It has the blessing of de León’s predecessor as Senate leader, Darrell Steinberg, who sponsored the 2004 measure.

Gov. Jerry Brown endorses the plan, which would not involve the big increase in state spending that many housing advocates seek, and is also proposing to fast-track housing projects that meet certain criteria, bypassing local governments’ traditional control over land use.

Under Brown’s “by-right” proposal, multifamily housing that avoids urban sprawl, is close to transit and meets set-aside ratios for low- and moderate-income families can evade local government permitting.

It’s aimed at what housing experts say is the chief impediment to closing California’s demand-supply gap – the reluctance of local officials to approve large-scale housing projects, due to resistance among existing residents worried about traffic and crime and concerns about costs of new public services.

It is, Brown says, one of the needed “new approaches that increase the housing supply and reduce its cost.”

However, whether it flies, and whether it actually improves the housing crunch, are both very uncertain.