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How could California solve the housing crisis? We asked the experts

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The Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Modesto Bee, San Luis Obispo Tribune and Merced Sun-Star will focus on the policy challenges that most affect our community and our future.

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California’s housing crisis has reached epic proportions.

The state’s median home value has increased almost 80 percent in just the last eight years, and is now more than half a million dollars. Fewer than one-third of Californians can now afford a median-priced home, while a majority of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The housing shortage means that more than half a million California workers now have one-way commutes of more than 90 minutes.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for an unprecedented increase in the amount of housing construction, promising to build half a million houses every year for the next seven years. Newsom’s senior housing adviser, Tia Boatman Patterson, is one of The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers. She outlined “a multi-pronged approach” to achieve that ambitious goal.

The governor’s plan most notably incentivizes local governments with both rewards and penalties to increase their housing supply. But it also prioritizes a combination of direct financial subsidies, regulatory relief and increased coordination of housing and transportation policy.

The symbiotic relationship between housing and transportation, and between state and local government, are behind the most controversial bill of the legislative session, state Senator Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) renewed proposal to promote more multi-family housing near public transportation and large job centers.

“One of the most important strategies is making it legal to build enough housing,” said Wiener, who noted that local zoning restrictions prohibit multi-unit buildings in 80 percent of California. “This restriction ensures that housing remains very expensive and perpetuates our housing shortage.”

“While local decision-making around housing is important, the state (must)… ensure that all communities allow housing. We need to move away from allowing cities to opt out of building housing,” he added.

Wiener, also a member of the Bee’s California Influencer group, has retooled his bill, SB 50, and expanded its base of support to include labor, business and environmental interests.

“The lack of affordable homes has forced thousands of Californians into long and grueling drives,” said Amanda Eaken, director of transportation and climate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “With SB 50, California can demonstrate that meeting its housing demand can be part of the climate solution.”

“We need to ensure that when we make billion dollar investments in fixed rail transit systems that we zone for appropriate heights and densities for homes (and jobs) within a half-mile radius of those transit stations,” said Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “And we need to support local elected leaders willing to cast tough ‘ye’ votes by standing with them at city and town council hearings across our state.”

California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.

Community resistance is one reason that Wiener’s bill is opposed by the California League of Cities. Carolyn Coleman, the League’s executive director, instead emphasized the need to directly commit additional financial resources.

“In order to address the housing supply shortage and to provide more affordable housing for California’s working class, the most important step is to develop a long-term, robust and ongoing source of funding to invest in affordable housing and incentivize development,” said Coleman.

Lisa Hershey, executive director of Housing California, also called for increased state spending.

“We cannot trust the market to ensure that the most vulnerable among us have stable housing,” Hershey said. “Instead, we need (to) invest real dollars into creating affordable and permanent homes for those hurting the most, provide rental assistance to help families secure a home quickly and protect renters from losing their home and falling into homelessness.

Labor interests also support additional funding, as well as regulatory relief, but with an important caveat.

“The primary cause of the affordable housing crisis in California is that workers’ paychecks have not kept pace with housing prices,” said Cesar Diaz, legislative and political director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California. “Any public assistance for development, including financial or regulatory incentives, should come with housing affordability and job quality guarantees.”

Former Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle stressed the benefits that increased cooperation between state and local leaders would bring to both levels of government.

“Affordable housing is a benefit to cities, not a detriment, and local leaders need to develop and share that message to educate their constituents about the benefits greater housing stock brings to communities,” said Pringle, who was the last Republican to serve as State Assembly Speaker. “Sacramento can assist in this – not by taking over local land use decision making, but through other incentives, like connecting affordable housing to increased transportation and infrastructure funding that will support the cost of the increasing population.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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