By Antonio Villaraigosa
San Francisco Chronicle
California’s affordable housing crisis didn’t just happen. Our affordable housing shortage was created by flawed public policy that turned a crisis into a catastrophe. The good news is that a problem created by public policy can be fixed, in due time, with better public policy.
The first step should be to fully restore the ability of local governments to use redevelopment authorities to fund workforce and affordable housing for teachers, nurses, firefighters, seniors, low-income families and the homeless. For generations, redevelopment was a powerful public policy tool to make investments in economic development and housing. These agencies had the power to fund strategic local investments by capturing the increased tax revenues generated by new projects.
Yes, there were problems and some abuses. That is a fact. But when the Legislature ended the redevelopment agency network in 2012, it took away a powerful financing tool and, more importantly, hamstrung local communities in their efforts to build affordable housing in a way that made sense for them.
The redevelopment network gives local agencies the power to adopt solutions that make sense in its market. This is important because there is no such thing as a California housing market — the challenges in Fresno are different than the challenges in San Francisco. A “one-size-fits-all” solution does not acknowledge these important regional differences.
In San Francisco, for example, Supervisors Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin have negotiated with local developers for up to 40 percent affordable housing agreements. Those levels would not pencil out in other markets, but should not be prohibited where they are possible.
Right now, the state is considering new affordable housing bonds — which I support and also propose incentivizing cities and counties to put up their own money to leverage their bond funds with more local funds. I also support reforms that will make the creation of affordable housing faster and less costly. For example, if we can shorten the time for a rigorous, environmental review to build a sports stadium, as the Legislature has done, then we should be able to do the same to make it faster and less costly to build housing.
While the Legislature has taken real steps forward on housing issues, there is much more to do. Although our state’s economy is growing and wages are slowly rising, wages are not rising as fast as housing costs — leading to California’s dubious distinction as the state with the highest effective poverty rate in the nation.
The astronomical cost of housing not only makes otherwise middle-class families poor, it also makes it necessary for workers to commute for hours a day and makes the human tragedy of homelessness much worse. The inability of millions of families to afford a home means the gap between rich and poor widens. Without equity in a home, millions of families lack the wealth to start a small business, send kids to college without crushing debt or retire with dignity.
Over the past 10 years, housing production averaged less than 80,000 new homes annually. According to a report by McKinsey & Co., California needs to build 3.5 million new homes by 2025 just to keep up with demand.
I don’t think redevelopment agencies should be a blank check, for sure. We should require that local governments using this tool are held accountable and meet affordable housing targets to adequately meet the housing needs of their communities. We should also require priority be given to housing along transit lines to reduce congestion, making it easier for people to live closer to their jobs. We should also work to encourage the training of a new skilled workforce, focusing on high-poverty and high-unemployment ZIP codes, because solving the state’s housing crisis by building more housing can also close the gap between the rich and poor by creating more high-wage construction jobs.
Solving our state’s growing housing crisis will take a sustained commitment and creative thinking. But when it comes to giving local governments the tools they need, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s bring back a reformed redevelopment agency system to help fund the creation of affordable housing.
Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, is a candidate for governor.