By Chris Reed.
In January 2017, state lawmakers returned to the Capitol determined to make a difference on the state housing crisis. Dozens of bills were touted – including Senate Bill 35, by state Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, which ended up as the most far-reaching law to reduce obstacles to housing construction in modern California history.
But even as momentum built for SB35 and other housing measures, the head of the respected, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office warned in a 12-page report issued in March 2017 that state lawmakers would never be able to reduce the housing shortage without much more support from the public.
“Unless Californians are convinced of the benefits of significantly more home building – targeted at meeting housing demand at every income level – no state intervention is likely to make significant progress on addressing the state’s housing challenges,” wrote Mac Taylor.
Now a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey offers the most definitive support yet for the legislative analyst’s conclusion that when it comes to building new housing, Californians aren’t very enthusiastic.
Few see lack of construction as big problem
The survey asked 1,180 Californians why they thought housing was so expensive in the Golden State. They were given a list of eight possible primary reasons.
The most popular reasons were lack of rent control (28 percent) and lack of affordable housing programs (24 percent).
In the middle tier of explanations were environmental regulations (17 percent), foreign home buyers (16 percent) and the influence of the tech industry (15 percent).
Bringing up the rear were a lack of homebuilding (13 percent), Wall Street buyers (10 percent) and restrictive zoning rules (9 percent).
The Times’ analysis of the poll noted how at odds the public’s view of housing is with the view of economists, policy analysts and housing experts.
There is “general agreement that a lack of supply is at the root the problem. Reports from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office and a host of academics contend that California has a chronic shortage of home building that has failed to keep pace with the state’s population growth – especially during the recent economic expansion – which has forced prices up.”
But this wasn’t the only way Californians parted with conventional wisdom. The survey also included other questions that showed two-thirds of those surveyed backed local control over housing even if local governments weren’t meeting state-set goals for adding housing stock.
It is this local power over the approval process that empowers motivated NIMBYs in city after city. Taylor’s March 2017 study identified it as the single biggest reason behind the emergence of the housing crisis.
“For decades, many California communities – particularly coastal communities – have used this control to limit home building,” the legislative analyst wrote. “As a result, too little housing has been built to accommodate all those who wish to live here. This lack of home building has driven a rapid rise in housing costs.”
Tech industry certain to keep pushing for housing
While the USC-Times poll could influence candidates in close elections to side with NIMBY views, it is unlikely to blunt new efforts by the Legislature to use legislation to bring down housing costs. The deep-pockets, influential Silicon Valley Leadership Group is one of many business organizations that sees the housing crisis as a threat to the state’s future prosperity because of its potential to hurt recruitment and retention of workers.
Another of the state’s most politically potent forces – the California Teachers Association – also sees the housing issue as bad news for its members. But the CTA’s main policy prescription for now is Proposition 10 – the Nov. 6 ballot measure that would overturn a 1995 state law and let cities impose rent control. It has generally trailed in state polls, although with high numbers of undecided voters.