California’s Housing Push: Time to Press the “Pause Button”

T Keith Gurnee
Former councilmember of San Luis Obispo and a member of the Board of Directors of Livable California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the self-determination and the livability of California’s cities and counties.

For three years, California’s legislature has tried to pass a series of draconian housing bills that would:

  1.  Deprive cities and counties of their self-determination as local governments,
  2.  Usurp local zoning and planning policies throughout California, and
  3.  Impose fixed, state-mandated development standards upon established single-family neighborhoods, making them the state’s new frontiers for high-density development.

All these bills were fueled by a false narrative, propagated by law makers beholden to the real estate development lobby, that California faces a housing shortage and that local government is to blame for it. While that’s since been proven utterly fallacious by the Embarcadero Institute, Sacramento remains on a blind tractor beam pursuing legislation that’ll forever and unnecessarily change our neighborhoods for the worse.

These bills never made sense in pre-COVID times. They make even less sense now today. High-density development served by shoulder-to-shoulder mass transit being promoted by these bills only increases California’s vulnerability to pandemics and the economic disruption to follow.

Today’s housing legislation is going in precisely in the wrong direction. Let’s put them on ice, press the reset button, and really consider where our housing policies stand today. Let’s make a paradigm shift away from false narratives and towards dealing with the realities of this very different post-COVID world.

In starting that paradigm shift, let’s paint a picture of the pre-and-post-COVID conditions affecting housing in California.

Pre-COVID Conditions:

Years before Sen. Scott Wiener hatched his ideas for the bad legislation that he’s been pushing, California’s governance had been showing how ill-prepared it was to arbitrarily shoehorn millions of new homes into its cities, counties, and neighborhoods. Conditions had already been worsening for such a strategy right up to the arrival of the coronavirus in February 2020. Consider these points:

  • For 10 years, California’s growth rate has been declining to almost zero, resulting in California losing at least one congressional seat upon completion of the 2020 census.
  • Last year, more than 200,000 California residents left the state for states with lower taxes and lower housing prices.
  • California’s elimination of redevelopment agencies in 2011 resulted in the state’s expropriation of millions of dollars of housing set-aside funds from local governments– funds that were reserved for the production of affordable housing.
  • Gov. Newsom’s hyperinflated housing shortfall of 3.5 million housing units by 2025 was thoroughly debunked by the Embarcadero Institute which demonstrated that the number was closer to 1.1 million units.
  • For years, California’s state universities have increased student enrollments without providing on-campus housing to accommodate those increases, thereby pouring gasoline on high local housing demand in communities containing those universities.
  • Once California-based businesses like Tesla, Charles Schwab, and others had already left California for less regulated and more business-friendly states.
  • While California and its cities have invested billions of dollars in public transit, transit ridership has been steadily tanking for years, demanding massive subsidies to keep running.
  • Land, construction, and labor costs continued to soar, causing many developers to abandon their approved projects throughout California and state laws requiring solar heating on all new homes by 2020 has only added to housing costs.
  • A state vulnerable to long-term droughts and water shortages, California’s failure to complete the State Water Project has left many communities without the resources needed to sustain more housing development.

Despite these conditions, legislators have continued to push for far more housing development dependent upon proximity to public transit and without the statewide or local resources and infrastructure needed to support high density development in California’s cities, counties, and neighborhoods. 

And then came the coronavirus and the George Floyd murder that have truly rocked our world.

Post-COVID-19 Realities:

A new set of circumstances has been unleashed that should have caused the state legislators to pause and throw their conventional wisdom out the window:

  • The most populous and high-density cities in the country have become the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic, most particularly New York City where Gov. Andrew Cuomo rightly stated that “high-density living served by crowded mass transit” led to the highest infection and death rates in the nation.
  • Demographer Wendell Cox recently stated that California was the most severely crowded state in the continental United States and that the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose were ranked one, four, and five as the most crowded metropolitan areas in the country ahead of New York City.
  • The exodus of California residents and businesses to other states continues to accelerate, and recent reports have revealed that many Californians are moving from its expensive coastal cities to inland exurbs where housing is cheaper.
  • Exacerbating increased flight by residents of California’s major cities to inland areas has been the increased vulnerability of big cities to pandemics as well as the social unrest resulting from the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis.
  • With COVID lockdowns, public transit has witnessed a drastic fall in ridership, causing transit budgets to hemorrhage. 
  • The telecommuting trend has taken hold and even high-tech companies who’d been lobbying for state housing laws have indicated their support for “work where you live rather than live where you work” as the wave of the future. After polling its employees, Facebook revealed that 70% of them would rather live in smaller communities and work from home rather than staying in heavily urbanized areas.
  • Due to the economic upheavals triggered by the pandemic, predictions are that homeless populations are exploding by more than 40% over their pre-COVID- 19 levels.

These demographic trends demonstrate that the state’s present legislative efforts on housing are going in precisely the wrong direction. The legislation that’s been Sen. Scott Wiener’s brainchild feeds a dystopian vision of creating high-density warehouses for the living while snuffing out the American dream of living in one’s own home with a yard in a decent neighborhood. And his strategy for achieving his vision is bereft of virtue.

It’s time for California to say NO too that vision and press the restart button to start dealing intelligently with today’s realities.

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