Who killed the modest proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to spend $400 million in state money to subsidize affordable housing?
Was it the usual suspects that affordable housing advocates like to blame? The greedy corporate builders? The greedy bankers? The NIMBY (not in my backyard) folks?
Try organized labor and environmentalists.
Labor didn’t like the idea that the subsidies could be spent on housing projects partially using state funds that under California law would require paying prevailing union wages. Brown’s plan lifted that requirement given a University of Berkeley study that showed union wages can add as much as 37 percent to the cost of building a housing unit.
Environmentalists didn’t like the fact the proposed affordable housing plan would require cities to streamline the environmental review process that can add years to moving a housing project forward and add substantially to the costs. Brown’s plan would have given automatic approval to projects that meet existing city zoning requirements and set aside 20 percent of the approved unit density for affordable housing.
To their discredit, not a single lawmaker was eager to look like they were actively backing the Brown plan that was whittled down from $1.3 billion. No one had the political stomach to irk the two special interest groups that carry a heavy stick of campaign contributions they use without hesitating to beat politicians into submission.
The union lobbyists parroted the line “it makes no sense for the state to help build housing that those doing the actual work to build them can’t afford to live in.”
The environmentalists essentially argued “give an inch and cities will turn into urbanized versions of the Erie Canal.”
Brown’s proposal would have allowed for a modest number of affordable units. The impact on San Francisco — arguably the absolute worst locale to build such units in California — would have been an additional 2,400 housing units.
Keep in mind we are not talking about subsidized housing per se. It is housing that is priced at a percentage of the local market, specifically as workforce housing. Under such rules you need to make a good tad more than minimum wage to qualify.
So now labor has its wish that non-union labor won’t be used in inner cities to build affordable housing. Meanwhile union construction workers — of whom a growing number can’t afford to live in places such as the Bay Area where they work on projects — can continue to commute 70 plus miles to places like Manteca were they buy homes built primarily by non-unionized labor.
Environmentalists have stopped another attempt at increasing housing opportunities in California’s coastal urban centers. That means more people driving cars spewing greenhouse gas emission farther and farther between work and home creating a demand for more freeways and buying homes that gobble up farmland at an alarming rate.
Of course, both groups are ticked that Brown says he won’t go ahead and spend $400 million on affordable housing anyway with no strings attached.
Why not continue to do the same thing that isn’t working?
Not addressing the upfront costs that make building affordable housing such as at market apartments dicey at best accomplishes absolutely nothing.
The United States spent less time fighting in World War II than it takes a reasonably sized housing project to go from conception to construction in California thanks to the ever expanding environmental review process.
If zoning — put in place with basic environmental documents that dictate general traffic and air quality impacts and such that gives specific development density to land — allows 300 housing units already why is there a need for additional environmental review?
Rest assured a developer would have no incentive after going through the EIR review gauntlet as it now exists to set aside even one unit as affordable for workforce renters.
But make it possible for them to shave three of four years off the approval process they are apt to devote the resources needed to work with the state and local governments to expand the inventory of affordable housing.
In a 300 unit development that means at least 60 units that are affordable.
If that happened moving forward with every significant housing project built in California they’d be a lot less people scrambling to prevent their families from becoming homeless due to rents rising faster than wages for lower and middle wage paying jobs.