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Newsom signs a host of affordable-housing laws

With record-high median home prices and soaring homelessness, Newsom hopes to spur a flood of new affordable housing in the Golden State.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Invoking California’s recent failures to generate new housing, Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday promised a rejuvenated and expensive new top-down approach to the state’s crushing housing crisis.  

To go with $24 billion already allocated for housing and fighting homelessness in the latest budget, Newsom inked nearly 30 bills Tuesday intended to spur new affordable housing and crack down on cities unwilling to help close the state’s 1.3 million unit shortage.  

“We’re not building enough housing at all income levels in the state of California,” Newsom told reporters. “We’ve got to make up for decades and decades of that gap and that neglect, so that’s what we’re endeavoring to do.”

Introduced as a “true housing champion” by a group of Democratic lawmakers, Newsom signed the 27-bill package near a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland. He credited the Legislature for bouncing back with a sharp focus on housing after progress on the issue was halted in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Newsom called the package historic and claimed the measures and new funding will create over 84,000 badly needed new homes around the Golden State.

“This is unprecedented in U.S. history,” Newsom asserted. “No state has ever endeavored to invest these kinds of resources, no state has ever committed to investing these resources with an actual strategy and plan to back it up.”

California’s housing deficit has grown steadily for years, despite bold promises from politicians to improve supply and fight homelessness.

The statistics on the state’s housing market remain staggering.

Median home prices hit a new high of $827,000 in August, nearly one-third of households are paying over 50% of their income toward monthly rent and as of January 2020 an estimated 161,000 Californians were experiencing homeless.

Newsom himself campaigned on attacking the housing shortage, penning an article in 2017 in which he promised to lead the way for the creation of 3.5 million new homes by 2025.

“I realize building 3.5 million new housing units is an audacious goal — but it’s achievable,” he wrote in his pitch to voters.

Many interpreted Newsom’s claim as a typical campaign overstatement, but the most new housing permits the state has issued in a single year during his first term is 109,000 in 2019. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 79,000 permits have been issued so far in 2021.

Full blame for the building lull doesn’t fall squarely on Newsom and state Democrats, as the state has encountered one crisis after another. From devastating wildfires, energy shortages, the pandemic and now drought, political will is understandably in short supply.  

But while major reforms were routinely rebuffed in recent years, 2021 has been a breakthrough year for housing advocates.

Along with Tuesday’s package, Newsom signed a controversial bill last week that removes local control over housing developments near transit centers. He also OK’d a companion zoning bill which allows property owners to build duplexes or split properties to make way for more residential units, a move critics have cast as an attack on single-family housing.

Assemblyman David Chiu, who chairs a housing committee, called Tuesday a “bright day” in California’s quest to close the housing gap.

“Housing is about dignity, it’s about jobs, it’s about climate, it’s about quality of life and it’s about morality,” said Chiu, D-San Francisco.

Chiu’s proposal, Assembly Bill 215, is a focal point of the housing suite as it gives regulators and the attorney general greater authority to enforce the state’s housing laws and ensure municipalities are meeting their new supply metrics. Realtor and apartment associations backed AB 215 while a host of cities submitted opposition letters including Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Stockton.  

Building on AB 215, Newsom said the state is also launching a new agency that will help municipalities comply with the flood of new housing reforms passed in recent years and meet their goals. According to Newsom’s office, the new Housing Accountability Unit will provide locals with technical support and be able to take “enforcement steps” to bring them into compliance with their targets.  

Senate Bill 791 creates a taskforce tasked with identifying empty or surplus lots and facilitating new housing developments, while Senate Bill 728 will expand existing density bonus grants to nonprofits buying or building affordable housing. Newsom also inked Senate Bill 290 which creates more incentives for developers to build affordable housing for college students.

“This package of smart, bipartisan legislation boosts housing production in California — more streamlining, more local accountability, more affordability, more density,” Newsom concluded.

Other notable bills signed include:

AB 1029 which seeks to preserve the state’s expiring supply of rental affordability agreements by offering credits to cities that negotiate extensions with property owners. It’s estimated that 30,000 units currently under so-called affordability covenants will expire over the next decade.  

AB 1584 will give descendants of people previously displaced by San Francisco urban renewal and other redevelopment projects priority in state affordable housing programs. “As residents displaced by redevelopment have gotten older, it makes sense to extend this program to their children and grandchildren so a new generation has the opportunity to afford to live in San Francisco,” said Assemblyman Chiu.

AB 787 creates new incentives for cities able to secure more “workforce housing” or deed-restricted affordable homes for working families.  

SB 478 intended to help cure planning fights and implement the chief piece of the 2021 housing agenda in SB 10.

Follow Nick Cahill on Twitter

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