Too many Californians are too close to homelessness. Lawmakers, don’t fail them now

Builders work on an apartment complex in Sacramento. The Legislature could vote as soon as Friday on bills that would address California’s housing crisis.
Builders work on an apartment complex in Sacramento. The Legislature could vote as soon as Friday on bills that would address California’s housing crisis. AP

Democrats in the Legislature are right. What California is experiencing isn’t merely a housing crisis. It’s a housing “catastrophe” – and after years of stalemates and inaction, it’s encouraging that many at the Capitol are finally starting to treat it like one.

Earlier this week, Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon agreed on a package of bills that would deliver billions of dollars for affordable housing projects, and streamline the approval process for construction by eliminating some environmental and planning procedures.

The measures are overdue, and will make a difference. The real test for the Legislature could start Friday, when voting is likely to begin on Senate Bill 2 by Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, Senate Bill 3 by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Senate Bill 35 by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.

Legislators would be wise to remember what’s at stake.

Every night, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children sleep in their cars and under bridges now at least in part because they can’t afford rent. Some go so far as to live along riverbanks, including the American River Parkway in Sacramento County, which has led to a spike in E. coli pollution in the water.

Millions of other people are in danger of becoming homeless because they’re living paycheck to paycheck. And homeownership, that essential building block for wealth in this state, is increasingly out of reach.

Without a major course correction, California risks running its next generation of leaders out of the state because they can’t afford to live here.

That’s not to say the package of bills before the Legislature will completely fix that. Far from it. Housing is an incredibly complex and politically treacherous problem.

To truly get to the root of the state’s catastrophe, the Legislature would have to address the astronomical cost of land, which makes it expensive to build anything; crack down on the NIMBY lawsuits that inevitably slow residential construction projects to a crawl; and, most of all, deal with the limits of Proposition 13, which encourages communities to approve commercial development rather than residential development, because the latter doesn’t bring in local tax revenue.

The bills before the Legislature don’t do any of that. But what’s being proposed is a start.

SB 2, which needs a two-thirds majority for approval, would impose a fee of as much as $225 on real estate transactions to generate as much as $258 million a year to fight homelessness and to provide housing for poor people. Moderate Democrats, including Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove, are wary of asking taxpayers for more money. But a taxpayer selling or refinancing a home and making a profit is benefiting from the housing shortage and can afford a fee.

SB 3, which also requires a two-thirds vote, would put a $4 billion bond on the November 2018 ballot. Originally $3 billion, the bond was increased by $1 billion to help military veterans buy homes.

SB 35 would allow developers to bypass some local government red tape to speed construction of housing projects. If the reaction to a similar proposal from Brown is any indication, the measure is likely to get pushback from enviros. A labor-backed provision requiring that construction workers earn a prevailing wage also has drawn some scrutiny.

It’s easy to nitpick, but the reality is this is a catastrophe that has to be attacked from all sides. This should be just the beginning.