Newsom takes a tough-love approach to housing
On his fourth day in office, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s freewheeling news conference outlining his first state budget was a fascinating mix of smart ideas and risky ones with potential that may not pan out.
It’s a tricky balancing act, courtesy of a projected $21.5 billion budget surplus. His $209 billion total budget — a 4 percent increase on the existing state budget — included $1.8 billion to improve early childhood education; more than doubled the size of the tax break given to lowincome workers; and boosted welfare payments to the impoverished.
Newsom also vowed to continue predecessor Jerry Brown’s tradition of substantially adding to the state’s rainy-day fund and said a large degree of new spending would be for one-time expenditures, not creating new ongoing programs.
In a flurry of news- worthy developments, Newsom’s remarks about California’s housing crisis were especially noteworthy.
To spur construction, his intent is to have the state withhold funds for transit and transportation projects from local governments that didn’t meet housing goals.
This is exactly the sort of tough-love approach needed to break through the barriers to new home-building. Last February, state housing officials announced a staggering 97.6 percent of cities and counties failed to meet construction goals.
Now, it seems California has the potential for real progress on housing when factoring in this aggressive proposal; Newsom’s call to exempt housing projects from some onerous environmental rules; the passage of a 2017 law that requires noncompliant cities to fast-track housing projects that are properly zoned and meet certain conditions; and state Sen. Scott Weiner’s renewed push for a bill to make it much easier to build four- or five-story apartment buildings near transit centers.
Given how many communities badly need transportation improvements, Newsom’s plan would force local leaders to take on the NIMBYs who remain unfazed by how devastating high housing costs are for middle-income and poor households.
Newsom also called for greater construction of subsidized affordable housing, part of what he told one interviewer would be a “Marshall Plan for affordable housing.” He seeks more than $1.7 billion for such projects and for tax credits that encourage developers to build homes that low- and moderate-income families can afford. That would add to the billions of dollars for affordable housing provided by just-passed state Propositions 1 and 2 — measures broadly supported by state Democrats.
Brown has never shared this enthusiasm for an approach that creates a relatively small number of homes at an indefensibly high cost, believing the answer to the housing crisis ultimately is a big increase in market-rate housing built by the private sector. The average cost of a housing unit in a 100unit “affordable” project is a staggering $425,000 in California. What the state could use is a “Marshall Plan” push for new thinking on types of affordable housing — including an openness to using now-durable manufactured homes, “tiny homes” and modified 320-square-foot shipping containers.
Newsom’s focus on housing also includes appointing a state “homeless czar” as part of a push to reduce the homelessness seen in urban areas. Having such a czar recognizes the urgency of the issue and has potential to lead to local governments working together to compare what they’re doing and establish a short list of best practices.
But there’s a risk in embracing an all-of-theabove approach to homelessness. Newsom’s bold policies while he was mayor of San Francisco — including a plan to end chronic homelessness within 10 years — had mediocre results.
Starting with one primary goal may make more sense. A relatively small percentage of homeless people end up in emergency rooms and engage in crime and improper behavior at a highly disproportionate rate. Getting these individuals mental health and substance abuse care and providing them shelter and living assistance should be a priority.
Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.