Most Californians agree that housing is the state’s biggest crisis. But state leaders can’t reach a consensus on how best to address it. And few of us want to be the first to try a new housing policy; we fear new approaches will disrupt our lives.
What California needs then is a housing laboratory, an experimental set- up for new housing concepts that won’t disturb the rest of us. But labs need lab rats. Since no one else will volunteer, I modestly suggest a small but influential subset of Californians as our guinea pigs: leading members of the Newsom administration, the 120 members of the state legislature, and their top staff members.
Who better to represent us in trying out our housing future than our representatives?
Just imagine the possibilities if we required lawmakers and policymakers to live their own ideas, before applying them to the rest of us.
State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco is certain that Californians need the power to override local zoning to produce taller, denser housing in transit corridors. But it’s hard to know how this will play out. So why not require Sen. Wiener to move his family, his staffers, and the co-sponsors of his housing legislation, SB 50, into the tallest apartment building that can be found along a transit corridor in Sacramento? Of course, we’d need to bar Wiener’s team from driving—giving them the opportunity to wait outside their building for buses that run late.
We can conduct a similar experiment on homeless housing, by letting legislative supporters live in it. Of course, local governments have been slow to build such housing, so legislators should sleep on the Capitol grounds until homeless housing projects the state has funded are actually realized. This might encourage state lawmakers to put real pressure on localities to produce such housing—and fast.
One possible way to reduce these construction costs is to build new forms of housing that might be cheaper. So let’s push lawmakers into truly new housing models.
I would love to see State Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose, a leader on housing issues, squeeze into one of those 300-square-foot micro-homes touted in the Bay Area. Beall is among many California politicians who propose spending big money to produce very small numbers of conventional affordable units, at high prices. Maybe these pols could get behind more and cheaper housing if they lived in tiny places.
The same logic should apply to “granny flats,” or accessory dwelling units, which the state has tried to encourage homeowners to build. Any lawmakers who own homes should be required to add granny flats, and learn how local governments stop people from building them, or add regulations that add to the costs. The legislator-homeowners also should pay their own construction workers the very high prevailing wages that they want to require of other home builders.
By the same token, all lawmakers who are landlords—at least 25 percent of the members of the legislature, according to CALMatters—should be made to follow the rent control regulations many Democrats are now pushing.
And there may be no better learning experience in housing than having your home taken by the state by eminent domain. So each year—for their own edification—5 percent of the legislature (or six out of the 120 lawmakers) should have their home taken by eminent domain. Then they can deal with legal headaches, and years-long waits for compensation.
But why stop with the horror of eminent domain? As major disasters proliferate, there’s a great opportunity to force legislators and staffers to move into devastated communities. Why not deed a few abandoned, rubble-filled lots in the town of Paradise to lawmakers and staffers?
They could pitch tents and deal firsthand with endless rebuilding delays. They’d only have to stay in the tents until construction is complete. How long would that take?
Learning doesn’t just have to come from destruction. The “Yes in My Backyard” legislators keep calling for massive new building of homes, and Gov. Gavin Newsom wants 3.5 million new homes as part of a housing “Marshall Plan.” I think that’s great, but all that construction can cause headaches, so why not require Newsom and his young family to live wherever housing construction is moving at the fastest pace, so they can feel the impacts of a headlong housing rush firsthand? It might inspire good ideas about how to mitigate those impacts.
Now, any grand experiment requires a control group. Some legislators oppose virtually all efforts to address the crisis, and they too have much to learn. So force some of these housing deniers to move in with parents or relatives—sleeping on sofas, not in spare bedrooms. Others should be required to negotiate at least 50 miles of traffic jams to get to their offices. For example, when State Sen. Anthony Portantino, who blocked this year’s most ambitious housing bill, is working in Sacramento, he should have to stay in either Vacaville or Stockton, and drive himself the 50 miles to the Capitol along busy freeways during rush hour.
Some lawmakers and staffers will want taxpayers to help subsidize their experiences in housing reality. But we should resist such subsidies. Indeed, it should be a requirement that at least half of all lawmakers’ income gets devoted to housing, leaving them poorer when it comes to meeting other needs. That would give them a taste of what life is like for so many Californians, especially the one-in-three renter households who spend at least half their income in rent.
Would feeling the various pains of the housing crisis firsthand really inspire lawmakers to find consensus on housing and take action that makes a difference? I’d hope so. But even if it didn’t work, at least those failing to address the crisis would be suffering along with the rest of us.