New­som takes a tough-love ap­proach to hous­ing

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion -

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.

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