Opinion

Three ways Gov. Newsom can address California’s housing crisis

Gavin Newsom on housing, economic inequality and other key campaign issues

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom sat down with the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board to discuss affordable housing, the California economic divide and other key election issues ahead of the June 5, 2018 primary.
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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom sat down with the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board to discuss affordable housing, the California economic divide and other key election issues ahead of the June 5, 2018 primary.

In an effort to address California’s housing crisis, Gov. Gavin Newsom committed during his campaign to building 3.5 million homes in the next seven years.

But that annual average of 500,000 new homes is without precedent in California history. It has been 30 years since the state has managed to construct even half that many new residences in one year. If nothing else, the new governor deserves credit for his ambition.

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Newsom also deserves credit for an aggressive agenda that he has proposed to address the crisis. In the aftermath of Jerry Brown’s fatalism regarding the state’s lack of affordable housing, Newsom’s assertive approach to the issue is a welcome shift.

But the scope of the shortfall after years of neglect means that even the new governor’s ambitious agenda will be insufficient. While we congratulate him for a series of smart first steps, we encourage him to consider these three additional measures:

California Environmental Quality Act streamlining – CEQA — was created for good reason: It helped prevent sprawl and protected the state’s invaluable natural resources. But it’s now being used to prevent all manner of new developments for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment. Politically-connected developers have convinced the Legislature to suspend CEQA in order to build sports stadiums, skyscrapers and other large-scale commercial projects. Newsom is right to expedite the permitting process to create more housing for the homeless. But streamlining these regulations for multi-family housing with certain numbers of affordable units is just as important. Eliminating unnecessary regulatory hurdles to help the homeless is a good first step. Let’s do the same for the working class.

Zoning reform: Newsom’s plan to reward local governments that fulfill their housing obligations — and to punish those who don’t — is a savvy way of nudging local officeholders in the right direction while allowing those who know their communities best to decide how to get there. In the same spirit, Newsom should also support State Senator Scott Wiener’s renewed proposal to promote more multi-family housing near public transportation and large job centers. After being killed in committee last year, Wiener’s legislation has been amended to provide more flexibility for local decision-makers and will also help protect against displacing renters and vulnerable communities.

Innovative use of technology: Finally, we should be using new technology trends to create more housing. The explosion in online shopping has made Amazon the largest company in the world and has eviscerated traditional brick-and-mortar retail in the process. The result is a huge amount of new space in cities and suburban areas that can be rezoned for housing. Similarly, roughly 20% of the land area of most cities is used for parking. With the massive shift from commuter driving to ride-hailing, cities can begin to rezone more parking for high-density housing close to transportation corridors. Newsom has emphasized the role of emerging technologies in solving public policy problems throughout his career. The e-commerce revolution provides him with a similar set of tools for fixing California’s housing crisis.

Providing more housing will create jobs, stimulate consumer spending and help California businesses attract and maintain the workforce it needs. It will also provide relief to working Californians by allowing them to live in closer proximity to their jobs, thus reducing their commuting times and the accompanying stress levels. And when those workers spend less time in their cars, the state will be able to realize considerable environmental benefits as well, providing necessary assistance to keep California on track toward far-reaching greenhouse gas reduction targets.

In an era of hyper-polarization and partisan gridlock, housing is an issue that both parties can get behind. The new governor is thinking big, but we should aim even higher to help the next generation of Golden State residents achieve the California dream.

Dan Schnur is the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the director of The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencer series. Steve Westly is the former California State Controller and is the managing partner of the Silicon Valley venture firm the Westly Group. Reach them at dan.schnur@mindspring.com and steve@stevewestly.com.
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