Why bother with a $3 billion housing bond?

The deal on housing legislation is shaping up as emblematic of this Second Brown Era in California politics; a big political push for a policy that won’t make much difference at all.

The LA Times has explained in some detail why the legislative pieces won’t make much difference. The size of the housing bond being discussed- — $3 billion is also instructive.

That’s a huge amount of money in the politics of Sacramento, and securing it politically would be a huge win, particularly given Gov. Brown’s previous reluctance to support such bonding.

But the policy math makes it look pretty meaningless. The Legislative Analyst has written that if the state is going to subsidize affordable housing construction, large public subsidies will be needed.

By the LAO’s math, the public subsidy for low-income households in urban coastal regions is $165,000 per unit. Multiply that by the state’s $1.7 million rent burdened low-income households, and the total exceeds $250 billion. The LAO has noted that even if you spread it over the years, you’re talking annual expenditures in the tens of billions.

But at least do something, comes the answer to such objections. The trouble is the pattern that has ensued in similar contexts: when you do a little something, that’s all the state ends up doing.

The housing shortage is so massive – and so longstanding – it requires big changes that drastically alter the time and expense of building housing in the state. As the LAO has advised, building much more housing in coastal areas would create a spillover effect across the state. The more conventional thinkers in housing circles tend to disagree. If they want a statist solution to the problem, then it needs to be bigger.

It’s worth holding out for a new governor or a ballot initiative. If you’re willing to accept table scraps in this state, that’s all you will ever get.