With some fanfare, Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed a package of bills aimed at relieving an acute shortage of housing that has sent costs into the stratosphere and given California the nation’s highest level of functional poverty.
“These new laws will help cut red tape and encourage more affordable housing, including shelter for the growing number of homeless in California,” Brown said in a statement as he signed the measures in San Francisco.
Problem solved? Not by a long shot.
Money from a new tax on real estate transactions and a state bond issue will, by official estimates, result in 77,000 new housing units over five years when merged with funds from nonprofit groups, private investors and tax credits for low-income projects.
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That’s less than 20 percent of the state’s projected need for additional housing over that period – and it could be years before any of the promised new housing is available. The regulatory fast-tracking in other bills could go further toward filling the need, but no one knows for certain.
Meanwhile, the new tax on real estate paperwork and new mandates to use “prevailing wages” in projects would actually make new housing development even more expensive.
The housing package continues a syndrome one might call “half-a-loafism.”
Politicians huff and puff on an issue, finally produce something short of a full solution, oversell it to the public and then turn their attention to something else. Years later, with the underlying problem still unresolved, everyone wonders why it didn’t have the promised outcomes.
A few years ago, for instance, Brown and lawmakers came up with what they described as an historic reform of public employee pensions to curb runaway costs. At the time, Brown pledged to do more but hasn’t and government employers are still facing sharply escalating costs.
Brown and the Legislature took a whack at the state’s embarrassing K-12 education “achievement gap” between students from poor homes and their more privileged classmates.
Billions of dollars have been spent on the Local Control Funding Formula, but test results have shown the gap to be stubbornly wide and Brown and other officials have been unwilling to adopt rigorous accountability for the money.
The “rainy day fund” that Brown touted to cushion the impact of an economic downturn on the state budget maxes out at about $12 billion, but Brown’s own budget agency says a recession would cost the budget $55 billion in revenue over three years.
The $5.2 billion a year tax and fee package for transportation that Brown signed earlier in the year sounds impressive, but it is nothing more than a small down payment on a huge backlog of neglected maintenance work and will do virtually nothing about traffic congestion.
Back to housing. Brown has said that reforming the California Environmental Quality Act to prevent its misuse is the “Lord’s work,” but he has been unwilling to support a broad overhaul. Instead, he’s signed exemptions for high-profile projects such as sports arenas and, in the new package, some regulatory streamlining for some kinds of housing.
The willingness to settle for half-a-loaf approaches is, one supposes, just human nature. It’s better to do a little, it’s said, than to do nothing.
However, while partial solutions may give politicians cover to stave off criticism, they consume political energy while doing little about underlying problems. And they merely shift the day of reckoning to the next political generation.