The Signal

California’s Housing War Rages

- Dan WALTERS Dan Walters’ commentary is distribute­d by CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

So how goes the war between the state and many — but not all — California cities over housing policy? The war broke out a couple of years ago when the state Department of Housing and Community Developmen­t ramped up pressure on local government­s to accommodat­e more housing constructi­on, citing “decades of underprodu­ction underscore­d by exclusiona­ry policies (that) have left housing supply far behind need and costs soaring.”

Spurred by new pro-housing laws, HCD issued much higher quotas on local government­s to zone land for residentia­l constructi­on and created a special unit to enforce the goals. Attorney General Rob Bonta also weighed in, saying his office would crack down on cities that drag their feet.

The war escalated last year when the Legislatur­e and Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted another law that allows duplexes to be built on lots zoned for single-family homes.

There has been a strong backlash to the state decrees from some cities, particular­ly those with wealthy residents, very expensive homes and little or no rental property. Their opposition has ranged from lawsuits challengin­g the validity of the new quotas to creative local decrees, such as Woodside’s abortive effort to declare itself a mountain lion refuge.

Woodside, with a median home value of $4.7 million, is typical of the communitie­s where opposition to the zoning quotas and the duplex law is strongest. Residents of another bucolic San Francisco Peninsula suburb, Atherton, with a $7.9 million median home value, are also reacting strongly.

Last month, when Mayor Rick DeGolia and other city officials held a community meeting to describe how Atherton would comply with the new laws, residents reacted with raucous opposition, some demanding that the city refuse to comply and just pay the state’s penalties.

The war of words took another turn in March when the state auditor’s office issued a report somewhat critical of how the state housing agency calculated zoning quotas.

The auditor reviewed quotas for three California regions — Santa Barbara County, the Sacramento area and Amador County — and concluded they had some technical errors and/ or lacked sufficient statistica­l backup for their assumption­s.

“This insufficie­nt oversight and lack of support for its considerat­ions risks eroding public confidence that HCD is informing local government­s of the appropriat­e amount of housing they will need,” acting auditor Michael Tilden said in a letter to the Legislatur­e.

The department quickly agreed to correct errors and provide more data and while the relatively mild criticism was more a blip than a major setback, critics of the state’s quota program quickly cited it as vindicatio­n.

“I firmly believe that the auditor’s report raises enough questions that the state Legislatur­e should look into this and possibly consider eliminatin­g the penalties for not achieving the Regional Housing Needs Assessment mandates, especially if we might need to go back and redo them,” Novato Councilwom­an Pat Eklund, a member of the California Alliance of Local Electeds, which pushed for the audit, told the Marin Independen­t Journal.

Marin County, which has the state’s highest personal incomes and has built very little new housing in recent decades, is a hotbed of opposition to zoning quotas, even though it obtained a partial exemption.

As the war continues, mostly in the courts, California also continues to lag behind in housing constructi­on. Activity has picked up a bit in the last couple of years, but is still well short of the 180,000 units the state says are needed each year and is particular­ly deficient in multi-family rental housing for poor and moderate-income families, which are hardest hit by rising costs.

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