A Huge Political Victory for Housing Advocates, A Long Wait for More Housing

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Any fair analysis of the package of housing bills emerging in Sacramento should start by acknowledging the victory in getting this far.

Specifically, it qualifies as big news that the package would produce new dollars for housing programs. Getting new dollars for anything is next to impossible in the legislature, where the thicket of California’s laws and constitution gobble up nearly every dollar. The new funding—in the form of feeds and a bond that must be approved by the legislature in a 2/3 vote—is especially remarkable given our very cheap governor’s previous opposition.

And the very fact that a significant package of bills has come forward shows that the stark on-the-ground reality – California’s gross scarcity of housing, and the huge costs that is imposing on our economy, environment, and families – has penetrated the alternative universe of the Capitol.

The bad news is: there’s very little housing in this housing package.

The new funding will produce only a tiny fraction of the affordable housing Californians need. And given the economic and regulatory pressures on housing, such housing won’t be produced quickly or cheaply.

The bills leave in place the tax, environmental, and regulatory regimes that add so much to the expense and difficulty of building housing in the state. And in some places, legislators have offered goodies, in the form of wage and other protections to labor interests to get their buy-in. Such incentives may add to the cost of housing, when the state desperately needs to make housing cheaper. The way that the building trades, in particular, have leveraged this crisis would be shameful, if organized labor in this state were still capable of shame.

Given this mixed bag, what’s the best way to react to the housing package? First, knock down any celebration that the legislature has dealt with the crisis. It hasn’t, and over-the-top talk about how “we got things done” should be ridiculed. At the same time, though, this package should be used to build momentum—to demonstrate that action on housing is possible, and to keep pushing for changes in state and local laws and regulation that make housing cheaper and faster-to-build.

Because very soon, we’ll need housing reform that actually produces a lot more new housing.

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