Housing, Homelessness Were California Lawmakers' Top Priorities Before Pandemic. Where Do They Stand Now?

The State Capitol building in Sacramento. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

2020 was supposed to be the year of bold action and big changes for housing and homelessness in California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom began the year with a tour of homeless and mental health services providers around the state, ending in Oakland, where he declared homelessness “the issue of our time.”

With more than 151,000 people living in tents, RVs, cars and shelters across the state, the governor announced a one-time allocation of $750 million aimed at reducing homelessness  — something his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, had been loath to do.

“It was really a sea change from the previous governor and from the Legislature,” said Chris Martin, policy director for Housing California,  a Sacramento-based affordable housing nonprofit.

Around the same time, advocates on all sides of the housing debate watched closely as one controversial bill to promote housing production — SB 50 — drew its last breath following two tense days of voting.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco), the author of SB 50. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the bill would have allowed for taller apartment buildings near transit hubs and in job-rich areas, and fourplexes in neighborhoods where only single-family homes are currently permitted.

Following the bill’s defeat, Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, vowed to pass an “historic housing production bill.”

Then came the coronavirus.

California’s economy suddenly shut down. As attention turned to easing the worst impacts of an expected economic crisis, hopes for dramatically advancing housing construction and reducing homelessness grew dim.

But advocates involved in housing work across the state say all was not lost in the truncated legislative session, which is now in heading into summer recess. The Legislature still has some three dozen housing bills — albeit not as ambitious as some lawmakers initially hoped — that have been approved by their house of origin and are now moving on to the next chamber.

“It’s not a grand slam,” Wiener said in a phone call last week. “But it’s a solid double.”

Housing Production

While no single bill in this legislative session is as sweeping or controversial as SB 50, several attempt to boost housing production through some like-minded proposals.

The state Senate and Assembly, for instance, are each considering a proposal to eliminate single-family zoning in the state, by allowing either two duplexes (SB 1120) or a single fourplex (AB 3040) on parcels where only one house is currently allowed.

Houses in Mountain View, pictured on Feb. 19, 2020.
A house for sale in Mountain View, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Another bill, SB 902, would give cities the option to circumvent state environmental reviews for construction of apartment buildings with up to 10 units that are near transit or in job-rich areas. It’s not the four- to five-story apartment buildings Weiner had hoped for in SB 50, he said, but it’s a start.

“It will be a solid step forward in addressing the crisis,” he said. “More work will remain.”

Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s AB 1279, a revision of SB 50, targets wealthy enclaves typically averse to providing low-income housing. Unlike SB 50, which proposed taller buildings near transit, Bloom's bill would put those four- and five-story buildings in “high-opportunity areas,” which the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development would have to specifically define by 2022.

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The idea is to focus new housing construction in neighborhoods with better access to jobs, schools, air quality and other factors that lead to better health and that low-income renters and homeowners have long been excluded from. Developers who take advantage of the bill would have to offer the homes or rentals at affordable prices, construct some affordable housing on site or pay a fee to fund affordable housing construction elsewhere.

“AB 1279 removes barriers to equitable and inclusive development,” said Frank Martinez, policy director with the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing. “Stopping some of the income and racial segregation in housing would be a big move.”

There are also two bills under consideration that would allow developers to turn vacant offices, dying malls and big box stores into housing. The Assembly’s version, AB 3107, requires 20% of the new housing in those commercial areas to be affordable. The Senate’s version, SB 1385, requires affordable housing only in specific circumstances.

Two other bills in the Senate and Assembly would expand the state’s "density bonus" law, which allows developers to build taller buildings in exchange for providing affordable housing. The Senate’s version, SB 1085, focuses on “missing middle” housing that is more affordable to middle-income earners. The proposal allows developers to build taller buildings in exchange for rental housing that is at least 30% less expensive than the median rent. The Assembly’s version, AB 2345, focuses more on boosting low-income housing.

A view of homes and apartments on June 13, 2018 in San Francisco, California. According to a new survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, renters in San Francisco need an income of $60 per hour to afford a two bedroom apartment in the city. San Francisco is followed by San Jose at $48 per hour and Oakland at $45 per hour. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

And, finally, Weiner has also proposed a bill that would allow 100% affordable housing developments on parking lots owned by religious or educational institutions. SB 899 could open up around 38,000 acres of land statewide — an area roughly the size of Stockton — according to a recent study by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley.

“It’s something we consider quite significant in terms of opening up other opportunities to affordable housing,” said Pedro Galvao, policy director for the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.

These housing production bills, though, have rankled members of Livable California — a citizens group that champions local control and was one of SB 50’s chief opponents.

“It’s pretty much a divide and conquer approach,” said Livable California board member Keith Gurnee. “It’s not as much on steroids as SB 50 was, but no one is really looking at how they interact with each other.”

COVID-19 Relief for Renters and Landlords

Responding to the crisis at hand, several lawmakers have proposed bills to ensure that tenants and homeowners who lost some or all of their wages as a result of the pandemic don’t also lose their homes.

Assemblyman David Chiu’s AB 1436, if passed, would prevent landlords from evicting tenants during the current state of emergency, as well as 90 days after, if they've missed rent payments because of lost wages due to the pandemic. Tenants would then be allowed to pay back missed rent over 15 months.

A separate proposal by Assemblyman Phil Ting, AB 828, would freeze evictions and foreclosures during the state of emergency and for 15 days after. It would require tenants to pay 10% of back rent each month, beginning one month after the emergency order lifts.

The Bay Area's rental market is notoriously expensive -- not to mention competitive. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“This is the thing we see as the highest priority right now,” said Anya Lawler of the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty. “We want to give tenants security that income lost during the pandemic will not be the basis for an eviction; but that needs to be coupled with money to make sure landlords don't lose their property, either.”

One bill, Atkins’ SB 1410, would provide tax credits to landlords equal to the value of missed rental payments. The landlords could get cash now if they sell their tax credits to investors, or use them in later years. Tenants would then be on the hook for paying the state back for the missed rent over the course of the next ten years. Very low-income tenants unable to pay could have their loans forgiven.

Homelessness

Without bills to protect tenants from eviction, homeless advocates fear the state will see a surge in homelessness, which had been growing, and was on the minds of lawmakers, even before the pandemic.

Two bills in the Assembly establish ambitious goals for addressing homelessness: AB 2405 by Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, D-Marina del Rey, would make housing a human right for families and children by 2026. And AB 3269 by Chiu and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, would require cities and counties to create plans to reduce homelessness in their communities by 90% by 2028, based on 2019 rates.

Similarly, AB 1845 by Assemblymembers Chiu and Luz Rivas would create a new state “Office to End Homelessness,” along with a new position the governor's office to coordinate state agencies that fund homeless housing and services.

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But the biggest question has always been where to get the money to pay for these new state mandates and programs, especially during the current economic fallout.

Although the $750 million Newsom proposed at the beginning of the year is no more, the governor did steer $600 million from the federal CARES ACT to acquire and rehab hotels, motels and other buildings for permanent supportive housing for the formerly homeless — dubbed Project Roomkey.

Romelita Bautista, a homeless resident of Oakland, joined in a demonstration outside the Palms Motel in Oakland on Friday, May 22, 2020. Activist Stefani Echeverría-Fenn chained herself to a window in one of the rooms at the motel to call attention to the need for more hotel rooms during the pandemic. (Erin Baldassari/KQED)

Another proposal in the Assembly, AB 3300, by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago and a number of other co-signers would build off this year's funding for homelessness programs and commit an additional $2 billion annually. But that's only if the Legislature approves that amount in next year’s budget, which could be a tall order depending on how the economy is faring.

Part of it may hinge on whether the federal government passes another stimulus bill. But even if that doesn’t happen, there’s talk of proposing new taxes — a 1% tax on millionaires, for example — to help pay for housing and shelters for people experiencing homelessness and for services related to that housing.

Even if no new money is found next year, the bill could still have an impact by reforming the state’s labyrinthine funding process for homeless services, said Chris Martin from Housing California. Agencies typically must apply separately to one of 30 programs split between six different state agencies, each with its own application process and funding timelines. AB 3300 would streamline that process by creating one application and allowing applicants to receive ongoing funding, so they don’t have to apply for the same money year after year.

“It would be quite significant,” said Pedro Galvao of the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California, “and could be really impactful, if adopted.”

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