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Eye on the State: Leaders must find political will to fund housing, fight displacement

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From left: Senate President pro Tempore Kevin DeLeon, Governor Jerry Brown and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. (Courtesy photos)
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State leaders have finally woken up to the affordable housing crisis raging throughout California. A slew of housing bills were introduced this year with different approaches to the problem. The governor and real estate companies sought deregulation of high-priced housing construction, while affordable housing and community advocates pushed for what families being priced out of neighborhoods need most urgently: funds to build more homes that low-income people can afford and removal of state constraints on local affordable housing and anti-displacement policies.

Back in July, Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President pro Tempore Kevin DeLeón and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon pledged “their shared commitment and effort to address California’s housing needs.” With the legislature returning from a month-long recess this week, and a Sept. 15 deadline to send bills to the governor, it remains unclear whether they can convert this rhetoric into action.

The governor has signaled that deregulating housing construction — including market-rate housing — is his priority. Since he took office, he has slashed funding for affordable housing, vetoed inclusionary housing laws and refused to lead on even the most basic anti-displacement policies.

That’s where our legislative leaders come in. Leadership must force the issue with the governor, making clear that his deregulation agenda will not advance without his commitment to sign key tenant protection and affordable housing bills.

Right now, some of the most important bills remain in jeopardy. None should be controversial for anyone who cares about addressing the housing crisis.

Assembly Bill 1505 (Bloom, Chiu and Gloria) would overturn a misguided 2009 court decision that restricted local “inclusionary zoning” policies. Inclusionary zoning promotes mixed-income neighborhoods by ensuring that new housing developments contain a minimum percentage of affordable units. This creates affordable housing across the state at no cost to the government. Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2013 despite widespread support from business, labor, environmental, housing and equity groups. This year, legislative leaders must flex their political muscle to convince the governor to sign AB 1505.

A bill that would protect immigrant tenants from abuse by unscrupulous landlords, Assembly Bill 291 (Chiu), faces similar uncertainty. Brown has been quick to call out the Trump administration for anti-immigrant rhetoric, and needs to back this up with action. Yet the governor is reported to be on the fence about this bill. It is again up to legislative leaders to go to the mat to make sure that immigrant families have security in calling California home.

Another dire need is substantial ongoing funding to build more homes for lower-income families, seniors and people with disabilities. Over the last eight years, statewide affordable housing funding has been slashed by two-thirds — largely due to the dissolution of local redevelopment agencies by the state in 2012, which cut $1 billion per year in affordable housing funds.

Senate Bill 2 (Atkins) would generate hundreds of millions per year for affordable housing by imposing a modest recording fee on some real estate transactions. Its fate in the Assembly remains uncertain, however, since it requires a two-thirds majority.

Senate Bill 3 (Beall) would send a housing bond to the statewide ballot in 2018 — but at just $3 billion, it would not make enough of a dent in the affordable housing deficit. Voters would likely support double or triple that amount; lawmakers and the governor should ask them to.

Unfortunately, the bill most likely to become part of any housing package is unlikely to help low-income households and could silence the voices of low-income communities of color struggling to combat gentrification and displacement. Senate Bill 35 (Wiener) would prohibit local approval and environmental review processes for many housing developments. While touted as a panacea to the state’s housing crisis, the bill is in fact a giveaway to market-rate developers. A bill that streamlined only affordable housing could be helpful, but in its current form, SB 35 would largely result in fast-tracking high-priced condos in low-income neighborhoods.

Whatever housing bills pass this year, the affordable housing crisis will rage on. The legislature must step up efforts to combat the crisis now and when it reconvenes in January. Already on that docket are bills to repeal state restrictions on local rent-control policies, and to strengthen housing civil rights protections.

Whether there is political will to enact essential housing bills this year remains uncertain. Senate and Assembly leadership must fight for real housing solutions as if their constituents’ lives depend on them. Because, in fact, they do.

Dean Preston is executive director of Tenants Together. Sam Tepperman-Gelfant is deputy managing attorney of Public Advocates Inc. Eye on The State is a monthly column that examines the local implications of housing proposals brewing in the Capitol from the perspective of community, housing, labor and environmental advocates representing everyday people.

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