Looking Forward on Affordable Housing

John Moorlach
State Senator representing the 37th Senate District

With the state budget mostly concluded, now is a good time to look at future reforms to bring Californians more housing, affordable or otherwise.

It’s called a housing crisis, yet you can buy a 282-square-foot kit home on Amazon.com for $18,800, instructions included. If you need something bigger, there’s a 1,336 square foot kit home for $64,650.

So perhaps it should be called a property crisis. While building a house can be cheap, in California the property under it is the expensive component, requiring builders to meet all sorts of state and local regulations. State and local governments refuse to make it easier to erect any kind of housing.

Just Google “land entitlements” for a rude awakening on how complex property regulations are. This traditional approach needs a review.

The way not to do that is Assembly Bill 72 from 2017, by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles. It ran roughshod over local governments’ control with their own housing regulations.

AB 72 is the weapon Gov. Gavin Newsom used in January in his unjust attack on Huntington Beach, which is in my 37th Senate District. Surf City allegedly failed to meet its affordable-housing goals mandated by state calculations for zoning to accommodate various income levels. Ironically, Huntington Beach is one of the major housing-approving cities in Orange County.

Gov. Newsom justified the lawsuit with a statement that “due to the rising house prices, it would prove to be a threat to the economy as well as deepen inequality.”

At the time, I called that “strong-arm tactics.”

Piling on, the state budget enacted last month included fines to cities of up to $600,000 a month for supposedly violating state housing goals. Cities don’t pay fines, citizens do. So, that’s effectively a tax increase.

Additionally, there is a problem with what is called the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) movement. 

As Carson Bruno of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy described it, “Considering that the housing affordability problem is less a local issue and more a regional problem, until municipalities collectively begin opposing the movement, actual progress on solving the affordability crisis will continue to be delayed and blocked.”

Next, there are the state’s unreformed environmental laws.

A 2015 report by the Legislative Analyst found California housing prices were only 30 percent higher than the national average in 1970. Considering the mild climate and lower heating and cooling costs, that was a tolerable divergence. Soon after, housing prices began to soar to 80 percent above the national average in 1980. By 2015, prices were 250 percent higher!

The report found a major cause of the higher prices was the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), enacted in 1970. CEQA reports often caused cities and counties to deny “proposals to develop housing or approving fewer housing units than the developer proposed,” according to the LAO report. “CEQA’s complicated procedural requirements give development opponents significant opportunities to continue challenging housing projects after local governments have approved them.”

In May this year, the Senate postponed to next year consideration on Senate Bill 50, by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco. A crucial part of the bill would “establish a streamlined ministerial approval process for neighborhood multifamily projects, thereby exempting these projects from the CEQA approval process.”

The reasoning is, by encouraging more housing closer to workplaces, people would drive fewer miles, reducing vehicles’ use of carbon fuels and the production of greenhouse gases. Thus, California would meet CEQA’s goal of improving the environment. I’m hopeful the Legislature will pass this component of SB 50 when it returns in 2020.

Another positive development I voted for is Assembly Bill 101, by the Committee on the Budget. Among other things, it would require the Department of Housing and Community Development to come up with a “methodology that promotes and streamlines housing development and substantially addresses California’s housing shortage.” The bill was approved without opposition in both houses and now is with the governor.

Finally, instead of punishing cities and counties with fines for allegedly not following state housing laws, how about rewarding them with more state aid to deal with the housing and homelessness crises? A carrot is a better incentive than a stick.

Rather than stigmatizing cities like Huntington Beach, an incentive approach would encourage all cities to work with the state to provide more housing.

John M.W. Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, represents the 37th District in the California Senate.

 

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