The May massacre of California’s housing bills

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On November 12, 2018, California’s Democrats stared down a remarkable future. They had not only snagged a legislative trifecta—both houses of government and the governorship all from the same party—but a supermajority. With the two-thirds of votes needed to approve fiscal policy in place, and an incoming governor who promised to make housing his top priority, anything seemed possible.

“Expect them to swing for the fences,” predictedLos Angeles Times columnist George Skelton shortly after the landmark election.

They swung—and they struck out.

Democratic lawmakers hold the fate of the state in their hands. But six months in, May might very well go down as the worst month in California’s housing policy history.

It seemed, at first, like May might have been a turning point. Over the last few weeks, up and down the state, cities posted double-digit increases in their annual homeless counts. Promising a major initiative to tackle the problem, Gov. Gavin Newsom created a task force to study potential homelessness solutions.

Meanwhile, a half dozen bills designed to alleviate the crisis began making their way through the legislature. State housing bills don’t often make national headlines, but news out of California makes the Golden State a poster child for untenable inequality.

The data reads like a pitch for a dystopian blockbuster: One out of every 11,600 San Franciscans is a billionaire, while one out of five Californians lives below the poverty level. In Los Angeles, housing costs are increasing at a far greater rate for low-income residents, exacerbating the gap between the rich and the poor.

Two-thirds of California voters supported Senate Bill 50, which would have increased building heights around transit and may have started to change that narrative by spurring more housing. But the bill was shelved by one of Southern California’s own.

“This isn’t the right fix at this time to do that,” said Sen. Anthony Portantino, who held up the bill as the chairman of the appropriations committee.

Portantino’s district is threaded by the Gold Line along its southern border, and includes wealthy cities like La Cañada Flintridge, which, while he served as its mayor, did not build a single apartment.

Whether it was the “right fix,” because the discourse was dominated by wealthy homeowners moaning about SB 50 (and the lawmakers who listened to them), it’s possible that many Californians failed to grasp the importance of legislation with basic rental protections to keep more people out of homelessness. A number of bills, if passed intact and made law, might have started changing lives immediately.

One by one, the other housing bills—like Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s Assembly Bill 36, which would have loosened the state’s existing rent control restrictions, and bills that might have protected tenants’ right to organize and made it tougher to evict tenants for no legitimate reason—all toppled like dominoes.

Only Assembly Bill 1482 survived, but it was gutted. A cap on rent hikes now offers three years of protection instead of the original 10, making it too watered-down to be as effective as intended.

And where was the governor, who wants to create 3.5 million homes for Californians? His staff falsely claimed he had expressed legislative support for the suite of bills that would help renters stay in their homes.

“He’s asked them to move every single one of these bills,” Newsom’s chief of staff said. He hadn’t, the same way he hadn’t expressed support for Proposition 10, the rent control-strengthening ballot measure to repeal Costa Hawkins, which, had it passed, would have prevented the May massacre.

Amid the carnage, a few housing bills did advance—including a tax credit for people who own historic or architecturally significant buildings. Sen. Toni Atkins, the president pro tem of the senate, the only person who had the power to reverse Portantino’s decision, brokered a deal not only to preserve the state’s most expensive real estate, but to give the state’s wealthiest homeowners additional money to do so.

The irony was too painful to bear. But these state bills don’t represent the only failure in government. At the city level, May was even worse.

The first HHH-funded building opened on Thursday, 933 days after Los Angeles voters approved the ballot measure that was promised $1.2 billion bond to tackle its home-grown homelessness crisis. The slower the city moves, the fewer units will be produced: Once intended to fund 10,000 units of supportive housing, the HHH figure might now be closer to 6,000, due to increased construction costs and neighborhood opposition.

Even 6,000 units won’t be enough. Local homelessness numbers will be released next week, and we already know, according to a statement from the mayor, to expect “some double-digit increases.” Even with last year’s count showing a slight decrease, with 31,516 homeless residents in the city of Los Angeles, the most conservative double-digit increase would mean that over the last year, at least 10 more people became homeless in LA every single day.

If it takes the city almost 1,000 days to build 49 permanent supportive units, that math isn’t going to work. And still, some members of City Council—who unanimously opposed SB 50—still can’t bring themselves to build 222 units of supportive housing by next July.

Yes, the transit-oriented communities program shows promise in experimenting with inclusionary zoning, but not a single one of those projects has been completed yet. Yes, the number ADU permits skyrocketed, but we don’t know if, ultimately, those structures will become housing—or backyard yoga studios. And with rising costs of construction, it’s not clear how many of those units will be delivered to the rental market.

If we continue to rely on a handful of the wealthiest California property owners to keep the lives of tens of thousands of Angelenos intact, there will be no immediate solution to this problem.

The crisis calls for dramatic measures, words that have not been uttered in Los Angeles City Council chambers: vacancy tax, land tax, billionaire tax, rent freeze, universal basic income (like the program being tested in Stockton). Modular shelter structures that can go up within a week. Mandatory safe parking provided on every city-owned parking lot.

We don’t need 15 bridge housing facilities—we need 1,500. You don’t get to divvy up the impact of the crisis by 15 councilmembers and dole out gold stars to the handful that build emergency shelters.

These are not new ideas, and they are not particularly controversial in other cities and states. New Orleans reduced its homeless population by 90 percent with a combination of housing-first outreach and a rental-assistance fund. Minneapolis passed a law legalizing fourplexes citywide. California’s housing bills were inspired in part by Oregon’s similar policy package that passed sweeping tenant protections in March.

In the middle of California’s very bad month, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo surveyed the situation in appropriately dire terms: “The problems of affordable housing and homelessness have surpassed all superlatives—what was a crisis is now an emergency that feels like a dystopian showcase of American inequality.”

Manjoo blamed wealthy liberals. Slate’s Henry Grabar blamed Boomers. The tech industry is always easy to blame. But San Francisco-based housing advocate Randy Shaw told the Bay City Beacon, the blame lies squarely on the supermajority: “It wasn’t the Republican party that destroyed this,” he said. “It was all Democrats.”

The blame must be levied at those in power, who hold the power to protect their poorest and most vulnerable constituents: People living with disabilities, seniors, immigrants, students, veterans, children. These are the people who are facing eviction, harassment, chronic illness, hunger, and death. Right now, in their districts. These are the only constituents they should be listening to—these are the only constituents who matter.

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