There is no quick and easy solution to the California housing crisis, but hope remains in compromise

The housing crisis is an incredibly difficult issue to solve with no single, obvious solution capable of satisfying everyone. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness reported that an estimated 129,972 Californians were homeless “at any given day” last year, with 6,702 family households contributing to that number. According to expert housing economist David Rubenstein, the crisis has two separate but related sub-crises wrapped in its intricate folds: the lack of available housing and the lack of affordable housing. Legislation addressing these two issues have been drafted — Senate Bill 50 and Proposition 10 immediately come to mind — but said legislation is always found to be lacking in some way, and so little progress has been made in addressing the crisis in recent years.

The aforementioned Senate Bill 50 (SB 50), authored by San Francisco Sen. Scott Wiener, seemed to be gaining serious traction before Sen. Anthony Portantino shelved it earlier this past May. The bill represented progress towards solving the crisis by requiring cities to allow for the building of four- to five-story apartment complexes near local transit systems. Admittedly, the bill needed some work before it could effectively address the housing shortage. While the solution to this issue inherently lies in the building of new housing complexes, the bill was sure to be unpopular amongst the single-family housing crowd from the very beginning, seeing as how these complexes were likely to be built right outside their windows. This is an understandable frustration, as already busy cities would quickly become even more cramped.

That being said, SB 50 deserved to last long enough to be voted on. There are very few bills on the Senate floor at the moment that seek to address the housing crisis and voting on the bill would have opened up a discussion on the matter. Instead of shelving the bill for next year, changes could have been discussed now so that the legislation could be made more appealing to all involved. If the planned locations for these apartment complexes were changed, it is quite possible that the single-family housing crowd would find themselves in support of the bill as well.

With SB 50’s suspension, Portantino’s own Senate Bill 509 is one of the only other pieces of legislation looking to address the issue. Unfortunately, the bill offers a rather lazy solution. SB 509 seeks to force the Department of Housing and Community Development to sponsor “California Housing Crisis Awareness” license plates — effectively opting to “raise awareness” for the housing crisis without doing much to actually combat it. There are few Californians who are unaware of the crisis. Many of them are living through it.

The bill seems like a glib attempt to combat an increasingly complex quandary, and it doesn’t appear capable of making any concrete headway towards solving the crisis. To be sure, Portantino’s bill includes language requiring some of the proceeds garnered from these license plates to be transferred to the Building Homes and Jobs Trust fund so that they could be used for “housing-related projects and programs,” but the revenue the license plates accrue will likely be negligible. If there is to be an increase in available housing in California, a real solution must be sought out.

On the subject of failed legislation, it is certainly worth discussing the recent defeat of Proposition 10. Last November’s election ballot saw the death of the proposition, a ballot measure that sought to expand rent control across all of California. Had the measure passed, California residents may have eventually seen ordinances put into place that regulate how much their landlords could charge them for housing. The bill would have worked to solve the aforementioned secondary issue — the fact that housing is currently unaffordable, but its failure represents another obstacle in the path of those trying to afford housing.

A common critique of the proposition, explained through ads opposing the bill run by local landlords, was that the expansion of rent control would exacerbate the already extreme housing shortage. With more affordable rent, new tenants would have trouble finding housing, because people living in rent-controlled units wouldn’t be likely to leave the space any time soon. While such a complaint is worth keeping in mind, it is also important to consider the fact that the very existence of this problem means that tenants would be keeping their homes for longer periods of time, thereby addressing the issue of homelessness directly. The death of this proposition is a major setback in the fight for affordable housing.

In the face of so much failed legislation, it’s time to ask what can be done to remedy the crisis moving forward. Building in areas that are already very developed is out of the question, so, to start, legislation needs to be created that demands the cautious construction of housing in more rural and suburban areas. The approach would have to be extremely measured, as excessive development in these areas could raise the cost of living, gentrifying the area and driving out former residents, which is an equally distasteful idea. Of course, building outside of large cities presents its own host of issues, as those who move into these suburbs will likely have a long commute to work. If such a proposal is to be successful, plans for improving California’s transit system must be drawn up as well. The California High-Speed Rail Authority could help remedy the issue by ensuring their high-speed rail has routes connecting the cities.

It is also worth looking into more unconventional housing methods. As strange an idea as it sounds on paper, countries like Singapore and Japan have been opting for smaller, micro-apartments that minimize space while still providing all the typical living essentials. These apartments are typically around 500 square feet in size, half the size of your average American apartment — an efficient use of space that could go far in helping solve the housing crisis. Of course, this living situation is fairly atypical for Americans, but it is better to be living in a less-than-ideal pod-style apartment than on the street.

In terms of making housing more affordable, it could be worth looking into possible housing assistance entitlements, similar to the current food stamp system (SNAP). Perhaps, if a person or a family was to fall into a certain income range, they would be entitled to a voucher that helps mediate rent costs, that way landlords would not be losing out on any potential rent revenue and the renter would be able to afford a place to live. Of course, this would have to come with a tax increase and voters would likely be reticent towards such an idea, but helping people off the streets will ultimately do more good for the city than most of the other things citizens are taxed for.

If there is any chance of solving the housing crisis someone has to yield. Nobody likes a tax increase, but the issue needs to be solved. There is no solution to the current housing crisis that will be comfortable for everyone involved, but there is hope for an eventual compromise. Governor of California Gavin Newsom expressed his desire to address the homelessness problem after a meeting last March, stating that “(his) administration is using every tool at (their) disposal to combat the housing affordability crisis our families face.” To what degree the housing crisis is a priority for said administration remains to be seen, but if change is ever going to happen, it needs to start at the top.

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