By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Early in November California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced plans to use the power of the state’s top attorney to enforce the state’s housing and development laws as a way to address the state’s housing crisis.
“California is facing a housing shortage and affordability crisis of epic proportion,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta. “Every day, millions of Californians worry about keeping a roof over their head, and there are too many across this state who lack housing altogether.”
“California has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address its housing crisis thanks to the historic $22 billion housing and homelessness investments in this year’s budget. But it’ll only work if local governments do their part to zone and permit new housing,” said Governor Gavin Newsom.
The creation of the Housing Strike Force could be easily shrugged off as political show but it could also reflect the beginning of a new political front between the state and local governments.
The creation of the new 12 member Department of Justice task force will be aimed at more strictly enforcing pro-housing laws – which means that the state could initiate more lawsuits against local governments that fail to meet state-imposed housing requirements.
Responding in kind was the League of California cities.
“The comments made during the attorney general’s press conference today, demonizing all cities for things they do not control, will not put roofs over the heads of Californians,” said Executive Director Carolyn Coleman.
She added, “Cities do not build homes, and for years have endured whiplash from the state’s scattershot approach to passing housing laws that are often in direct conflict with each other and counterproductive to our shared goals to increase housing supply.”
In a recent column from Dan Walters in CalMatters, he noted that the state has ordered San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to provide “reasoning and evidence” in their decision to block an 800 unit high density housing project.
As Chris Elmendorf and Tim Duncheon point out in their latest blog post, the legislature has greatly strengthened the state’s Housing Accountability Act in recent years – a decision upheld in a major Court of Appeal decision.
However, they point out, “San Francisco evaded the HAA by using a different law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), to put the downtown project on ice.”
As Walters notes, “Pro-housing groups have complained that cities often use the permitting process to stymie projects, even when they are being proposed for property zoned for housing, and recent law changes are aimed at preventing such arbitrary actions.”
Walters believes that the state pressure on local officials will likely come to a head in the coming year or so.
He writes, “Angered by passage of two new state laws that open up more land for multi-family projects, Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10, some city officials are proposing an initiative measure that essentially would bar the state from overriding local land use laws.”
“Voters strongly oppose the new state laws that strip our ability to speak out about what is happening literally right next door to our homes,” said Bill Brand, mayor of Redondo Beach, as the organization released a poll that found strong support for the proposed ballot measure.
Walters argues, “On multiple fronts, therefore, California’s skirmishing over control of housing development is escalating into all-out political war as state officials increase pressure on local officials and they try to erect a legal wall to protect their traditional land use authority.”
Personally I don’t believe there is yet enough resources or anger on the part of voters to drive this through. It is also not clear which side has the most political energy – those worried about the cost of housing and the difficulty of finding affordable places to live near jobs and those worried about the stripping away of local authority.
This is an issue that cleaves the political left, dominant in California for the last 20 to 25 years in two. On the one hand, there are those worried that California’s housing crisis is pricing ordinary and low income residents out of communities in California, that this is leading to gentrification and that this forces people to live far from their place of work, adding to traffic and road congestion.
On the other hand, there are those worried about the environmental impacts of sprawl and density, that worry that traditional neighborhoods and quality of life will be diminished.
Will this become a strong enough issue that people will start voting on it over other issues? It is not clear yet. This is definitely a complex issue that cuts across normal ideological lines and if it continues to grow, it could lead to some realignment of political allegiances and alliances.