By David M. Greenwald
Californians do not agree on a whole lot, but one thing there is widespread and still growing agreement on—there is a housing crisis.
In a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this year, voters say by a whopping 82-14 margin that there is a housing crisis in California. That number represents a modest uptake from 78-15 in July 2019.
In Davis, there are similar numbers. A survey last spring commissioned by the city found that by far the top local concern was affordability of housing—that was a self-selected response. Moreover, nearly 80 percent overall found that affordability of housing was a problem.
Despite the high rate of agreement in polling that there is a housing crisis, there is some denialism.
One commenter noted that no one has in fact even defined what the housing crisis is. That’s, by all appearances, objectively false.
This definition from the Legislative Analyst’s Office resonates well with me: “California has a serious housing shortage. California’s housing costs, consequently, have been rising rapidly for decades. These high housing costs make it difficult for many Californians to find housing that is affordable and that meets their needs, forcing them to make serious trade-offs in order to live in California. The state’s housing crisis is one of the most difficult issues facing state policy makers.”
There also seems to be a notion from some that it’s not actually a housing crisis because California is losing population—even though one of the chief causes for that decline in population is cost of housing.
That’s analogous to arguing that we don’t have a food insecurity problem because people are dying of starvation.
A PPIC study from March found, “Since 2015, California has experienced net losses of over 500,000 adults who cite housing as the primary reason, according to the Current Population Survey.”
The PPIC Statewide Survey finds that “34% of Californians have seriously considered leaving the state because of high housing costs.”
PPIC concluded, “The state’s high cost of living, driven primarily by comparatively high housing costs, remains an ongoing public policy challenge—one that needs resolution if the state is to be a place of opportunity for all of its residents.”
Then again, even when there is agreement over whether there is a housing a crisis, what to do about it remains more up in the air.
For instance, a survey by the Bay Area News Group and Joint Venture Silicon Valley found that most people agree “that sky-high housing costs are a serious problem in the Bay Area.”
At the same time, the survey found “a solid one-third of the region’s residents oppose building significant quantities of new homes.”
Moreover, “Opposition grows when the conversation turns to the kinds of construction advocates say are most desperately needed: Affordable housing, housing for homeless people, high-density housing around transit.”
We have found similar patterns in Davis. Polling shows a solid 35 to as high as 40 percent of the public is opposed to new housing regardless of the project.
We have also seen that while there tends to be general sympathy for the need for housing for the homeless, there has also been localized opposition at times to actually building affordable housing or maintaining it next to existing homes.
The Bay Area News Group found that whether or not one owns a home is a huge determining factor in opposition to housing.
“One of the clearest indicators in the poll that someone is likely to oppose new housing? They already own a home. How to make that opposition even stronger? Tell them the housing will be nearby,” they found.
“The folks who have the most political power, who are the loudest, are oftentimes your affluent homeowners,” said David Garcia, policy director for UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. “And so it creates challenges for lawmakers who would like to pursue pro-housing policies, but have to answer to this very loud slice of their constituency.”
We have seen in the last year or two, the state—whether it’s the AG’s office or HCD—step up their efforts to enforce state housing laws.
The recent lawsuits in Elk Grove and Huntington Beach as well as the high rate of denial of Housing Elements demonstrates a commitment.
This week, the State Supreme Court agreed to hear the case that will decide whether UC Berkeley can move forward with a plan to build student and supportive housing at People’s Park.
UC Berkeley is attempting to build 1,100 student beds and a 100-bed supportive housing project at the park. But local residents filed a lawsuit and a state appellate court said UC Berkeley violated its obligation under CEQA and overturned a decision by a lower court that sided with the university. The judge said the university failed to evaluate alternative sites for development and assess the impact of student noise.
“The courts have an important role in ensuring that CEQA is not warped to serve purposes that the Legislature never intended,” an Amicus Brief filed by Governor Newsom argued.
It added, “This case provides an opportunity for the Court to reaffirm that CEQA is a tool to ensure public participation, informed decision-making, and thoughtful development — but not an instrument to block necessary progress or deny to others safe, healthy, and affordable housing.”
Some have speculated that there could be a revolt coming over state housing mandates. I don’t really see it.
Part of the problem is that the vast majority of the public understands that there is indeed a housing crisis. What they might differ on is the methods by which to alleviate it.
Take the California League of Cities as a prime example.
The League recognizes that there is a housing crisis, but they have opposed initiatives such as SB 9, SB 10, and SB 35.
California Cities opposes SB 423 in part because: “Overarching laws like SB 423 undermine local efforts to spur housing construction. No other set of laws requires cities to spend millions of dollars developing complex, multiyear plans with their residents, which are then ultimately overridden by the state every year.”
Moreover they add, “The state will never produce the number of homes needed with a state-driven, by-right housing approval process. What is really needed is a sustainable state investment that matches the scale of this long-term crisis. Targeted, ongoing funding, like the annual $3 billion investment Cal Cities is calling for, is the only way to get Californians off the streets and keep them in their homes.”
Indeed, the League also pushed back against the state for failing to invest enough in housing for the homeless and affordable housing.
“(We) appreciate the Governor’s efforts to date to provide short-term funding to California’s cities to address homelessness,” said League of California Cities Executive Director and CEO Carolyn Coleman. “However, given that California faces unprecedented and growing affordable housing and homelessness crises, we are disappointed that this budget will bring no new hope to the many Californians who need a home.”
She said, “Together, the state and local governments are accountable for preventing a deepening of both crises. Cities are making progress planning for 2.5 million new homes, but these plans will not produce enough homes unless the state does its part and invests in affordable housing.”
But she warned that “this budget proposal does the opposite and calls for $712 million in delays or cuts to housing programs.”
While the League obviously wants to see more state funding to match state mandates and opposes legislation that takes away from local autonomy, unfortunately I don’t see that SB 9, SB 10, or SB 423 (extending SB 35) is going to make enough of a difference with housing levels to drive a voter revolt.
The state has a long-term interest in stabilizing housing and addressing homelessness and they don’t seem likely to back off their commitment to pushing through—even if at the local level there is some pushback.
In the end, I find the debate over whether there is a housing crisis to be about as fruitful as the debate over whether climate change is real and/or human-caused. The more important debate is how do we best resolve it—and there is plenty of room for disagreement there as well.
I don’t think we have done nearly enough to create the housing fund at the state level to build sufficient housing or address the homelessness problem. That’s where I would like to see our energies go.