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Tue, Apr

Housing Battles on the Horizon

STATE WATCH

HOUSING CRISIS - By now most of us have been here ourselves: Gavin Newsom’s press team texted reporters last night to say that the governor has COVID again — describing his symptoms as mild and later saying he’ll isolate for at least five days.

He’d better rest up, given the number of political battles on his to-do list. Among them: another round with Huntington Beach.

On Tuesday, the city council in the Orange County city, a regular fount of anti-Newsom sentiment, followed through on its pledge to pass an ordinance blocking a contentious state housing law within its sun-soaked borders.

The as-yet untested law, known as “the builder’s remedy,” allows developers to construct what they like where they like — so long as 20% of the new units are affordable —in any city that’s defying state-set housing production goals. 

Defiers such as Huntington Beach. 

  • City attorney Michael Gates: “There are currently approximately 280 cities out of housing compliance…Yet Huntington Beach is being picked on…. We’re the focus of enforcement while the other 280 cities aren’t.”
  • Councilmember Natalie Moser, who voted no: “Well, we’re passing an ordinance that goes against state law. That would be a reason to pick on us.”

Gates is right that hundreds of cities and counties across the state have yet to provide housing plans that pass muster with state regulators — nearly 250 as of Wednesday.

But Moser is also correct in noting that Huntington Beach has been uniquely bold-faced about it.

  • A subtler approach: Though the Marin County city of Sausalito is known for its houseboats, its housing plan — which listed among the local sites for possible development dozens of parcels that were, in the words of one developer, “mostly underwater” — has raised the eyebrows of pro-housing advocates. While the state reviews the city’s plan, those advocates are taking the affluent ‘burb to court.

For its more flagrant approach, Huntington Beach is all but certain to wind up in court too. That will be a return to form: In one of his first actions as governor, Newsom had his administration sue the city for failing to permit enough housing in 2019.

Just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Rob Bonta warned the city to abandon its planned ban, warning that his office was “ready to take action.” After Tuesday’s vote, the governor’s office struck a similarly ominous tone:

From Alejandro Lazo, a reporter with CalMatters’ California Divide project:

Should the state with the largest homeless population in the U.S. and some of the country’s most expensive housing markets enshrine a right to a home in its state constitution

And what would that even mean?

San Francisco Assemblymember Matt Haney, backed by a coalition of civil rights groups and anti-poverty activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, is hoping to spark that debate this year in California.

Haney is reintroducing a proposed constitutional amendment originally introduced by former Assemblymember Rob Bonta, now the state’s attorney general. That measure went nowhere in the midst of the pandemic but Haney hopes it will gain traction now.

  • Haney: “The right to privacy, the right to pursue liberty and happiness. None of that is possible if you don’t have access to housing.”

No other state has enshrined a right to a home in its constitution, though New York City has a right to shelter — which state courts have interpreted to mean that anyone who does not have a place to sleep can at least get a bed in a shelter.

The California proposal could be a tough sell: It would need to be passed by two-thirds of the Legislature before it is put on the statewide ballot.

It would not guarantee that the government would provide free housing for all Californians, Haney said, nor would it require the state budget to spend all of its resources on housing. 

What it would do: Give housing advocates more leverage in the courts. It could also give the state attorney general another stick with which to jab local governments that are failing to meet their housing production goals.

  • A page from history: After courts ruled that New Yorkers had a right to shelter, the city entered into a legal agreement to build out a multi-billion dollar shelter network.

This article was originally published by CalMatters. 

(Ben Christopher covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written for San Francisco magazine, California magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Priceonomics. Ben also has a past life as an aspiring beancounter: He has worked as a summer associate at the Congressional Budget Office and has a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley.)