San Francisco Chronicle: Have leaders the courage to face California’s greatest crisis?

July 14, 2017

California’s housing emergency can be measured in many ways — its 78,000 unsheltered homeless, nearly half the nation’s total; the 180,000 additional units a year the state needs but has no apparent prospect of producing; the tensions over urban gentrification that some are blaming for a spate of East Bay apartment building arsons.

But perhaps the most remarkable sign of the crisis is that the Legislature is at long last on the brink of doing something about it.

State Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill to rein in some of the worst antibuilding excesses of the state’s cities and towns survived its latest committee vote in the Assembly last week. Scores more housing-related measures are in the works, but Senate Bill 35 is the most relevant — and controversial — because it goes after the stubborn roots of the state’s daunting dwelling shortage.

Passed by the state Senate last month, SB35 could mark a heartening departure for a Legislature that has been at best slow to respond to the state’s most pressing problem and at worst oblivious to it. The most damning recent example was the Democratic majority’s approval of Assemblyman Marc Levine’s measure exempting Marin County from density standards that apply to the rest of the Bay Area. Lawmakers likewise rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal last year to force approval of certain housing developments despite the enticement of $400 million in housing subsidies.

SB35 echoes the governor’s plan. It would streamline approval of urban, multiunit developments that meet zoning, affordability and other standards in communities that aren’t meeting local housing needs. While the state has been carefully assessing those needs for decades, its lack of means to enforce them allows local officials to regard perpetual shortfalls with a shrug. Wiener, D-San Francisco, told the Assembly housing committee that under his legislation, local officials would be able to determine how they meet housing needs, not whether. “All communities must participate,” he said, “if we’re going to dig ourselves out of this housing hole we’ve created.”

This being Sacramento, the bill didn’t come this far without some potential payoffs. A separate bill, also passed by the housing committee, would add fees of up to $225 per real estate transaction to raise $250 million a year for affordable-housing programs; another would ask voters to approve $3 billion in borrowing for such programs, dwarfing the deal sweetener Brown offered. That would provide some relief for the homeless, farmworkers and other needy Californians, and giving communities money is certainly more popular than telling them what to do. But an earlier $3 billion bond issue is credited with producing 92,000 housing units over a decade, or about half the projected need just to match a year’s worth of growth.

Lowering California’s formidable barriers to private development is a more promising long-term strategy, though SB35 makes concessions that may hamper its capacity to do so. It would require expedited developments to pay their workers union-level wages, for example, and allow cities like San Francisco to impose extraordinary affordable-housing requirements. Higher construction worker pay and more affordable apartments are worthy goals, but to the extent that those added burdens render development unprofitable, they would defeat the purpose of the legislation.

The compromises have won support from interests such as construction unions and the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland. But the legislation still faces diverse opposition, from governments in Marin County and Beverly Hills to neighborhood groups in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and San Francisco’s Mission. The latter fear that easing development will enable gentrification to displace poorer residents, but the pressure on city neighborhoods has been exacerbated by allowing wealthier areas — like, say, Marin County and Beverly Hills — to block development. As Wiener noted last week, “Displacement happens when you don’t have enough housing.”

Read the editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle website.