April 27, 2017 - From the April, 2017 issue

Capitol Update: CA Legislature Prioritizes Housing Supply

After working with Governor Jerry Brown to finalize a historic road repair funding plan, the California Legislature has reengaged policy conversations surrounding housing supply and affordability. Assemblymember Richard Bloom, representing the 50th District, authored successful legislation last session on accessory dwelling units (also called “granny flats”), and has driven these necessary conversations with his proposals to reform Costa Hawkins and streamline housing construction. Bloom joined TPR for an exclusive interview to discuss the role state mandates on housing can play, and ways to bring immediate relief to those feeling the intense burden of the housing shortage. 


Richard Bloom

“If we are successful with our legislation, it is still going to take many years for the state to overcome the current shortage. The question we need to address is simply are there ways we can help the issue of affordability for those experiencing this crisis today?” -Asm. Richard Bloom

Assemblymember Bloom, you have been a leader in Sacramento on housing policy reform. Last week, Assembly Democrats held a press conference on housing affordability. Bring TPR readers up to date on Sacramento’s efforts this session.

Richard Bloom: We were very fortunate to have about a dozen legislators speak about a variety of housing bills this year. I focused my remarks on the impact that the housing crisis is having right now on tenants, who are faced with exorbitant rents that are just not affordable for most incomes.

When circumstances change and people have to move, they are faced with huge increases in rent due to a lack of supply. This leads to a reduction in the quality of life, as people end up with less spendable income available for anything beyond housing costs. 

Given that your colleagues in the Assembly Democratic Caucus are focused on these issues, what is the role of the state in addressing the housing crisis?

Many of the bills focus on increasing the supply of market-rate and affordable housing in a variety of different ways. But even if we are successful with our legislation, it is still going to take many years for the state to overcome our current housing shortage.

The question we need to address is simply this: Are there ways we can help with the issue of affordability for those experiencing this crisis today? Even knowing that building more supply will alleviate some of the pressure in a few years, we also need to focus on what we can do in the immediate term. 

Your colleague from Northern California, Scott Wiener, has often spoken about the need to facilitate housing production through legislation. As a former local leader and mayor, what are your thoughts on state supply mandates?

We need to increase supply across the state for a number of reasons. A large part of this issue is a supply-side problem. Some estimates state that we are 1.5 million units short—so even building 150,000 units every year, we would still need a decade just to catch up. Yet local governments have not been keeping up with their housing numbers.

Local governments are reluctant to build at the scale that this crisis demands. Therefore, the state needs to take some reasonable steps to alleviate the burden. An example is my legislation from last year, AB2299, regarding “granny flats.”

I knew the bill would be helpful, but to be honest, even I didn’t understand the extent to which it would actually produce housing around the state. Last fall’s McKinsey study estimates that my legislation has the potential to add 350,000–800,000 units to our housing stock. What this demonstrates is that there are creative solutions available to get our needed 1.5 million units.

The other fixes are not necessarily easy. We have to work closely with our local governments, but we also have to be clear that this crisis requires action. Fortunately, there are dozens of bills looking to address housing affordability, which is a testament to the fact that we understand the severity of this issue.

Is there an appetite in the Legislature or Democratic Caucus for either CEQA reform or addressing Prop 13?

I think you named every third-rail we have in California!

I don’t think these two issues are off the table to us this session, but they do present very daunting challenges when it comes to gathering the vote margins that we would need to get them passed in the two houses and signed by Governor Brown.  The Governor himself—coming from an extraordinarily strong position—was unable to get a CEQA exemption for housing as part of his by-right proposal last session.

I don’t think the issue is the willingness of the caucus to address these issues, but rather whether we can realistically address them. From my position, I think both issues need some reform. However, I am not going to sit around and wait. My efforts are about finding immediate solutions.

Assemblymember, you have been bold enough to take on Costa Hawkins and rent control. Compare those efforts to the CEQA reform efforts the Governor took on last year.

I don't think this is an issue of boldness or courage. Last year, the Governor took my legislation on the by-right housing streamlining issue (AB 2522), and added in the CEQA bypass for projects that met certain requirements. It did not work out.

I believe that we can fix these issues in the long term, but my legislation is aimed at addressing the immediate housing shortage.  It’s hard to take on issues that people in general are not willing to address.

The bravery and boldness you spoke of could also be described as foolhardy. But the Costa Hawkins bill is a critical conversation starter. We need to find ways to provide relief to people around the state who are facing the housing crisis in their daily life.

It could be considered a bold step to take on a bill that is two decades old, as Costa Hawkins is, but it has a very different context today that when it was implemented. Circumstances have changed for our cities and coastal areas. Tenants are really suffering. Just this month, the Zillow Chief Economist reported on the ways the escalation in rent—a 4 percent year-over-year increase for Angelenos—is affecting everyday Californians. We have to confront this burden.

Santa Monica has a long history with rent control. What lessons can you share with your colleagues in Sacramento about the part rent control can play in ensuring housing affordability?

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Rent control has preserved a ton of affordability in Santa Monica. But not every city in the state is a rent control jurisdiction. Four of the six jurisdictions that I represent have some form of rent control or stabilization ordinance, so now it is just about finding balance and solutions.

This past July, TPR interviewed non-profit developer John Given about affordability in the operating multi-family housing market. He said, “The multi-family housing market is where more than 70 percent of low-income and/or rent burdened households live, and where the housing crisis plays out.” How is Sacramento addressing the changing dynamics in our existing housing stock?

Actually, I don’t think we have addressed these issues enough.

I have an Ellis Act reform bill that seeks to lengthen the amount of time a tenant must receive notice before a termination of residency. This doesn’t fix the problem, but it gives tenants a longer time to deal with the situation and the rapid rise in prices.

I also have a couple of bills that respond to the Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, where people were living in unsafe conditions. We want to create some realistic definitions of live/work housing and tenant safety. We are looking at a 1982 New York City loft law that provides a different definition of habitability, mostly focused on safety for creative professionals in workhouse-type space. It does not focus on aesthetics, but more on safety.

Last week, the City of Santa Monica released its Downtown Plan. As a former mayor and city councilmember, comment on the vision for Santa Monica’s downtown.

My immediate reaction is one of disappointment.

The plan calls for building approximately 2,500 new units in the downtown area over 20 years. That amounts to only 125 units per year in the urban core, adjacent to multiple transit options, in an area with a severe jobs/housing imbalance. Downtown Santa Monica is highly suitable for additional housing, yet considering the breadth of the crisis, the city’s proposal is only a meager improvement.

I believe the Downtown Plan is contrary to the types of programs we need to address the housing issue, and in the long-term, will be counterproductive. I hope that the city council takes a second look at the staff’s recommendation, and adds housing capacity to the plan.

How do you communicate with the active civic participants of Santa Monica about the need for the legislature to preempt their local jurisdictions with respect to land use?

Preemption is a strong word. I believe we are working with local communities to address local and statewide priorities. In every one of our bills, we work collaboratively with local governments.

Housing isn’t only a local issue, but if we can help the residents who live in our cities, then we are doing something that can work hand-and-hand.

The National League of Cities recently released a primer on local control. Understanding that this is a nationwide issue, talk about the balancing of local control and state mandate that must take place. 

Just as in we did in the granny flat legislation, we must apply common sense rules to a framework for adding housing supply without eroding neighborhood integrity. IN our case, amid conflicting laws and regulations, the state was able to step in and pass a bill that balanced local concerns with the housing needs.

Even that law has some imperfections, which we are addressing in clean-up legislation this session. It is a mechanism for stepping back and adjusting to concerns as they arise. All of the cities in my district are concerned about the affordability crisis, and the burden that the affordability crisis places on those they work with. In my district, we find some of the highest and most expensive housing costs in the country.

Both the national and state League of Cities are advocacy organizations. When I was a local official, I worked closely with the California League of Cities, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. However, they do tend to reflect the minority position among cities, because they are a representational organization for all cities in the state. It is more common for them to take an opposition to state legislation, even when their member cities are supporting that legislation on an individual basis. We saw this with the granny flat legislation.

You’ve mentioned the need to provide immediate benefits to those suffering under the housing crisis. In the Assembly press conference, you also cautioned your colleagues to think about the long-term ramifications of this issue. Elaborate on what you shared with your colleagues.

Our goal is to work hard to find creative and workable solutions that can provide long term solutions. For example, our Costa Hawkins bill has become a two-year bill, because having an additional session to work on that reform will allow us to hold stakeholder meetings and develop a broader conversation.

The tenant and landlord communities, as well as the building industry writ large, have welcomed our office’s move to make this a two-year bill. Our intention is to hold a hearing before the summer, and have subsequent stakeholder meetings around the state to flesh out these issues. If my initial legislation is not the exact right solution, we will now be able to identify opportunities for growth and progress that can allow our state to move in the right direction.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.