By Thomas Elias
California voters have often made it clear they don’t much care for efforts by the state to interfere with free markets in housing. Despite some public polls showing support for denser housing and rent controls, these ideas don’t do well at the ballot box, the latest example last year’s resounding defeat of the pro-rent control Proposition 10 by a 59-41 percent margin.
But state legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom apparently prefer to heed unofficial surveys over what actual voters have done.
And so, while the most radical of this year’s housing proposals has been delayed at least until next spring, the strong likelihood is that when proposed laws from the present legislative session reach Newsom’s desk, he will sign into law a large medley of seemingly pro-consumer housing bills.
No, none individually would have the strong impact of the stalled SB 50, the effort by San Francisco’s Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener to densify housing in most California cities. But what remains would still make major changes.
Take rent control, an idea that has strong local support in the 12 California cities where it is now law in some form. One bill by Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu, Wiener’s fellow San Franciscan, would prohibit rent gouging by limiting what it calls “extreme or unreasonable rent increases.” This one, moving steadily toward passage, would limit rent increases to the level of rises in the local Consumer Price Index, plus 5 percent, with the total annual increase capped at 10 percent regardless of what the CPI might do.
That measure flies completely in the face of the whopping defeat suffered by Proposition 10, but neither Chiu nor Newsom, if he signs it, expects any political ill effects.
Another major bill would suspend for years local laws that legislators believe inhibit housing production, covering everything from zoning changes, building standards, fees on low-income housing and local moratoria on new housing. The measure, by Berkeley’s Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, would set what it calls “reasonable” time periods for processing housing permits. Cities and counties that don’t comply could be sued or fined.
Another key bill would open vacant state-owned lands to building affordable homes, the definition of affordability varying by locale. “This will free up thousands of acres up and down the state on which affordable housing can be sited,” said its sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, another San Franciscan.
“We need to unlock surplus land for this purpose and the public good,” he added.
Unlike Wiener’s SB 50, this one most likely would not alter the entire character of whole neighborhoods and even some full cities. Instead, it would make something useful of vacant lots and unused former state buildings. By contrast, SB 50 would mandate high rise housing near all light rail transit stations and along frequently used bus routes, defined as those where buses run four or more times per hour.
That could turn much of California into a slightly newer replica of San Francisco’s Castro District, where Wiener has lived more than 20 years among its plethora of four- and five-story walkups.
While all these housing plans come from representatives of San Francisco and Berkeley, along with Santa Monica, arguably the most left-leaning places in California, it pays not to view them all through the lens of urban, left-wing politicians trying to impose their world-view on the rest of the state.
It’s more helpful, rather, to examine each proposal separately without rushing to judgment. Using vacant state-owned land to solve the state’s most visible social problems – homelessness and housing affordability – makes good economic and social justice sense. It would cost far less than building on land that must be purchased.
But taking away the authority of local governments – both counties and charter cities – to control their own zoning decisions is another matter, one that could have serious consequences for almost every property owner or renter in those places.
The bottom line: Legislators should carefully pick and choose from among the proposals now before them, taking the ones that have a proven possibility of working and discarding the rest. But it’s almost certain there will be serious change in housing policy, no matter which of the current bills become law.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net