Building sustainably to solve the housing crisis
There are innumerable perks to living in California, but modestly priced housing is certainly not one of them. It’s undeniable that housing in the Golden State is expensive, and that we have a significant housing shortage. It’s a housing affordability and supply crisis, which severely impacts quality of life and will require some creative policy approaches and political will. But, whatever the public policy, the core of it should be more housing — swiftly, efficiently and sustainably. Let’s hope elected officials in Sacramento take up that mantra.
California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has been warning us about the crisis for a while now. In fact, the LAO’s 2015 report on California had five very telling takeaways that should be the basis for new legislation: 1) “Home prices and rents [are] higher than just about anywhere else.” 2) “Building less housing than people demand drives high housing costs.” 3) “High housings costs [are] problematic for households and the state’s economy.” 4) We should utilize a “targeted role of affordable housing programs.” And 5) We need “more private housing construction in coastal urban areas.”
The LAO report is spot on. And the housing landscape in Southern California supports its analysis.
For example, Orange County needs “50,000 to 62,000 housing units today just to meet the demand of the people living here now,” according to an Orange County Business Council study. And housing costs are so high that “prices for both rental and homeownership have impacted the employment landscape, as many workers are being forced into neighboring counties to find more affordable housing options, increasing their commute and complicating their work-life balance.”
Similarly, in the Inland Empire, “housing supply has lagged,” according to John Husing, chief economist for the Inland Empire Economic Partnership. And, as Southern California News Group reporter Jeff Collins wrote, “Fewer than half of Inland Empire households can afford a median-priced house in their area.”
In L.A., the story is the same. Los Angeles County “needs an additional 551,807 more affordable units to meet the needs of the lowest-income renters,” as reported by Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly. And housing costs are impacting the decisions of employers. Romero also reported that “Matt Schwartz, CEO of the California Housing Partnership Corporation, says the high cost of housing in markets like Los Angeles and the Bay Area is starting to weigh on employers.” He used the example of Toyota moving from the South Bay to Plano, Texas, because of housing affordability for workers.
These challenges are impacting low-income households, but not exclusively. Chris Thornberg of Beacon Economics has called housing affordability in California a crisis for the middle class.
The solution seems straightforward: Build more housing. But the problem is hefty political resistance to any development.
Part of the challenge is an alliance of strange bedfellows. The first faction is made up of those motivated by environmentalism, who want no new development because they believe any development is bad for the environment. Their allies, in this particular pursuit, are NIMBYs — an acronym for “not in my backyard” — those who want their communities to remain quiet, less congested and free from all of the hullabaloo they perceive new housing (and more people) will bring.
And this alliance is particularly effective. We’ve seen their successes time and time again. They use lawsuits to delay permits and construction, they run ballot initiatives to stop development, and they pack public hearings full of opposition voices. It’s no wonder politicians are afraid of policies that allow for more housing.
Even still, there is some momentum for advocates of housing, both in terms of organizing in favor of housing and in the potential for environmentally sustainable development.
One of the best housing projects I’ve seen in recent years is Newhall Ranch, or, as it was dubbed, “NetZero Newhall.” It’s a large, environmentally sustainable housing development in the Santa Clarita Valley that offsets its environmental impacts. The innovative approach to sustainability helped to quell some political concerns and build momentum for the project.
Also, technology companies, well aware of the costs of housing for their employees, are now entering the political fray, advocating for housing by funding an organization led by Brian Hanlon. “With financial backing from Silicon Valley tech executives, Hanlon is starting a new political and housing advocacy venture in Sacramento called California YIMBY — or ‘yes in my backyard,’ a riff on the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ phrase that characterizes neighborhood opposition to development projects,” according to the Sacramento Bee.
“We want more housing, and all types of housing. So we advocate for everything from transitional homeless shelters … to tall, luxury condos and everything in between,” Hanlon told the Bee. “We are in a dire housing shortage, and we’re not going to get ourselves out of that shortage if we nitpick every project to death.”
And politicians in Sacramento seem poised to act. In the coming days, the state Legislature will unveil plans, and hopefully host a robust debate about what can be done to make housing in the state more affordable and address housing shortfalls. For example, some in Sacramento, including state Treasurer John Chiang, are calling for a multibillion-dollar state housing bond for affordable housing.
We will see the specifics of the bond proposal soon enough. In the meantime, the Legislature should keep in mind that throwing money at the problem alone will not solve it. Lawmakers should use the LAO analysis as a guide, and craft a policy that spurs all development, encourages sustainability, reduces the potential for lawsuits and long-term delays, and utilizes focused, affordable housing plans.
The only way we will overcome the Golden State’s housing shortage and affordability crisis is by building more — and we can do that efficiently and sustainably.
Brian Calle is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group.
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