On June 6th, funders from across the state engaged in a conversation with a journalist, a nonprofit developer and an advocate attorney on Smart Growth California’s webinar, California’s Hottest Topic: The Housing Crisis and our Collective Response to breakdown the most recent round of bills in the Capitol, and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Below is a summary of our conversation. Please reach out to Ron Milam to get the recording of the full dialogue.
Many solutions, no agreement
This year proves both the excitement to tackle housing and the challenges that face it. With over 200 housing bills proposed at the start of the legislative session, one by one many of the heartiest bills stalled or died before making it to the floor for a debate. Most notably, SB50 – the bill that would have dramatically changed local zoning in transit- and jobs-rich communities across the state – was held on suspense, bringing the bill to a standstill for this legislative session and snuffing any further discussion for the time being.
Even still, SB50, as well as Senator Nancy Skinner’s SB330 – a more pared down zoning change bill mostly to do with parking requirements that is moving forward – have “stretched the debate,” according to Doug Shoemaker of Mercy Housing. Before “we were fighting a very incremental fight,” he shared, but the landscape had changed drastically in the last three years. With a new Governor who has made housing a priority alongside freshman legislators who share his passion and concern, as well as growing capacities of advocates, new solutions are being presented and the impetus to act is evident.
However, agreement on the problem and a shared desire to act is no longer the issue, summarized Liam Dillon of the Los Angeles Times. The state’s housing interest groups – cities and counties, realtors, apartment owners, tenant advocates, environmentalists, nonprofit developers and others – all recognize the enormity of the challenge and would benefit from a solution that leads to more market-rate and affordable housing production. What they don’t agree on is how to get there. Most proposed solutions generate concern and opposition from one side or another, leading to regular stalemates and continued slow production.
Housing for whom?
Anya Lawler of Western Center on Law and Poverty challenged the common narrative around spurring market-rate production in the state. “What gets lost in the conversation is who is being served by California’s current housing markets and who is not, and where that housing is going,” she said. Anya shared that 76% of extremely-low income people (the fastest growing income group in the state) are severely cost burdened – paying more than 50% of their income on rent – while less than 1% of above moderate income people are extremely rent burdened. Much of the conversation has focused on market rate housing, and while there is most certainly a housing shortage for all income segments, the most pronounced and difficult-to-address need is for low-income individuals and families.
The prioritization of low-income people and communities of color has also played out in the lifespans of tenant protection bills. This year’s Keep Families Home package included three critical tenants’ rights bills, two of which didn’t made the cut. AB36 – a follow up to Prop 10 that sought to reform the Costa Hawkins Act and give cities permission to opt-in to rent stabilization programs – didn’t even make it to its first hearing, and AB1481, which intended to protect tenants from unfair evictions, also met an early demise. This “just cause eviction” bill was intended as a companion bill to Assemblymember David Chiu’s AB1482, a cap on rent hikes, working in tandem to keep tenants in their homes and without huge rent increases. AB1482 will move forward on its own, but only after substantial edits to the original.
The Sacred Cows
The scale of the problem is immense and the Governor’s goal of developing 3.5 million housing units in seven years matches the scope. At the same time, such audacious goals demand equally ambitious policies to support this level of production. To get to the root of the policies and institutional structures that have held us back as a state in terms of housing, dramatic changes must be considered, even to the “sacred cows” – Prop 13, local exclusionary zoning restrictions that keep certain types of housing and therefore people out of neighborhoods, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), among others. CEQA, a decades-old environmental protection statute is beloved by some and accused by others of being used as an exclusionary policy to keep affordable housing out of certain neighborhoods. Doug Shoemaker called it, “arguably the worst aspect of California law as it relates to housing production. I would take a change in CEQA over rezoning from SB50 every day of the week and I think so would every other developer in CA.”
If SB50 (and its predecessor SB827) generated such a fight, we can only imagine that the years to come will bring more tough conversations and difficult decisions on these and other subjects that must be questioned and considered.
How can funders make a difference?
While some key bills are halted for the year, the conversations surrounding them will continue. These big decisions can’t always be made in large rooms with lots of players, and funders can play a role in convening smaller conversations around topics among key stakeholders and community leadership. Additionally, many opportunities live on this year that funders can learn about and engage with, such as SB329 to limit Section 8 voucher discrimination, AB1763 to increase density bonuses for affordable housing developers, as well as ADU streamlining policies and new dollars in the state budget for the state housing tax credit fund, anti-homelessness and housing infrastructure. Ensuring community organizations have the capacity they need to advocate and organize will be critical in keeping the momentum moving.
Ultimately, advocates and stakeholders will continue their commitment to see many of these solutions past the finish line. Increasing density in more places will be necessary if California is to accommodate our needed housing without paving over natural lands, building in fire-prone zones and exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions. Historically segregated communities with exclusionary policies must incorporate more inclusive housing practices, and land use and entitlement processes need to be more representative of the broader community needs. Sacred cows must be questioned and reformed. And new, diverse voices must be centered in the discussion and the solutions that flow from it.
The housing focus in the legislature and across the State continues to grow, without an end in sight. Because of the interconnectivity of issues, funders from across issue areas can join together to work on housing as it relates to their program areas – health, climate, environment, equity and others. We invite you to reach out and share your interest in collaborating with other funders as we consider together how we as a statewide philanthropic network can best utilize our strength to help this critical conversation move forward with urgency behind it and equity at its center.
Many thanks to our fantastic presenters – Liam Dillon of the LA Times, Anya Lawler of Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Doug Shoemaker of Mercy Housing, as well as to our moderator, Diana Williams.