By Justin Ewers.
It was an uncommon sight in the state Capitol. A group of community organizers and civil rights advocates from across California sat behind the dais in a legislative hearing room in the high-backed chairs normally reserved for legislators, while nearly a dozen members of the Legislature filed in one by one to present their bills, answer questions, and share their thoughts on how grassroots leaders can influence a state policymaking process dominated by inside-the-Beltway interest groups.
Call it a role reversal. Call it a sign of legislators’ respect for the views, and potential influence, of all Californians. Consider it a harbinger of things to come, especially given the subject: For three hours, lawmakers fielded questions about how the high cost of housing is impacting the daily lives of millions of Californians—and what the Legislature can do not just to get more houses built, but to ensure more workers and families can own them.
Organized by the California Community Builders, a Berkeley-based nonprofit working to increase homeownership opportunities for low-income Californians, this week’s “Community Hearing on Housing and Homeownership Legislation” served as a watershed moment for a coalition of local community groups that normally operate outside Sacramento. The hearing demonstrated growing grassroots awareness of the Legislature’s options for addressing the state’s housing crisis—and provided an early glimpse at how community groups plan to ensure any state housing package this year supports all Californians.
“We have a wealth gap in this state and this country—and we’re never going to close it unless we promote homeownership. It’s the single best way we’ve seen over the last 100 years for people to build wealth and move up,” said John Gamboa, a co-founder of The Greenlining Institute who sits on the board of California Community Builders. Last year, leaders of the group, including former State Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and Herman Gallegos, co-founder of the National Council of La Raza, set out to identify 200 other civic organizations committed to this same goal. After months of hosting regional meetings on local housing challenges, the new coalition, called The Two Hundred, now includes 473 members.
“In this arena, as in so many others, special interests have the ear of policymakers. Everyone is represented in this building: developers, construction workers, cities, the environment. But we’re not,” said Gamboa, noting that most state housing assistance programs focus on rental housing, not expanding access to homeownership. “That’s why we’re here, so we can balance out the pressure on the Legislature with the voices of all Californians, especially people of color who had entire generations of wealth wiped out during the Great Recession, and who need, for the good of our state, to be able to buy and own a home again.”
Members of the Legislature from both parties presented at the briefing, highlighting their efforts to reverse sharp declines in homeownership that still linger years after the Great Recession—and that have been exacerbated by a growing housing shortage. While nearly 60 percent of white Californians currently own a home, the homeownership rate for Latinos is only 42 percent. Just over one in four black households owned their homes in 2015, compared to 43 percent in 2006.
“Homeownership levels are at the lowest levels they’ve been in California since the 1940s,” said Assemblymember Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), author of one of the funding bills, ACA 11, which would raise a statewide sales tax to support homeownership programs. “We have people living in garages, kids sleeping in attics with no escape routes. Affordable housing has always been a moral issue, now it’s becoming something else: This is bad for the economy, it’s bad for our health. And allowing people to own a home is the best route we have into the middle class.”
Several presenters acknowledged that while more than 100 housing bills have been introduced this year, few deal directly with the issue of homeownership—partly because of the large dollar amounts involved in subsidizing expensive California housing and partly because of the urgent need to help the rising numbers of homeless and the millions of Californians struggling even to rent a home.
Many questions were asked about the relatively few bills this year targeting one of the most common obstacles to new housing: the use of state environmental laws by NIMBY groups to keep low-income projects and denser market-rate development out of their neighborhoods. “Many developers come to us and say they can’t build in a lot of places because of community groups using CEQA to stop them,” said Steve Figueroa, a community advisor to the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. “From where I sit, CEQA has become the newest form of ‘redlining,’ used by wealthy residents to keep out lower-income people of color.”
While several legislators said they “would be open” to more conversations on that topic—one of the most politically difficult issues in state politics—the bills they presented offered a range of different approaches to increasing housing supply and expanding homeownership.
“We all know the extent of this crisis, and there’s no single solution that will allow us to solve every part of it,” said Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), chair of the Assembly Committee on Housing & Community Development. Chiu has authored seven bills on housing affordability this year, including AB 71, a bill that would fund affordable housing tax credits by eliminating the mortgage interest deduction for second homes. “Our goal is to put a roof over everyone’s head before we subsidize Californians buying a second one. We have a housing crisis at every level of affordability. If we have pennies on the dollar to spend here, the question is where to invest those pennies.”
That same issue lies at the heart of the California Economic Summit’s One Million Homes Framework, which shares Chiu’s broad view of the myriad policy and political challenges involved in taking on the housing crisis. In a new web series, the Summit has been highlighting the urgency of solving the problem, as high housing costs—and the financial insecurity that goes with it—begins to impact everything from community health to the next generation’s economic prospects. In April, the Summit submitted a letter to lawmakers highlighting the potential of an “all of the above” housing strategy that increases funding for programs supporting low-income Californians, while also pursuing regulatory and fiscal changes that will expand the supply of market-rate housing, lower costs, and allow more Californians to rent or buy a home.
Both will be necessary to address California’s housing crisis. And as John Gamboa made clear in this week’s hearing, the cost of failure could be dangerously high.
“This is the start of something I believe can make a difference. If we don’t make policymakers listen to us, we, and our state, are doomed: This crisis is impacting millions and millions of working Californians,” said Gamboa. “Teachers are leaving the state because they can’t afford to live here. Firefighters and police officers are living hours away from their jobs. It’s making us all less prosperous and less safe.”
Following this week’s hearing, The Two Hundred is reviewing this year’s housing legislation and determining how best to exert their influence, in and out of Sacramento. “Our policymakers are going to need our help,” said Gamboa, “to hold them accountable for solving this problem and to support them when they do.”
Call it optimism. Call it putting the Legislature on notice. Civil rights groups are worried about housing, and they are getting organized.
A list of members who attended the briefing and the bills presented:
Sen. Toni Atkins: SB 2
Asm. Ian Calderon: AB 354
Asm. Laura Friedman: AB 1350
Sen. Connie Leyva: SB 329
Asm. Jimmy Gomez: AB 1670
Asm. Marc Steinorth: AB 53