Bill Whalen

Housing costs should be back on state lawmakers’ agenda

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, shown speaking at the state Democratic Party convention last weekend, is pushing bills to increase affordable housing.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, shown speaking at the state Democratic Party convention last weekend, is pushing bills to increase affordable housing. The Associated Press

Since the Legislature is spending money about as fast as Silicon Valley can mint it, why not create a new state agency? Specifically, the Department of Recyclable Ideas Perpetually Shelved, or DRIPS.

Consider what it could do for the thorny matter of tax reform. Rather than set up a time-consuming council of economic advisers to study the matter, as state Controller Betty Yee has done, DRIPS would simply dust off the 2009 plan crafted by the so-called Parsky Commission.

The same is true for legislators meddling in California’s housing market, which shows no signs of losing its value (the average home costs $437,000, about 21/2 times the $179,000 national average) or its luster (the Golden State is home to eight of the nation’s hottest real estate markets).

Earlier this week, the Hoover Institution released its quarterly Golden State Poll, the topic being housing’s impact on Californians and their confidence in the future. Among the findings:

▪ Two-thirds of Californians consider the housing market to be very or somewhat competitive.

▪ While half of Bay Area residents deem their housing market “very competitive,” only 15 percent in the Central Valley do.

▪ Nearly half have considered moving because of housing costs, including 3 out of 5 millennials and renters.

▪ The most popular state action is subsidizing public transit; at the local level, rent control won out over relaxing open-space requirements and changing zoning laws.

The survey complements a March report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office that concludes with these ominous words: “If California continues on its current path, the state’s housing costs will remain high and likely will continue to grow faster than the nation’s. This, in turn, will place substantial burdens on Californians – requiring them to spend more on housing, take on more debt, commute further to work, and live in crowded conditions. Growing housing costs also will place a drag on the state’s economy.”

So what should the state do?

First up: updating the California Environmental Quality Act. Gov. Jerry Brown has pitched this idea, to the sound of crickets in the Legislature; the reform-minded California Forward will be talking about it at a November economic summit it’s hosting.

Meanwhile, DRIP can reheat an older chestnut: “101 Steps To Better Housing.” Produced in 1982 by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, it contains a hodgepodge of ideas that address three concerns as valid today as they were the last time Brown was governor: increasing the volume of new homes, reducing their cost and locating them close to workplaces.

To her credit, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins has started addressing the state’s housing crunch. As might be expected, she comes at it mostly from a spending perspective. She wants to establish a permanent source of funding for affordable housing by placing a fee on real estate transaction documents (excluding home sales), and wants to invest a portion of Proposition 47 savings in housing for former prison inmates.

Will Atkins and fellow Democrats who control the levers of power be open to a broader housing conversation that includes CEQA reform and other regulatory ideas that are anathema to the left?

And as with most any point of contention in the state Capitol: Is Brown willing to lend his ear, his bully pulpit and a little of his considerable political capital?

The timing is right, given that the state is relatively awash in money and that housing plays in all corners of the Golden State. And if state lawmakers fail to seize the moment, there’s always room on the shelves at DRIP – where good ideas can idle for another 30 years.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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