Political Notebook

Dan Walters: State’s big housing dilemma

It’s time once again for some fun with numbers, in this case the data on California’s serious – and worsening – housing crisis.

Since 2010, the state’s population has risen by 1.8 million to 39 million human beings who live – most of them, anyway – in 14 million units of housing of all types.

That translates into an average of 2.78 persons per dwelling, implying that since 2010, we’ve needed about 650,000 new units to keep pace with population growth, or about 130,000 a year.

However, the Great Recession clobbered housing construction, which fell to as low as 44,000 units in 2010 and has averaged only 70,000 a year during the decade so far, half the demand.

Housing production has since climbed to 100,000 a year, but even at that level, it’s just three-quarters of what’s needed – not counting the backlog shortage of 300,000-plus units just since 2010.

The result is a severe squeeze, particularly acute in major metropolitan areas, that has pushed housing costs sky-high, especially rents and especially in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area metropolitan regions.

Zumper’s national rent survey in December found four of the nation’s 10 highest rental markets in California, topped by San Francisco’s average of $3,500 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Housing costs are, according to the Census Bureau and the Public Policy Institute of California, the major factor in the state having the nation’s highest level of functional poverty.

Nearly a quarter of Californians – 9 million people – are living in poverty by the Census Bureau’s alternative measure. PPIC studies have found high poverty rates even in high-income communities because of astronomical housing costs.

Politicians profess to be concerned about California’s housing squeeze, but their proposals tend to be symbolic at best, adding perhaps a few thousand units to deal with a problem that’s exponentially more severe.

The market is evidently there, and private developers, it would seem, are ready to fill it, at least for those in the moderate-to-high income brackets. The impediments are largely political.

NIMBYism – not-in-my-backyard – is rampant in California, sometimes erupting extemporaneously in response to development proposals, sometimes driven by misguided environmentalism. It affects even high-density “infill” projects that environmentalists support in principle, but often oppose in practice.

An example is the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative in Los Angeles that, if enacted, would make it almost impossible to build large-scale housing projects in a huge city already experiencing mass homelessness and immensely burdensome housing costs, as Mayor Eric Garcetti points out in his criticism of the measure.

The pivot point for many housing clashes is the California Environmental Quality Act, which project opponents often invoke. The state Supreme Court has been busy lately interpreting CEQA’s effect on specific housing cases – which implies its central role in the issue.

Were politicians willing to seriously address California’s housing crisis, rather than make token gestures, they’d reform CEQA and take other steps to encourage supply.

Gov. Jerry Brown once declared CEQA reform to be “the Lord’s work,” but he and the Legislature have done almost nothing on the issue