State Issues

Newsom puts teeth in his housing promise

Construction workers were hard at work in Modesto in the summer of 2018. If Gov. Gavin Newsom gets his way, expect to see a lot more houses going up in California.
Construction workers were hard at work in Modesto in the summer of 2018. If Gov. Gavin Newsom gets his way, expect to see a lot more houses going up in California.

Gavin Newsom began his governorship this month by promising to confront what he described as California’s most important issue, an ever-increasing shortage of housing.

“This is the issue,” Newsom said as he introduced his first state budget.

California’s chronic housing shortfall, particularly for low- and moderate-income families, and its soaring costs are an existential threat to the state’s economy and social fabric.

The cost of housing is the primary factor in California’s shameful status as the nation’s most poverty-stricken state, and undercuts efforts to alleviate poverty through higher welfare grants, minimum wage increases and the state’s new “earned income tax credit.” Putting a few more dollars in the pockets of the poor will accomplish little if they’re immediately soaked up by higher rents.

“We’re not going to play small ball on housing,” Newsom declared. He pledged to establish “more realistic” regional housing goals and warned cities that failing to meet them will have consequences – cutting off transportation aid from the state’s new gas tax increase.

He also supported fast-tracking housing past the California Environmental Quality Act process, reducing local “impact fees” and making more excess highway right-of-way available for housing. He’s also jawboning employers into helping build housing for workers. Silicon Valley got the message; within days its leaders created a new “partnership” that pledged a half-billion dollars for new housing.

Last week, Newsom underscored his insistence that local governments meet their housing quotas, even if voters don’t like it. Attorney General Xavier Becerra is suing Huntington Beach for refusing to meet its goals.

“The state doesn’t take this action lightly,” Newsom said. “The huge housing costs and sky-high rents are eroding quality of life for families across this state. California’s housing crisis is an existential threat to our state’s future.”

It’s fair to say that in just a few weeks, Newsom has been more engaged in the housing crisis than Jerry Brown was in eight years. Still, it’s just a start. He says his budget will spend $7.7 billion on housing, but that’s only a third of what’s needed to increase housing production by 50 percent over current levels. Local governments don’t have that kind of money.

There’s only one way for California to reach Newsom’s goals – 200,000 housing starts a year. That’s to make private investment more attractive by cutting red tape and shunning fallacious notions such as rent control.

Suing a strongly Republican Huntington Beach is a no-risk move for Democrat, but will he crack down on anti-housing liberal communities such as Marin County? Two years ago, Brown gave Marin, and only Marin, a decade-long exemption from meeting housing quotas.

And what about the woeful lack of construction workers. There simply aren’t enough training programs for carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other building trades partly because schools don’t teach it but construction unions themselves have fought them.

Newsom has raised the bar over an issue whose outcome is easily measured. We’ll all see if he clears it.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization.