CA Housing Crisis: Influential Power Groups in the State Capitol

The special interests have had their day in Sacramento influencing lawmakers on smart growth policy. But who exactly is in charge of governing state law?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

As a California citizen, I am furious about how the state legislature is handling Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to address California's housing shortage problem.

Here's the deal: Anybody living anywhere near a major job hub anywhere within the state knows the truth. They know that renters and prospective home buyers, more often than not, are either paying way too much or are priced out of a decent place to live. Rentals and unit prices have risen out of control in many areas, well beyond the growth of income and working salaries. That's because developers have to go through layers upon layers of government rules and regulations to build any kind of dwelling in developed areas. Critical mass has been reached as these rate hikes have made their way into the Inland Empire.

In order for the home building industry to profit under current law, they generally have to resort to the outskirts of town and develop on cheaper land. Or they can wait until the prices are so high that they can drive up their GM percents by selling or renting premium luxury units that even medical technicians and school teachers can't afford for themselves let alone their families. The former results in urban sprawl and spread-out, car-centric infrastructure with disgraceful traffic conditions on the freeways; the latter in social class division. Plus, there is a possibility that this crisis has had a direct impact on the growth of transient encampments in wildlife corridors all over the state.

Non-partisan environmentalists will tell you that all of these after effects are bad for the planet. That comes from my Environmental Science 101 textbook.

Governor Jerry Brown has proposed legislation that would finally control this by allowing developers expedited and streamlined approvals if their proposals meets local general land use policies, is in-fill, and  multi-family. With the reduction in the red tape in the process, construction costs drop significantly for the industry which in turn sparks investments and better competition in areas with high housing demands and low supply. That in turn would help better balance the supply-demand scale and get prices at least closer to where they need to be.

I call this law the "Smarter Smart Growth Law" because it has non-government, market-rate transit-oriented development written all over it. Other states in the nation have long adopted similar policies to streamline development, which is a driving factor to why workers can generally afford to live near their jobs.

In addition, Brown attempted to lure the legislature into accepting the proposal with a $400 million deal for additional subsidized affordable housing if they were to pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law or some variation of it. The current proposal also requires that a percentage of market-rate homes built under this policy be purposed for subsidies with the percentage dropping for units built near major public transit lines. With nearly a half a billion dollars set aside for government spending--something this ideological legislature generally backs because it funds public sector jobs--why on Earth would it object to the Smarter Smart Growth Law?

I'll tell you why. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times and other news agencies reported that special interests which include labor, environmental and tenant coalitions "have walked away from negotiations over Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan." The reports show that organizations like the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Sierra Club and Tenants Together, oppose the governor’s housing proposal which puts the proposal in jeopardy of not passing this year. The troubling part is that this statement implies that these special interest groups somehow have the power to directly influence state law.

Under the U.S. Constitution, they are free to oppose the proposed law and voice opinion to the legislature. I have no problem with that. Yes, they will have a hard time defending their positions in the court of public opinion. The groups are generally saying that the Smarter Smart Growth Law or similar versions of it may put the local communities and the environment at risk with under-paid construction workers. But that is ideological spin and lawmakers should know better.

Both the Southern California economy and the environment are already at risk with the resulting urban sprawl, super-commuting, illegal encampments in natural habitats and expensive homes near jobs. By blocking this law, developers will hire fewer workers because fewer projects will be approved. A reduction in construction jobs causes more workers to compete for fewer positions which gives employers little incentive to pay them better.

But what is absolutely disgraceful about this story is the continued special interest pandering in the state government. The organizations mentioned  reportedly have an influential power grasp in the state Capitol and the legislature has been siding with them without taking into consideration the truth of the matter from the supporting party that affects each and every one of us.

Again, to be fair, it is okay and our duty to write to lawmakers to voice opinion. That's a patriotic duty we have as American citizens. The Transit Coalition writes letters. But no one power, nor a group of powers should have the power to directly collude or influence lawmakers in the deciding process. That power belongs to We the People.

Americans have the right to be represented. We live in a Democratic Republic. And state lawmakers should not cave on an important piece of legislation that addresses a grave economic and environmental situation just because their political donors oppose it. Somebody in the Capitol must take courage and write up the Smarter Smart Growth Law that will address this housing problem, grow the economy so workers can be better paid, and allow these people to live closer to their jobs which will protect the environment from gridlock and urban sprawl.

What is happening in the State Capitol should never happen on American soil. But it is happening. And holding the power structure to account in solving this grave housing crisis will be the way to show that We the People, who have to put up with these grossly immoral housing prices and long car-centric commutes, are in charge of bringing about economic and environmental justice to the state.

Freedom of the people to govern the state will reign.