Disputes between state and local governments are nothing new. Indeed, the California constitution was amended long ago to ensure against state mandates on locals unless accompanied by complete compensation. It’s a past stipulation that continues to be honored by all lawmakers and their staff. The provision is regularly used in drafting legislation.
But, despite the mandate prohibition disagreements remain. Locals feel put-upon. They fear lawmakers have ignored the curb on state directives or worry that some may have slipped by. Or pre-dated the constitutional arrangement.
At least one did escape constitutional scrutiny. In fact, it became law 10 years before California voters approved Proposition 4, which authorized the mandate prohibition in 1979. It was the RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) and the requirement that each local general plan include a housing element.
The RHNA always wins the headlines because it’s got numbers. But, the housing element is the real pain in the neck for local governments. It mobilizes state bureaucrats to nit-pick and scold. Its main purpose, however – and intersection with the RHNA – is to force local governments to identify and zone sites for new housing construction that are sufficient to equal corresponding RHNA goals.
Now, the state is being challenged over the numbers. But, that isn’t the news. The numbers, after being issued by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), are always disputed by recipient jurisdictions. What makes this different is not one but two councils of local governments (GOGs) – representing hundreds of communities – object to their allotments.
What does this portend for California’s woeful housing situation? It means somewhere close to 900,000 units – the combined, contested amount – won’t get built. And, although under the law localities have eight years to construct their housing, it typically takes that long for a single project to be approved.
Locals detest the state’s housing goals. What they hate even more is being told by the state what to do. And, now without redevelopment – it was killed by the state government years ago – there’s no money for building affordable housing; precisely what everybody at the Capitol wants (and arrogantly expect).
This feud exposes the disconnect between Sacramento policy making and local government when it comes to preferred land use. And, it makes clear that to achieve the state’s housing goals we need a new formula.
What do the locals currently want in return for its part in producing hundreds of thousands of housing units? Simple. They want money – lots of it.
So, what do California leaders need to do to solve the state’s housing dilemma? Just two things. First, they need to sober up and decide they’ve got a real problem. No more nibbling around the edges.
Governor Newsom seemed to head in that direction early on this year but his follow up was inept and inadequate. Meanwhile, the immensity of the problem grew worse. To begin to solve California’s housing shortfall the Governor needs to summon legislative leaders down to his office, soon. There, he must convince them of the issue’s severity and magnitude – and to prepare to act.
Secondly, what’s needed is bold action. If locals are demanding money before they zone for new housing then give it to them. Make it a lot (billions), but conditional upon them performing – meeting their RHNA goals. And, it should be an annual appropriation.
That’s it! That’s the approach the state should be taking. Stop fighting with local government. Win them over. Pay them for the zoning and approval of housing. That’s the way to close the supply gap.
The means to solve the state’s housing problem exist. Leaders just need to act on them.