California housing crisis

Michael Tuszynski/Pexels

Quick notes:

  • California is 1.5 million short of needed units, says some sources
  • Some housing advocates say California politicians typically support more developer-friendly bills
  • AB 701, AB 1482 and SB 329 are some renter-related bills in California’s session at the moment

There’s many California low income renter-related bills in session, working their way through the state senate and assembly for a chance to get to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. Bills favoring market-rate development are still trending, according to some housing advocates.

Experts have listed a slew of causes for California’s housing crisis — a topic top of mind to most tenants in the state who struggle to find reasonably priced housing. Policies such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), NIMBYism (an anti-building project attitude dubbed “Not in My Backyard”), and redundant regulations have been blamed. Even 1978’s Prop 13, which put a cap on property taxes and subsequently cut local government revenue, is a culprit in the crisis, writes Peter Schrag in an April 2019 report in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Whatever the cause, two things are for sure: There’s not enough housing (California is 1.5 million units short, say some sources) and the rent is just too damn high.

David Zisser, associate director at Housing California, says his organization supports several housing bills in the 2019 session but notes certain trends. Namely, ones that emphasize market-rate development and, to some extent, moderate-income housing.

“The theory is that as you build more and more market-rate housing, that will free up other units for lower-income people and make those more affordable,” says Zisser. “[Housing California is] very skeptical of filtering — it’s kind of a version of trickle down. The market is never going to serve people at the lowest incomes.”

David Zisser, California housing crisisDavid Zisser, California housing crisis
Courtesy of David Zisser

Since the market won’t serve low-income tenants, says Zisser, policies focusing on the rent-burdened population are necessary. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes “rent-burdened” as those that spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Rafael Bautista, organizer with San Diego Tenants United and a broker, says he’s seen California politicians supporting more developer-friendly bills, and tenants’ rights bills have fallen by the wayside. The ones he’s seen supporting tenants are ineffective — like Measure W in National City, California. Measure W would have included a cap of 5% on annual rent increases.

“But the thing is, 5% rent increases were already happening,” says Bautista. “I knew that that was the norm — that was the average.”

Bautista and Zisser both cite SB 50 as a bill that supported market-rate housing creation but did not include a guarantee for affordable housing.

What Zisser thinks is an effective approach to combating the housing crisis is comprised of three things: more money to build and preserve affordable housing, land use changes to support both market-rate and affordable housing development, and tenants’ rights protections.

While Zisser favors this “three-pronged approach,” Bautista believes that rent control needs to be the primary priority, then affordable housing and market-rate housing creation.

“Focusing on building when we’re not going to see any material construction in the [next] few years, when we’re experiencing this crisis that’s just crushing people every single day — it doesn’t make sense,” says Bautista.

Rafael Bautista, California housing crisis
Rafael Bautista, California housing crisis
Courtesy of Rafael Bautista

Some of the renter-related bills still in session are:

  • AB 701: Those exonerated of a crime get more money in housing assistance ($5,000). Re-referred to Committee on Appropriations as of July 7.
  • AB 1482: Would cap rent increases at 7% each year plus inflation. Re-referred to Committee on Appropriations as of July 11.
  • SB 329: Redefines the term “sources of income” in an attempt to prevent landlords from discriminating against tenants using Section 8 vouchers. As of July 10, the Committee of Appropriations set it aside but it may be voted on later.

Some bills, like AB 1481, which relates to “just cause” evictions, are currently inactive but might be able to be revitalized in another session. Others, like SB 18 (extends the requirement for tenants to get a 90-day eviction notice when their home is foreclosed), reached the governor’s desk and were approved on July 30.

Despite the so-called “May Massacre” (when many housing bills were rejected in the state Senate and Assembly), there are still bills that have the hope of reaching Gov. Newsom. However, they have to meet the deadline of September to get through the Senate and Assembly and then signed by Newsom in October.

Fingers crossed!

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101: