Soapbox

Legislature, governor fail on affordable housing crisis

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, right, speaks with Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell on Aug. 18. Rendon is conceding defeat on negotiations over a plan to inject $400 million into affordable housing projects.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, right, speaks with Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell on Aug. 18. Rendon is conceding defeat on negotiations over a plan to inject $400 million into affordable housing projects. The Associated Press

If buying a home seems out of reach or you’re struggling to pay rent, the Legislature has few plans to help.

In early spring it looked like 2016 would be the year of housing policy. Legislators in both houses and both parties were talking about the housing crisis and homelessness and their impacts on the economy, families, health care, climate change and communities. The Senate had a broad initiative around homelessness, and the Assembly was promoting a $1.3 billion proposal for affordable housing.

Sadly, that $1.3 billion was quietly cut to $400 million and made hostage to Gov. Jerry Brown’s “by-right” proposal to streamline local government housing approvals. Now, the controversial proposal is dead and with it, the compromise to provide more affordable housing.

Federal and state housing funding in California has decreased by more than $1.7 billion annually since 2008. And cap-and-trade, which funds the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program, is on shaky ground.

The governor is right that increasing supply is crucial to keep down the cost of all housing. Stagnant construction contributes significantly to our housing crisis. But the governor’s proposal failed to navigate concerns about environmental impacts, wages and the potential to displace more residents near transit.

And supply is only part of the solution to our housing woes. Policies aimed at increasing supply will take decades rather than years to have a real impact, and while an increase in market supply might help middle-class and higher-income families, it is not going to make housing affordable for the five million workers earning minimum wage or for seniors on fixed income. California must invest in affordable homes and protect renters.

If Gov. Brown continues to pursue policies aimed at boosting overall supply, he should bear in mind that the by-right proposal is not the only way. There are a range of other tools, including tax reform, anti-NIMBY laws and support for local planning.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s silence on housing funding over the last two months has been deafening. Legislators appear content to let the issue die for this year, with no mention that as a result we are losing funding for an innovative housing subsidy program to lower Medi-Cal costs of the homeless, for a program to house farmworkers and vital funding to help people being priced out of their community.

The Legislature has also quietly killed a bill that would have ended discrimination against people using vouchers, another bill to end the legal uncertainty around inclusionary housing and a bill to prevent homeless families from losing a car just because they have nowhere else to sleep. Most of these died without even a floor vote.

A year that started with new hope ended with the most vulnerable being held hostage to the political gamesmanship of powerful interests. The governor never seemed to care enough to really put his weight behind his by-right proposal. The Legislature sat on its hands. And like most battles of powerful forces, those that suffer the most are the ones with the least.

Shamus Roller is executive director of Housing California. He can be contacted at sroller@housingca.org.

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