Our View: Unrealistic housing goals aren’t helping the Valley’s poor

These are some of the issues behind California’s housing crisis

California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.
Up Next
California's housing crisis is due in large part to a lack of supply, particularly when it comes to affordable housing, and it is hitting low-income individuals the hardest.

After 50 years, California’s overarching housing law needs a major overhaul.

The Housing Element Act requires every city and county in California to zone for all types of residential growth. Each agency is given a targeted number of units to plan for, in various income categories, based on forecasts from the state Department of Finance.

The process is supposed to ensure Californians of every income level — from minimum-wage earners to millionaires — will be able to find housing they can afford.

It hasn’t worked. Today, the housing shortage is the worst it’s been in recent history, especially for low-income renters and buyers.

Two years into the current eight-year planning cycle, Stanislaus County and its nine cities are almost on track in one category: new moderately priced housing, producing 21 percent of what will be expected by 2023.

We can thank Turlock, where development has been more active there than anywhere else in our region, for much of that progress. Turlock built 591 moderately priced units in 2016 and 2017, compared to 59 in Modesto.

As for low-priced, affordable housing, in those two years Modesto built 50 units, while Riverbank produced 71, and Turlock, 125.

Together, the county and its cities achieved less than 3 percent of state goals for affordable housing in that time frame. That’s pathetic.

Results of this failure are seen in affordability studies. SmartAsset a few days ago reported that median home prices in Modesto jumped 41 percent from 2013 to 2017, while median incomes here rose less than 15 percent. In the same period, our population increased nearly 5 percent, while new housing only bumped up 1.2 percent.

Why aren’t we keeping pace?

Valley planners and officials long have derided state housing goals — called Regional Housing Needs Assessments — saying they’re force-fed and unrealistic, and could become punitive if the state ever follows through on threats to withhold certain funding if cities and counties fall too far behind. Planners also question whether the Valley is required to do more than its fair share for housing, unfairly taking pressure off the Bay Area where building constraints are even more keen.

Lots of elements factor into decisions to develop, including land prices, water and sewer capacity, and zoning restrictions in place wherever a developer is looking to build. Cities and counties can’t just wave a magic wand to meet production goals.

Meanwhile, the Legislature and Governor’s Office have been working to hold cities and counties more accountable for producing low-income housing. A slew of laws recently took effect that make it harder for agencies to ignore state housing mandates.

One of the more controversial is the strengthening of the Housing Accountability Act — often called the anti-NIMBY act — which subjects agencies to hefty fines if they arbitrarily deny affordable housing projects.

Another law requires agencies to identify additional low-income housing sites when market-rate housing is built in a spot that had been earmarked for affordable homes.

Most controversial is Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to withhold gas tax money from jurisdictions that block home building, though after a strong backlash he agreed to delay that for four years.

The state must find ways of nudging local agencies to play bigger roles in funding and facilitating affordable housing.

As much as cities and counties like to point out that they aren’t in the home-building business — and can’t be held accountable for housing shortages — there are government programs and policies that can spur residential construction, especially of lower-income housing.

Cities and counties that do succeed in increasing their inventories of lower-cost homes should be rewarded by the state with more housing revenue — a move Newsom is proposing.

That’s a start.

It makes far more sense to reward agencies for producing homes people can actually live in, rather than judging success based on acreage set aside for hypothetical housing that may never be built.