There’s a high-stakes chess game playing out in the state Capitol that hasn’t attracted the public attention it deserves, yet it could cause a tectonic shift in whether California finally addresses its chronic housing affordability and displacement crises.
Gov. Jerry Brown recently introduced legislation, loosely called “by-right housing,” that is favored by people who want California to dramatically increase housing production as a solution to its crushing housing shortage. In fact, by-right housing is standard in almost all American cities, but is an alien concept to San Francisco. Its impact could be enormous because it would result in the state taking some authority for making land-use decisions away from local jurisdictions. On the other side are interest groups to whom the governor’s policy is anathema. They are scrambling to figure out how to stop him and retain control over housing policies at the local level. Their rationale is that “community-based” decisions have a legitimacy that the state’s decisions always lack. Among those trying to stop him are most of The City’s supervisors.
Why did he do it?
Gov. Brown offers two basic reasons for why he introduced this surprising change in policy, which was probably informed by what he learned during his tenure as mayor of Oakland.
First, the only way forward is reforming our rules. Based on historical evidence, Brown believes local jurisdictions “don’t get it” and have worsened the housing shortage over the last few decades by using their rule-making authority to prevent, restrict or delay housing production.
Second, and even more astonishing from a liberal Democratic governor, is that he bluntly said it is not financially feasible for the state to allocate public money to subsidize affordable housing in the amount needed to significantly improve the housing shortage.
The sides are drawn
Among the many notable supporters of the governor’s proposal are the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, as well as several large statewide affordable housing and anti-poverty groups. All have asked for sensible amendments to his proposal, but none have disputed the basic premises of the debate: California’s housing and land-use rules need drastic overhauling.
Recently, a majority of the Board of Supervisors — Eric Mar, Aaron Peskin, Jane Kim, Norman Yee, David Campos and John Avalos — passed a resolution that cleverly says they would support by-right housing only if it includes amendments that would, in effect, neuter it. They clearly see Gov. Brown’s proposal as a threat to their traditional authority over housing and land use.
The crux of the supervisors’ argument is this: They do not want any restrictions to the existing power of local residents to stop or delay new housing development. In the supervisors’ words, they insist “the approval of major developments [should] continue to allow for public review and local discretionary approval as is currently provided by local laws.” They say that when “neighborhoods and communities lack the ability to raise objections to major new projects through a public process, then the dangers of such adverse and disparate impacts are amplified.” To them, building more housing is dangerous.
These commonly held views explain why so many local jurisdictions around California have trouble approving new housing in the amount that the state’s housing shortage demands. These supervisors insist “local discretionary approval” is a civic right, but the governor says their antiquated approach is a major cause of the problem.
Mayor Lee should veto
What seems clear is that San Francisco’s housing crisis is not unique. Cities around the state face almost identical problems that are the result of entrenched interest groups’ long-standing power to strangle housing production. Mayor Ed Lee is being asked by a wide array of local constituencies to veto the supervisors’ misguided resolution. If he wants to help solve the housing shortage, Mayor Lee will need to confront the proponents of this tired, old thinking. Our times demand a new approach. You could help by contacting Mayor Lee today and ask him to veto the supervisors’ resolution.
Tim Colen is the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.