California Lawmakers Tackle Housing Crisis in First Day of New Session

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Looking to greenlight a housing boom through a cash infusion for downtrodden local planning agencies, California lawmakers are promising a flurry of bills to fix the state’s housing crisis.

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

On the first official day of the new two-year legislative session, two Northern California Democrats introduced a measure that would help revive a revenue stream shuttered during the last recession that for decades allowed cities to keep billions in state property taxes and spend it on housing.

State senators Mike McGuire and Jim Beall said lawmakers need to “overhaul” their recent handling of the statewide housing shortage and incentivize rural and urban planners to approve new projects.

“All across our state, from rural cities of the North Coast to the bustling suburbs of greater Los Angeles, every community is facing an affordable housing crisis,” McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in a statement. “Our affordable housing bills will help working families and seniors live and thrive in the communities they call home by providing funding and innovative solutions to one of this state’s most significant challenges.”

The deadly 2017 Wine Country wildfires ravaged parts of McGuire’s district, burning over 6,000 homes and destroying entire neighborhoods in Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. After spending the last several months meeting with fire victims and housing experts, the 39-year-old lawmaker teamed with Beall on Senate Bill 5, or the Affordable Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Act.

Beall, chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, says SB 5 is the first in a series of housing bills meant to subsidize new developments as well as “streamline” the permitting process. He believes the voters who approved a $4 billion bond for veterans housing projects last month were signaling for action.

“This bill supports their voice by establishing a replacement tool for redevelopment agencies through a state and local partnership funding mechanism to create affordable housing through all corners of the state.  Its goal is to thoughtfully tackle housing by also alleviating poverty, creating jobs and meeting our statewide environmental goals without impacting school funding,” Beall, D-San Jose, added.

California’s over 400 redevelopment agencies were casualties of the Great Recession, dissolved by Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers in 2011 to help cure the state’s massive budget deficit. Dozens of cities sued but the state courts upheld Brown’s move in 2012.

Touted as a fix for urban blight in the 1950s, the program allowed local governments to declare certain areas as redevelopment-eligible, develop them and then keep a portion of the newly generated state property taxes.

But over the decades, critics accused redevelopment agencies of using the tax break like a slush fund and clamored for the state to end the program and reallocate property tax revenues back to schools.

Many lawmakers have proposed bringing back some form of redevelopment over the last several years, and Monday’s proposal appears to do the same.

Although the bill language was not publicly available as of Monday afternoon, affordable housing advocates and construction trade groups say they will support SB 5.

“State data reveals that the loss of redevelopment and expended housing bonds contributed to a dramatic 14 percent increase in homelessness statewide in just one year,” said Lisa Hershey in a statement, executive director of Housing California. “We are thrilled to see such an innovative state and local partnership proposal early in this legislative session that will take a bite out of this devastating trend.”

The League of California Cities, the State Building and Construction Trades Council and the California Conference of Carpenters also applauded the senators’ housing legislation.

California’s housing crisis figures to be a central focus for the new Legislature and incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom as they reconvene in Sacramento.

State senators Ben Allen and Scott Wiener, both Democrats, also announced Monday they are pushing the Legislature to place a measure on the 2020 statewide ballot that would eliminate a longstanding hurdle to low-income housing projects. They want to eliminate an article of the California Constitution enacted in 1950 which requires voter approval in order for cities to dedicate public funding to low-income projects.

“Publicly funded, developed and owned low-income housing is a crucial tool in ensuring people of all income levels can afford housing and in preventing homelessness,” Wiener, D-San Francisco tweeted. “Article 34 is inherently racist and classist. It‘s a scar on our state’s constitution and it needs to be repealed.”

Wiener, a Duke and Harvard-trained lawyer, also reintroduced zoning reform legislation meant to ease standards for apartment and condo buildings near transit centers. He says Senate Bill 50 will cut into California’s estimated 3.5 million-home housing deficit as well as fight climate change by allowing more people to live near work.

Critics, including many of his fellow Democratic lawmakers, killed Wiener’s similar proposal in 2017 before it reached a floor vote. They claimed the measure would remove housing decisions from local governments and potentially destroy historic buildings.

But this time around, the San Francisco lawmaker says he’s worked with his opponents to craft a more well-rounded proposal and the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento are already backing the bill.

“San Francisco, along with the entire Bay Area, needs to create more housing if we are going to address the out of control housing costs that are causing displacement and hurting the diversity of our communities. I have seen too many people I grew up with pushed out of San Francisco because we have not built enough housing, especially affordable housing, throughout our entire city,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed of SB 50.

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