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Eye on the State: This year was all about housing

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Gov. Jerry Brown, pictured Jan. 24 in Sacramento, signed more than a dozen housing bills this year. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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To great fanfare, Gov. Jerry Brown last Friday finally signed a “package” of housing measures. The political logjam that had stymied affordable housing bills finally broke, with more than a dozen housing bills making it through this year.

The last decade has been a triple nightmare for housing in California: the 2008 Wall Street crash that decimated single-family house construction that once provided the bulk of middle-class starter homes; the governor’s dissolution of redevelopment funding that eliminated more than a billion dollars annually for housing; and the attack by the real estate industry that took away cities’ ability to require affordable “inclusionary” housing. California’s deficit of affordable homes grew to 1.5 million in the last few years, even as the state cut funding for affordable housing by 79 percent.

The SB2 and SB3 funding bills are a helpful shot in the arm — not nearly enough to make up for lost funding, but a good start. SB2 establishes a new document recording fee, which should net San Francisco $5 million to $10 million per year. The SB3 “Veterans and Affordable Housing Bond” will now be on the November 2018 statewide ballot. Helpful as these measures are, their limitations point to the continued need for real, permanent sources of dedicated funding at the local level to meet the scale of The City’s need.

Our local San Francisco nonprofit organizations have produced more than 30,000 permanently affordable housing units, and The City adds more affordable units annually than any other community in California. Clearly, we know how to put resources into brick-and-mortar results on the ground.

Another positive was Brown’s signature on AB 1505. The inclusionary housing bill, originally sponsored in 2011 by then-Sen. Mark Leno, had been previously vetoed by the governor after the real estate industry blocked it. AB 1505 will ensure that communities can once again require a minimum contribution to affordable housing needs by private, profit-driven developers within “financial feasibility.”

Other bright spots less talked about are AB 291, which strengthened nondiscrimination protections for immigrant tenants, and SB 166, which ensures cities actually provide sufficient sites for affordable housing.

We should remember that many of these affordable housing bills have been attempted multiple times in the last half decade — and this year finally broke through, thanks to the urgency of the crisis and the persistence of advocates. Credit should go to Western Center on Law and Poverty, Housing California and Public Advocates in particular, which worked the “inside” of Sacramento but also stayed connected with organizers on the ground and, as best as possible, steered the bills away from deals that would undermine tenants and low-income residents. There was tremendous grassroots advocacy from the statewide Residents United Network and the HousingNow! coalition with in-district visits, capitol visits, lobby days and letter-writing and social media campaigns.

But we can’t ignore that this was more of a “housing tradeoff” than a “housing package.”

The big quid pro quo was the governor’s support for the funding bills in exchange for votes for SB 35 to streamline market-rate development approvals. It includes streamlining for affordable housing, too, which was widely supported by many advocates, and it might help address opposition to low- and moderate-income housing, particularly in suburban cities. The bill’s real controversy was about the state requiring cities to approve market-rate projects “by-right,” without regard to potential impact of development on at-risk communities facing gentrification and displacement. Many organizations across the state called for amendments so that streamlining would not result in harm for vulnerable communities or create new secondary markets for speculating in “approvals” rather than producing actual built housing. These amendments were rejected, as the governor had made clear that any funding bills were dependent on his streamlining priority.

Sacramento’s focus on housing is nonetheless a welcome turn, after the governor’s long reticence to supporting affordable housing. Of course, the framing of the crisis in the Capitol has been totally focused on the decline in production relative to population and job growth. Yet for everyday working people and people on limited incomes, the crisis is also one of precarious tenure, evictions, soaring rents, unlivable commutes, rampant real-estate speculation and the loss of ethnic communities.

Now that the legislature has finally begun to tackle housing production — however imperfectly, including some actual resources to jump-start affordable housing — next year’s legislative session should start to tackle the gentrification and displacement crisis head-on, focusing on the lives of the millions of Californians who are most at risk.

Fernando Martí and Peter Cohen are co-directors of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. 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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