August 22, 2016 Rob Poole

Huge Victory for Status Quo: By-Right Housing Dies

The forces in California invested in preventing solutions to the housing crisis still have the upper hand. This was proven after news came out last week that Governor Brown’s landmark measure to allow by-right housing in California is dead for the year. Entrenched opposition from powerful interest groups killed it in the state legislature. What remains unknown is whether the $400 million in state affordable housing funding that was authorized as part of the deal will be released, since it was contingent on approval of Gov. Brown’s legislation. The failure of Governor Brown’s proposal is deeply disappointing to urbanists, as major policy change is necessary to address California’s worsening housing crisis, income inequality and economic segregation.

Quick Overview
Governor Brown introduced landmark by-right legislation in May that would encourage building multifamily housing that conforms with local zoning, design guidelines and general plans and meets certain affordability requirements. This housing would be able to avoid discretionary and CEQA review by local decision makers. The by-right proposal would have improved certainty for building housing and make it easier for cities that continue to attract thousands of new jobs to provide enough homes for their growing workforces. As part of the measure, Gov. Brown agreed to allocate $400 million to subsidize permanently affordable housing contingent on his measure passing. His housing measure received strong support from housing advocates, urban policy think tanks, and employers in the business community. SFHAC member BRIDGE Housing, one of the country’s largest builders of affordable housing was a prominent supporter. Sadly, the urbanist community’s weight was not sufficient.

Why It Failed
Opposition from a coalition of labor and environmental groups, as well as politically influential groups such as the League of California Cities, caused the measure’s demise. In a delicious irony, the Sierra Club opposed a measure that would have reduced the state’s carbon footprint by increasing housing density adjacent to transit. Trade unions opposed it because CEQA appeals and discretionary reviews are effective tools to negotiate labor agreements. For his part, Governor Brown resisted requiring labor agreements on projects that qualified for by-right approval. The League of California Cities claimed that the legislation removed decision-making authority from local jurisdictions.

What’s Next
The future is unclear. It’s uncertain whether the Governor will release the $400 million, or even a portion of it. We can only hope that he continues to push for a comprehensive housing solution next year. While his effort was a smart policy decision, it was also a bold political move and was perhaps asking for too much at once. There’s already been a strong social media reaction, our favorite quote coming from local economist Jed Kolko:

A Sad Reality
The legislature’s inability to pass the Governor’s proposal is a huge step backward for California addressing its housing crisis. The math facing us is pretty daunting and will not change in the short term.  Increasing the supply of housing in our major metros will ease price inflation, reduce displacement and cut our carbon footprint. But local municipalities, including San Francisco, continue to make decisions that make it more difficult and expensive to build housing close to jobs and transit. Here in San Francisco, the weight continues to fall on our shoulders to help push policy solutions that will make a difference.  

Image: Mercury News

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Rob Poole

Rob is the former Development and Communications Manager at SFHAC.

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