California Housing 1: Where We Go From Here 1
This post originally appeared in December 2021. It functions as a table of contents for the California Housing section of the newsletter. I edit it as new newsletters are written, adding links to the newsletters and reordering them as I write them.
With a new year (and a new legislative session in California) approaching, housing organizations and trade groups are starting to put out their legislative wish lists.
In this inaugural edition of my new Substack, Where We Go From Here, I’m presenting my wish list: 11 ideas I think are vital for California’s housing future. It’s also a preview of Where We Go From Here’s publishing calendar. Starting in January, I will expand on one idea every two weeks.
At the heart of all these ideas, and my work in general, is the desperate need to build a broader coalition for housing reform. We’ve known about our housing problems for decades, and have generations of good ideas that never happened. What I promise you will get from Where We Go From Here are ideas that can help bridge political divides without ignoring the technical and material parts of housing. The definition of good policy is one that makes the politics better, and makes even more innovative policy possible in the future.
Repeal Article 34. Finally. It’s been almost 30 years since the last campaign to repeal this racist stain on our constitution, and the time to move is now. We can build a coalition around the repeal that is wider and deeper than almost any other ballot campaign imaginable at the moment. This coalition can then be a foundation for future campaigns that bring real reform and real dollars to housing. For skeptics who are concerned about the polling numbers and the popularity of ‘local control’ - a repeal campaign is the only true defense against a NIMBY ballot measure to make local control even worse. We have to give voters something to vote for, not just something to vote against. Pass SCA2 and let’s build a campaign.
Embrace California Dream for All, and make it work. Sen. Hertzberg and the Senate Leadership’s idea for a massive shared equity program to rebuild homeownership for lower and moderate income Californian’s can be historic. The state should become a bigger and more effective partner in all manners of housing ownership and development. As it is currently imagined, it is too focused on new construction, lower-income communities and rural areas, and older ideas of what homeownership looks like. But equity and tenant groups, environmentalists and YIMBYs should embrace the core idea and work with the authors to fix these issues and expand the bill and the types of homeownership it can produce. If we make the initiative friendlier to multi-family and multi-generational homeownership, TOPA/COPA & Community Land Trusts, and make it more impactful in wealthier communities and near transit, this can be the history that it’s authors want to make.
Double down on protecting the vulnerable. It’s absolutely essential that we build more homes. But one of the worst things I heard from my production friends over the past few years is something along the lines of “we passed AB1482, so now it’s time to focus on production”. Sadly, it may never be a good time to forget how quickly people are made homeless in California, how quickly evictions and foreclosures and displacement can happen. All California housers need to embrace changing the risky nature of most housing tenures in the state. It is too easy to lose your home, even when you own it. We have to start embracing all manners of ways of reducing risk across all tenures. There are exciting ways in which some landlords are trying to reduce evictions - evictions do not have to be a central feature in our housing and policing system. Some of our smartest thinkers on housing - and most prominent production voices - are realizing that rent control is necessary. We’re starting to see what I call YIMBY 2.0 - a pro-housing development movement that truly cares about protection and is intent on building bridges with equity advocates, and equity advocates who want to have bolder conversations and build real coalitions capable of real change. Any ‘solution’ to California’s housing problems has to focus on reducing precarity in housing, and on building a new social contract of housing for everyone.
Find a smart path forward on social housing - and state involvement in housing financing. It’s been wonderful to see ‘social housing’ as part of the agenda, and Assembly Members Lee and Wicks deserve a lot of credit for helping raise this issue above the parapet. Credit is also due to folks in the equity and YIMBY communities who’ve been working on this for years, and now we need to find a path forward that is neither overreach or underreach. We have growing consensus for more public sector involvement in housing, but what this looks like is still unclear and none of the plans are quite there yet. Let’s focus more broadly on the general state role in housing ownership and development, and make sure that this conversation is rooted in what we have in California. We still have public housing, and it needs support. We have a generation of LIHTC and related housing that needs attention. We have new regional housing finance agencies being built or proposed, a new shared equity program being proposed, new activity in public banking, and a smoldering mess in municipal bond financing for moderate income housing. All of this is ‘social housing’ in some way. Let’s work patiently together to reform the larger ‘social’ system rather than try to create yet another small and expensive program that creates as many arguments as it does housing units.
Build an ambitious strategy around Homeownership. Homeownership rates, especially for BIPOC communities, are at historic lows. Large and powerful financiers own more and more of our housing. Turning both of these ships around is critical, but it can’t be based on an outdated and ideological notion of homeownership. We have to build a bigger tent around Homeownership, or what I call resident-controlled housing. 21st-century homeownership should mean having real choice about how you ‘own’ your home, a choice that includes community land trusts, limited-equity co-ops and even forms of ‘ownership’ where you have no equity at all. Getting there will require a new alliance between the fee simple homeownership community and the alternative homeownership community. This is the only way to build enough power to shift who owns California’s homes.
Fix the condo defect law. Assemblymember Grayson has bravely worked to fix one of those sneaky little laws that gum up the works. One of the biggest barriers to homeownership is that it is too hard to build multi-family homeownership, which means that homeownership is less affordable, less accessible and less climate friendly. The one power standing in the way are trial lawyers, who are the only group that everyone in the balkanized housing world should be able to agree they don’t support. Let’s find the collective political muscle to reintroduce a version of AB919 and reduce the defect statute from 10 years to 5 years, and to look at insurance reform and other liability issues. It’s high time we focus more on risk and housing - finding the right balance of public and private risk is absolutely central to reforming so many parts of our housing system. It can also give the fragmented housing world something to agree on.
Pay greater attention to implementation. I understand that folks in the political side of things love the fight, but the fight doesn’t actually build anything or repair anything. We need greater attention to implementation, which is fortunately a refrain I am not singing alone. One of the reasons why we are starting to see ADUs scale is because the Casita Coalition and other folks in the business didn’t just build a coalition to pass laws - they built a coalition to also reform the industry and change practices and actually build things. We need more implementation coalitions, cross-sector partnerships who will work together to make prior legislative gains real - and not just keep the money flowing. RHNA and Housing Accountability are areas where the focus has to stay on the implementation end, and it’s been great to see this shift inside and outside of government. Let’s also look at bills on the books which are severely underutilized - a good place to start are AB73 and SB540 from the 2017 Housing Package. Let’s make sure we have the same energy downstream from policy as we have upstream.
Rebuild the housing industry and economy, not just policy. Another lesson from the ADU world is one we shouldn’t need but desperately do - we’re trying to rebuild an entire economy and industry, not just policy. This fact has gotten lost across the board on housing - everyone wants to blame zoning specifically or policy generally or the government more broadly, when the problem is much deeper. While land use law certainly matters, we need a broader focus on rebuilding the housing economy to make real progress. We need to help small construction businesses, especially those owned by people of color. We’ve known for years we have to find ways to grow and support our depleted (and often demoralized) construction workforce, which has not recovered from 2008. We must reform our fragmented and at times very corrupt housing finance system, change the way we access information about housing and legal assistance, build public trust in the development industry, and make changes in who owns large rental portfolios. If you see someone sleeping under an overpass, think about all the ways we make and maintain homes in California, and who does this work - not just laws and policy.
Think big - or at least big projects. The Tejon Ranch deal, the restart of the Concord Naval Weapons Station project and the extension of AB900 are signs that larger projects are becoming possible again, but we still need a much broader and bolder conversation about megaprojects. We’re light years from the type of political process and infrastructure investments that can make these larger projects into a major source of inspiration and homes. We sadly still put developers in the hot seat, which doesn’t help them or local government or anyone else. We have so many examples from around the world about how to successfully redevelop military bases, old shopping centers and brownfield sites into mixed-income, mixed-use, sustainable sites, but we don’t use them to our advantage. If we are willing to actually talk about planning differently, we can even think about new towns and really bold ideas - ideas that will be needed in a state that loses units to climate disaster and has to rethink where and how it’s population lives in coming generations.
Look inland to build a climate-friendly California. Had we embraced smarter growth principles in the 1960’s and 70’s, we’d have a different state. But we didn’t, and now millions of people, mostly communities of color, now live in the Inland Empire, the Central Valley, Greater Sacramento, and the ‘Cities of Carquinez’. Sadly, our ‘climate-friendly’ cities imagination focuses primarily on making coastal California what it should have been but never became. While coastal California certainly needs to change - Go Emeryville! - if we want a racial equity version of climate friendly California, and we want to actually meet even a portion of our goals, solutions need to happen in Coachella and Fresno and Bako and Elk Grove and Antioch. Too many in the environmental and housing communities still have a geographic imagination limited to what we should have done, not the lived reality of most Californians of color. Our policies and our studies in 2022 have to recognize this fact, and not force groups in these places to have to fight to be included. This is where the real transformation is possible - what was sprawl has to become the center of our green future, if we are to have one.
Fix our analytical infrastructure. More and more, we mandate sophisticated forms of analysis that local governments must do to comply with housing law, even if many don’t have the capacity to do this, or do so as a box-checking exercise rather than to actually plan. We mandate endless analysis for individual projects, which becomes a weapon, not an actual way of making projects better. At the same time, we don’t do real analysis of the impacts of state housing and land use legislation, so we are flying blind. We have the greatest data analysis industry and academy in the world, but so little of it is used to help us house Californians better. We have to find a better way. Universities, large tech companies, small tech companies, local, state and regional governments, advocates and developers need to work together to rebuild our civic data infrastructure. We need new systems - a Statewide zoning database, for example - and a system for training people to do analysis and make it public. Only a system in which housing actors at all scales can access and produce analysis will help realize the data-driven policy dream - i.e. when analysis actually helps us make better decisions, instead of check boxes, fight on Twitter and feed the lawsuit machine.
Imagine a Fiscal New Deal. One of the many reasons why we don’t house California well is that our fiscal system doesn’t work. It isn’t just Prop 13, or the loss of redevelopment, or all the band-aids we’ve put in place to deal with the mess (try saying Mello-Roos meets Enhanced Infrastructure Finance District twice). While I am all for Housing Accountability, we need a different conversation with local governments that can lead to real fiscal reform - the type of reform that makes the fiscally-minded local vote yes on housing, isolating those who vote no only because of NIMBYism. The type of reform that really rewards the coalition of the willing, and gives them the ability to do bold things. The type of reform that can produce new and long-lasting sources of revenue for infrastructure and housing development. The type of reform that can consider municipal consolidation and service sharing, and even changing jurisdictional boundaries. Fiscal reform is at the heart of many of the ideas above - megaprojects, social housing, climate-friendly housing - and we need leadership to find a way through.
There are many more issues I could have listed, including spending decisions, pushes for federal action and reform, thorny questions about revenues and wildfires, and much more. I welcome any input from readers for ideas that should make the list, and I promise that WWGFH will not be written in a vacuum. As California changes in the coming months, I hope to reflect those ideas and changes in the newsletter.
Articles that need reading
Absolutely essential piece of reporting from Forbes on California’s scandalous moderate income bond programs. This is the kind of thing that reduces public confidence in bold public finance solutions for housing - which is absolutely the last thing we can afford at the moment. We’re starting to make real progress in rebuilding the way governments of all sizes engage in housing finance in the United States, and serious attention is needed by both private and public sector actors to fix this part of the system.
I’ve been an advocate for rent regulation since my days as a tenant organizer two decades ago in NYC. I have seen it save lives. If you’re on the fence still, or opposed base on ideological grounds, please read Jerusalem Demsas’ article on her change of heart - and why it is so critical.
Too many folks pooh-poohed this piece about gentrification and little free libraries. Yes, I understand there is a lot more to how cities change than the small symbols we think about. But read this instead as a heartfelt and very well considered article by a woman of color concerned about change and her role in it. We should all be so reflective, and we should all listen when folks talk about change. Those of us who want change need to better understand why change is hard and why folks in vulnerable communities with a history of exploitation and exclusion can feel even the smallest things deeply.