By Ed Coghlan.
California is not losing millionaires because of the high cost of housing. “We’re losing the working class and millennials.”
Those words from Leslie Appleton-Young, vice president and chief economist for the California Association of Realtors, at a housing conference at Pepperdine University Tuesday underscored the urgency of California’s housing shortage.
The “A Home in California: Are Our Communities Sustainable?” conference attracted a couple of hundred participants from across the spectrum.
California’s housing problem is well known. The state will need 3.5 million more housing units by 2025 and is nowhere near meeting that demand.
Experts offered a long list of possible solutions, including bringing back redevelopment agencies, reducing abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act, better engaging communities to build political support, building more housing near public transit, strengthening regional governance and aligning state, regional and local government to coordinate technical assistance and funding.
While that list is well established, and more than 180 bills have been introduced in the Legislature this year, most of the speakers expressed frustration at the lack of a coherent strategy.
The conversations reverberated with the long standing tenant of local control over land use authority, with the growing anxiety that local actions are not adding up to an adequate solution.
Alicia Matricardi, general counsel and director of real estate for New Economics for Women, said that unknown litigation costs and the high cost of permitting can kill a deal.
“At the local level we have to ask the question what can we do to get out of our own way,” she asked, while adding that every city should figure out which of its departments touch the housing issue and then have them help or “get out of the way.”
California Forward CEO Jim Mayer, who moderated one of the sessions, asked the panelists what they wanted to see the Legislature do.
Richard Bruckner, the former director of the Department of Regional Planning for Los Angeles County, opined “the state should stay out of land use and fix CEQA.”
If CEQA is so important, Mayer asked, why aren’t cities united and rallying to support changes that would reduce the CEQA abuse, which can block much-needed workforce housing.
Lydia Romero, the city manager for Lemon Grove in San Diego County, said fixing CEQA has been impossible: “Year after year, we get no traction.”
Jennifer Hernandez, a San Francisco attorney who has documented how CEQA is often used for non-environmental purposes, said those who exploit the law for personal reasons “hide behind the environment, while the people being hurt are browner, young and less healthy.”
The event was funded through the support of Fieldstead and Company whose CEO, Howard F. Ahmanson, emphasized the importance of dealing with housing at the local and regional levels.
Housing affordability, of course, is a big challenge for most Californians. So much so that the executive director for YIMBY Action, Laura Foote, noted about millennials, “My generation doesn’t see home ownership as accessible.”
Even in parts of California that are considered more affordable, like Fresno, Riverside and Stockton, the housing price-to-income index is more than twice what is considered an optimum ratio.
Rick Bishop, the executive director of the Western Riverside Council of Governments, noted that household income in his region is actually dropping, linking the importance of economic development and more well paying jobs as a key part of the solution.
Housing will be a big topic again at the 2019 California Economic Summit in Fresno November 7-8. The Summit is working on developing policy solutions on two threshold issues:
- Where new incentives could be targeted to have the most impact
- Produce a set of fiscal incentives that encourage production of more housing
In closing the conference, Peter Peterson, dean of Pepperdine University School of Public Policy quoted a woman from Salinas who several years ago told her community leaders: “Do what you need to do. All I want is a city my daughter can come back and live.”