California Senate Leader: Housing, Wildfires Top List of Woes

California state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins discusses the Golden State’s housing and wildfire crises with Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare on Jan. 30, 2019. (Photo courtesy Bob Knapik/PPIC)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s severe housing shortage is the most pressing issue facing the Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom this year according to state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, speaking at an event hosted by California’s Public Policy Institute on Wednesday.

“The growing crisis around the lack of housing supply for all levels of Californians is one of our most critical issues. I think it’s going to continue to be an issue,” she told institute president Mark Baldassare. “I’m pleased to see Governor Newsom shares a concern and a passion.”

Echoing the “housing first” mantra of many of her colleagues, Atkins said the Legislature needs to address the shortage before it can begin to tackle homelessness, a crisis Atkins says is inextricably linked to the need for more housing.

“We need more units of housing. Regardless of what the issues are around homelessness, what we know from best practices and studies is if you have roof over your head you can deal with mental health issues, the lack of ability to have a job, drug addiction. You’ve got to have a roof over your head. It is the platform and foundation for success. Housing first. We’ve got to build the units,” Atkins said.

Baldassare peppered Atkins with questions as part of the institute’s yearly “Conversation with Legislative Leadership. She was the only legislative leader to appear at the event held at San Francisco’s downtown Sheraton Grand hotel.

“I don’t know what it means that I’m the only one here – I have a lot of time on my calendar?” she joked.

Politicians statewide are finally acknowledging the state’s housing problem and have begun proposing some action. Newsom called for $1.3 billion in funding for low- and moderate-income housing in his preliminary January budget package and has also pushed to make local transportation dollars contingent on cities meeting their housing targets. California lawmakers have also introduced a slew of housing-related bills since the start of the legislative session last month.

But legislation is not a panacea and collaboration and cooperation from local communities is crucial, Atkins said.

“There is an issue of local will. It takes leadership to really figure out how you’re going to marry those dollars and find those units. Money is not the only piece of it,” Atkins said.

“How do we have those conversations with communities about where to build and how to build? It’s not easy and we should have been doing it years ago. I do know that if you take the time to have the right conversations with communities, they will tell you where and how to grow.”

Atkins said she puts California’s wildfire season as another serious problem confronting the Legislature, one she also tied to the housing issue as well as forest management.

While years of drought and resulting bark beetle infestation have exacerbated wildfire risk, development of more rural areas of the state has also added to its fuel.

“This is about responsible, accountable forestry and tree management. We have millions of trees that are dead in our state due to other issues, lack of water also, and we need to responsibly remove that fuel source,” she said, adding, “We also need to re-evaluate where we build and how we build, at the same time that we need to build housing.” 

Atkins said she believes some solutions can emerge from the disasters of the last two years. Perhaps its only way to get people to address the problems they’d rather ignore, she said.

“Maybe the result of these catastrophic fires, floods, and mudslides – maybe that is the way we’re able to now have a conversation we couldn’t have five years ago,” she said. “Sometimes the only way we’re able to actually address and move agendas that get into really difficult topics of how you do something and what you’re going to take away from me, a homeowner, as someone with property. Maybe that’s the only way we get to those conversations.”

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