Will Democratic legislation actually worsen the California housing crisis?

urban-housing-sprawl-366c0The first major votes on a raft of bills meant to address California’s housing crisis could come up for a vote Friday, with the Democrats who control the Legislature eager to demonstrate they know how much extreme housing costs are harming low- and middle-income families.

Gov. Jerry Brown has often been critical of plans to add new dollars to California’s traditional method of providing affordable housing – by building subsidized units that help a relatively small number of residents. He prefers to sharply streamline the housing approval process.

But after horse-trading this year with Democrats, Brown agreed to support two affordable housing initiatives, apparently in return for support for Senate Bill 35, a measure by state Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco. It would hasten approvals for new housing units in cities that aren’t creating the volume of units mandated under state law and make it significantly more difficult for local opponents to block construction.

Unlike Weiner’s measure, both the affordable housing initiatives require two-thirds support to win passage in the Legislature.

Real-estate fee struggles to win two-thirds support

One of the measures – SB3 by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose – appears to have sufficient support. It would put $4 billion in general obligation bonds before state voters next year to fund construction of affordable rental units and to fund “smart growth” projects near transit centers and other housing projects. It would also provide $1 billion to the state’s veteran home loan program, which the San Francisco Chronicle reported would otherwise run out of money next summer.

The other affordable housing initiative – SB2 by Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego – appears to be in trouble. It would add fees of $75 on some real-estate transactions to provide ongoing permanent funding for affordable housing, estimated at $250 million a year. The Los Angeles Times reported that in a bid to boost support, Atkins had made changes this week to her bill to provide some of the funds it would generate to local governments. But it is unlikely to win any GOP votes in the Assembly, meaning all 54 Assembly Democrats would have to support it.

Many of the 54 have already voted this year to raise gasoline and diesel taxes and to approve a continuation of the state’s cap-and-trade emissions trading program, which also makes fuel more expensive. For those in swing districts, backing SB2 may seem risky.

“My concern is that it looks and smells like a tax,” Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, told the Times.

Prevailing wage mandate in Weiner bill questioned

Weiner’s proposal reflects the Republican view that regulatory relief is the only way to build enough housing to stabilize rents and home prices. With two-bedroom apartments renting for more than $2,000 a month in most big cities – and double that in parts of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley – there’s a growing fear among California business executives that housing costs will drive off talented workers and make it difficult to recruit new ones.

But in recent days, a new GOP talking point has emerged that takes dead aim at the idea that Weiner’s bill would accomplish much. It notes that by requiring projects that win quick approvals to use “prevailing wages” – union-level pay – those projects would be far costlier than those built with non-union crews.

Earlier this year – in a fight over another bill before the Legislature seeking to require “prevailing wages” on construction projects – the Building Industry Association estimated the mandate would add $90,000 to the cost of building a 2,000-square-foot home in California.

State housing officials say California has added about 800,000 housing units over the past decade – 1 million less than needed.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Five issues to watch in the California Legislature’s final month

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

State lawmakers return from summer break today to a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse and tens of thousands of people crowding into Capitol Mall for a free concert to urge passage of a trio of criminal justice bills.

Monday also marks the beginning of the end of session. Legislators have one month to get their bills to the governor’s desk before the Senate and Assembly call it quits for the year. It’ll be a busy time with plenty of action. Here’s our take on issues to watch as the session resumes:

▪ Housing: This tops the Legislature’s agenda this month, with Democrats hoping to reach a deal that includes long-term funding for affordable housing construction and regulatory changes to speed the development process. Democratic lawmakers say a housing package could be announced as soon as this week. At the core of the debate is financing: Can Democrats muster a two-thirds vote for a real estate fee and persuade Gov. Jerry Brown to sign off on a multibillion-dollar housing bond measure?

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Increase the homeowners exemption to improve housing affordability

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image14115451California is in a housing crisis. The cost of housing — both for purchase and rental housing — is too expensive. Ineffective public housing policies and anti-growth policies that impede even reasonable development projects have choked supply in a high-demand market. California needs to start building homes and apartments as soon as possible. Recent estimates show that California must build 180,000 units of housing a year over the next 10 years simply to keep pace with demand. Currently, only about half of that amount is being constructed.

But in the meantime, a quick and effective way to provide financial relief to everyone in California with a roof over their head is to increase the homeowners exemption which has been stuck at $7,000 since 1972. A lot has changed since then. Mark Spitz won a then-record seven gold medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Atari released the PONG computer game and a gallon of gas sold for 36 cents. California’s population has nearly doubled from 21 million residents to 39 million residents today. And according to the California Association of Realtors, the median price of homes in California is well over $500,000 compared to $28,000 in 1972.

Because the average Californian earns $61,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, most are knocked out of the market before they even start. Only one-third of California residents can afford a median priced home.

In February, Assembly members Phil Chen and Matthew Harper introduced Assembly Bill 1100, the “American Dream Act,” which would increase the existing homeowners’ exemption on their property tax from $7,000 to $25,000, as well as raising the renter’s credit by using the mandated California Franchise Tax Board inflation adjustment. This will not only help current homeowners but this will help those aspiring to own a home. One-third of renters in the state spend at least half their take-home pay in rent, a statistic driving California’s record high 20 percent poverty rate.

Californians are paying some of the highest taxes in the nation, exacerbating the ability of ordinary citizens to afford a home. Even with Proposition 13, which has proven effective in limiting the growth of homeowners’ property tax bills, California still ranks in the top third of all states in per capita property tax revenue.

Moreover, high taxes and unaffordable housing are taking their toll on the California economy. In the last decade, California has lost more than 1 million people in net domestic out migration to other states. We all know at least a few people who have moved to Nevada, Texas, Oregon, Florida or Arizona to find a less expensive place to live.

In some welcome good news, in May, AB1100 passed a major hurdle by passing the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee with notable bipartisan support. This was the first time legislation of this nature got out of a legislative policy committee. Many had been attempted in years past but had failed.

When the Legislature returns from its summer recess later this month, affordable housing will be the leading topic of discussion. While there are many ideas being considered, including more bonds and taxes, ideas that provide direct relief for middle-class property owners have yet to rise to the forefront. They need to. Beyond the homeowners exemption, liberalizing the rules about taking one’s Proposition 13 base-year value to a new residence, the so-called “portability” issue, should also be part of a legislative proposal.

Any reform package must articulate that government can’t tax and bond its way out of a problem where it costs over $300,000 to build one unit of affordable housing. Addressing these regulatory burdens as well as providing tax relief for homeowners and renters will not only lead to future economic prosperity for California. It is also the right thing to do.

Jon Coupal is the president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Phillip Chen is a member of the California Assembly from the 55th Assembly District.

This article was originally published by the Orange County Register

Two different solutions to California housing crisis – which will work?

house-constructionSACRAMENTO – Before the recent legislative recess, California Democratic leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown announced their intention to tackle one of the state’s biggest crises: housing affordability. It’s the rare instance where virtually everyone in the Capitol at least is in agreement about the scope of the problem, even though there’s far less agreement on solutions.

Real-estate prices have gotten so high that they stretch family budgets and are a root cause of California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty rates, based on the Census Bureau’s new cost-of-living-adjusted poverty measure.

The situation is so acute it’s drawn the attention of the national media. “A full-fledged housing crisis has gripped California, marked by a severe lack of affordable homes and apartments for middle-class families,” according to a recent New York Times article. Median home prices have hit a “staggering $500,000, twice the national cost.”

The problem is particularly bad in the state’s major metropolitan areas. The median single-family home price in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, has topped $750,000. Public-opinion surveys suggest soaring home prices – rather than job opportunities or the state’s business climate – are the key reason many people are moving to other states.

But while there’s broad agreement that housing affordability is in crisis, there are two schools of thought on how to address it. Democrats are primarily trying to raise taxes and fees to pay for more government-subsidized affordable housing, whereas Republicans want the state to chip away at local governmental barriers to home construction.

Legislators and the governor have made little progress in crafting a detailed housing plan for this legislative session. But there are a handful of bills moving their way through the Capitol that encapsulate their approach. Their high-priority measure, when legislators return to the Capitol late next month, is Senate Bill 2, which would impose fees of $75 to $225 on every real-estate transaction to provide $225 million in annual funding to subsidize developers of low-income housing.

“With a sustainable source of funding in place, more affordable housing developers will take on the risk that comes with development and, in the process, create a reliable pipeline of well-paying construction jobs,” according to the Senate bill analysis.

Senate Bill 3 also takes a similar approach toward building affordable housing. The measure authorizes $3 billion in general-obligation bonds to pay for low-income and transit-oriented housing. It would need to be approved by voters in the November 2018 election. There’s also talk about using proceeds from the cap-and-trade auctions to fund such programs.

One major bill embraces some of the concerns expressed by those who want to encourage market-oriented solutions to the problem. Senate Bill 35, by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, “creates a streamlined, ministerial approval process for development proponents of multi-family housing if the development meets specified requirements and the local government in which the development is located has not produced enough housing units to meet its regional housing needs assessment,” according to the bill summary. The streamlined process would apply where a project meets “objective zoning, affordability, and environmental criteria, and if the projects meet rigorous labor standards,” according to Wiener.

The bill circumvents local planning decisions, but New Urbanists and others say such pre-emption is needed because “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) sentiments among residents and city officials have impeded developers’ ability to add high-density housing in urban areas. The latter point – the requirement that workers receive union wage rates – has been a major sticking point for some conservatives, who believe the mandate could drive up the cost of home construction.

The building industry has neutralized another measure, Assembly Bill 199, which could have required such above-market wage rates for a wide range of privately funded housing projects. AB199 originally would have required “prevailing wage” for any project that involved an agreement with a “state or a political subdivision.”

The building industry argued that “the language was purposely ambiguous and could mean simple tasks, like a new porch, would require union labor,” according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report. The amended version removes that language and now applies only to projects that receive public subsidies.

There’s wide disagreement about whether additional mandates for affordable housing will substantially boost the supply of lower-priced homes. Even if the new subsidies pass, those dollars are a drop in the bucket, given the overall size of the state’s housing market, critics say. And government mandates that builders provide a set number of affordable units as part of their new subdivisions may ramp up the overall costs for market-based units.

The Union-Tribune’s Dan McSwain compared the process to something out of a Kafka novel: “Raise the overall price of market units, thus ensuring that fewer get built, in order to subsidize a handful of poor families … who win a lottery administered by local government agencies, with staffs funded by housing fees that inflate prices.” McSwain blamed high costs partially on city-imposed fees that inflate housing prices by 20 percent or more.

The Legislature isn’t about to tackle that broader problem. Legislators have yet to reform the California Environmental Quality Act and other environmental rules that drag out the approval process for major new developments. For instance, Southern California Public Radio recently reported that the Newhall Ranch development in Los Angeles County finally “is moving forward after recently winning key approvals.”

That Santa Clarita Valley project, which will house 60,000 people, has been in the works since the 1980s and still is a long way from a ground-breaking. It’s been delayed by environmental lawsuits and legal challenges related to its possible impact on climate change.

Southern California Public Radio quoted real-estate experts who say the project will only make a small dent in the region’s housing shortage. But is that the fault of the developer or of policymakers who have ignored the problem so long that adding tens of thousands of new housing units only amounts to adding a few drops in the housing bucket?

The good news is the Legislature and governor are paying attention to a serious problem that has been percolating for years. The question, as always, is whether state officials can craft legislation that will make a real dent in the problem.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

The right fix for California’s housing problems

house-constructionChristopher Thornberg’s “Stop Dissin’ the Housing Market — Set it Free!” is just what California’s housing markets need. Hail to this Beacon Economics PhD! Want more housing? as Thronberg asks: Stop messing with markets!

Thornberg’s piece, which can be found by clicking on the following link, should be required reading for all 120 legislators at the state Capitol who have the power to make housing laws.  Lawmakers – particularly those on the left – are inclined to prescribe more government involvement to compensate for the lack of housing production for low-income people.  What they don’t realize – or refuse to – is how disruptive that is to California markets.

Here’s Thornberg’s assessment:

It is true that what does get built in this [state] tends to be for higher income households.  But this is a natural outcome of the barriers to entry that afflict the system.  When supply is artificially limited, what does get produced is going to be concentrated in the highest margin portions of the market.  If supply were less restricted and fixed costs reduced, there would be a natural movement towards lower income families.  [And], in Los Angeles the overall lack of supply keeps middle income families in housing that would otherwise be available for lower income families.

Indeed, not only do government rules and regulations affect the production of housing, they profoundly upset the natural cycles that are present in existing housing markets.  The losers are the tens of thousands of under-housed middle-income California families – not poor enough to qualify for scant government subsidies and too wealthy to make the cut.

Even more losers are created by the popular program, inclusionary zoning.  Right now the program is locally administered but tenant advocates want legislation – AB 1505 (Bloom) and SB 277 (Bradford) – to make it a state mandate.  Inclusionary zoning is a classic case of creating a limited pool of winners and a much larger population of losers.  The program requires builders who want to produce new housing to set aside a certain number of homes and units and sell or rent them at below-market prices.

Of course, such a program does at least two things:  1) prohibits a builder from recouping the costs to produce the discounted units; and 2) forces up prices of the market-rate homes (to compensate for setting the lower-income units at below-market prices or rents).  Inclusionary zoning is still just more of the same:  a costly demand made upon the builder as a condition of getting his or her housing proposal approve.  Add in inclusionary zoning to the other demands – notorious CEQA approvals, sky-high fees, myriad design requirements, etc. – and one questions why anyone would attempt to build at all.

Moreover, inclusionary zoning does next to nothing to resolve the problem of inaccessible housing.   A study done a few years ago – heralded by the advocates of inclusionary zoning – showed the politically popular program, adopted in more than 150 California communities, was responsible for the production of a mere 1,100 units of affordable housing over a 35-year period.  That’s the equivalent of approximately just over 1% of the annual low-income housing need.

On the basis of that production record it would take over 100 years, another study said, to meet the state’s affordable housing demands.  Thornberg comments on the content of inclusionary zoning, saying “such efforts are tiny compared to the scale of the problem.”

Inclusionary zoning is not the answer.  It’s political window-dressing, at best.  And, lawmakers who vote to make it state law are doing nothing more than grandstanding on the backs of low-income families.

Thornberg wisely says the Legislature should tinker less with California’s housing markets.  And, he also says that until “development-unfriendly places roll back current market restrictions . . . the housing crisis will only get worse.”  Amen.  Cheers, Christopher Thornberg!

onsultant specializing in housing issues.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Laguna Beach cuts housing assistance perk that helped top city employees buy million dollar homes

As reported by the Orange County Register:

LAGUNA BEACH —  A housing assistance program that helped some of the city’s highest-ranking employees get help with funding million dollar homes has been cut.

The City Council on Tuesday, July 11, voted unanimously to end a program that provided financial help through equity sharing and loan assistance to encourage high-ranking city staff to live in town. The idea was that if the employees live in town, they can respond quickly in emergencies and also get a better sense of the community.

The equity sharing allowed the city to pay a portion of the home purchase price in exchange for an ownership interest, and the loan assisted employees in the purchase of their equity interest in the home.

The program was put in place in 2000. Since then, six city employees were approved for the programs, including City Manager John Pietig; Fire Chief Jeff LaTendresse, who will retire in August; Fire Division Chief Tom Christopher; Public Works Director Shohreh Dupuis; former Water Quality Supervisor Graham Wright and former Fire Chief Mike Macey.

Since 2008, the employee loans have become a necessary component of the program, because lenders will not offer employees conventional mortgages because of the dual equity ownership. …

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Re-regulating Markets is No Solution to State Housing Crisis

house-constructionBy almost all accounts, economists, academicians, social scientists, policy makers and industry experts agree that at the root of California’s housing problems is a profound lack of supply.  Accordingly, what’s needed as a solution, these notables say, are more incentives for the private development sector to do what it does best:  build.

However, judging from the bills coming out of the state Legislature, lawmakers – all of whom have well-advertised bills to “solve” the state’s housing crunch – don’t seem to have a clue, particularly in the state Assembly.  They want more control, more power, more government.

Take AB 1506 (Bloom), for example.  Before it was withdrawn for lack of support, AB 1506 would have ushered in to California a well-documented policy scam:  rent control.  Rent control has failed everywhere it’s been tried.  It persists, in communities like Manhattan and Los Angeles where it’s been around long enough to become normal but where the mismatch between incomes and rent is profound. 

What rent control has done is to artificially hold housing prices down.  But, what it has also done is to discourage investment in housing by limiting what an individual can earn on his or her investment.  Moreover, by limiting the income one can recoup from renters, rent control has led to more and more properties falling into disrepair as maintenance and other property improvements are further deferred.

Another Assembly offering, AB 1521 (Bloom), actually passed the lower house.  AB 1521 would give an individual the first right of refusal to purchase a rental property thereby limiting the price and extinguishing market forces.  More government control.

The Assembly also said yes to AB 1505 (Bloom), which for the first time in California, says that market-rate housing can’t be built in the state until an “affordable housing” component is provided.  This requirement means a newly built market-rate home or apartment must be severely discounted to prices or rents well below the market, regardless of what it cost to build – leading to higher-priced housing overall, as builders try to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, the state Senate believes it has the problem licked – boasting in a recent press release:  “Senate Passes Package of Bills to Address California Housing Crisis”.  The Senate package contains lots of legislation – mostly toothless tigers.  But, a centerpiece of that reform package contains SB 277 (Bradford) – the Senate mirror to AB 1505.  It, like its Assembly twin, means local governments can demand deep discounts before new housing is approved.

(Imagine being a homeowner and being told by government that you have to lower your price before you can sell your house.  Yet, that’s essentially what both AB 1505 and SB 277 do.)

But, the latest re-regulation initiative may be coming from the local level of government.  Los Angeles County supervisor Sheila Kuehl – no friend of housing during her 14 years in the state Legislature – recently admonished her colleagues, on the Board and elsewhere, and called for more governmental regulation of housing:

“I want to challenge my colleagues at all levels of government to squarely face the realities of our housing market” Kuehl said.  “For far too long policymakers nationally, in the state, and locally have prioritized real estate profit over a healthy housing market.  Weak housing and rent control regulation combined with shortsighted land use planning has turned L.A. County into the most unaffordable place to live in the entire country.”

In the past, Kuehl has called for county-wide rent control, even though the ordinances in the Cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and West Hollywood have helped bring about the current housing shortage plaguing the region.

California already has the most substantial housing regulations in the nation.  If you want to build here, prepare for five to seven years – and several thousands of dollars per unit – being added to your plans before they are approved.  If you want to rent out your property, the government’s going to tell you what pets to admit and for whom, whether or not your tenants can smoke, when a tenant can vacate the apartment, whether or not your property is a nuisance and what will remedy the situation, what pesticides you can use both inside and outside rental units and, in some jurisdictions, what rents you can charge.  And, that’s just for starters.  More government, more control.

Rome is burning – and what your state and local lawmakers are proposing to put the fire out is more of the same.

onsultant specializing in housing issues.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Prop. 13 Revolution — A Far Cry From Reality

property tax“Voters May Reconsider Prop 13,” reads part of the headline on the press release about the new Hoover Institution Golden State Poll. However, read the poll and you’ll see we are nowhere near a Proposition 13 revolution.

The headline is based on a test of the “split roll” approach to property taxes in which commercial property would be assessed more frequently than residential property. When 1700 California adults were asked if they supported the split roll, 39% strongly or somewhat supported the concept, 33% strongly or somewhat opposed the idea.

Most political observers will tell you if an issue doesn’t garner around 60% in early polling it has little chance of passing especially when facing the gauntlet of a political campaign. The Hoover Institution’s finding of 39% means proponents of a split roll campaign have a huge mountain to climb — and they would be climbing it with opposition boulders rolling down the mountain at them.

A multi-million dollar opposition campaign would raise arguments those who responded to the poll were not advised of before replying to the poll question.

The idea that taxes levied on business would not somehow be passed on to consumers or would reduce jobs and effect the economy was not stated.

The information supplied to respondents argued that passing a split roll would lessen the need for more taxes on individuals, hardly a convincing argument when tax hungry lawmakers have their hands out on both the state and local levels.

Stating that business would pay more taxes and individuals would not — in other words, voters were asked if they were willing to raise taxes on someone else– is an argument that has proved effective in recent state tax increase campaigns. Yet, the split roll question still got only 39% support in the poll.

Looking closer at the results, those strongly supporting the split roll concept stood at 13%, strongly opposed was a larger 20%. There is room to move voters who were unsure or did not have strong convictions on the issue.

In an article in Hoover’s Eureka publication that accompanied the poll, it was argued that a key to reformers winning the day is to convince renters to support the split roll and vote. But a lot of that strategy would depend on how apartments are treated under a split roll tax. Are they residential property that will continue under Prop 13 protections or are they commercial property, which under a split roll would be reassessed every year with the tax increase passed on to tenants?

I suppose if you raise most issues you would find about a third of the voters willing to consider change. In fact, a Reuters/Ipsos poll a few months ago found one out of three Californians supported the Golden State seceding from the Union.

Neither a Calexit nor a Prop 13 revolution is close to reality.

Joel Fox is Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Housing crisis causes legislative avalanche: 130 bills proposed in Sacramento

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

Home prices keep rising to shocking levels around the Bay Area, while rents remain out of sight. Now, state lawmakers in Sacramento are responding with a torrent of proposals.

Legislators have introduced about 130 bills to address what has become a statewide housing crisis. The sheer quantity “is unprecedented,” said Jason Rhine, legislative representative for the League of California Cities.

“I don’t think anyone can recall a time when we’ve had this many bills on housing — or on any one thing, period,” he said.

The legislative avalanche — bills to mitigate affordability concerns, boost housing production and protect tenants — demonstrates that the “crisis has reached its head,” said Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). …

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$84,000 a year now qualifies as low income in Orange County

As reported by the Orange County Register:

A family of four with an annual income of $84,450 or less now qualifies as low income in Orange County.

A single person living alone qualifies as low income if he or she earns $58,450 or less a year.

Orange County has the fifth-highest income threshold in the nation, according to new income limits released last month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Government and private agencies use HUD’s income calculations to determine eligibility for a wide variety of assistance programs, ranging from rent subsidy vouchers and public housing to mortgage assistance. While low-income families qualify for some programs, others are limited to households earning far less, with limits as low as $31,300 for a family of four.

Record-high rents and home prices are driving up Southern California income limits. Orange County apartment rents, for example, increased 20 percent over the past seven years, while the median sale price of an Orange County house has jumped 40 percent. …

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