What was once the American dream, to own a home for your family, is now becoming a fading fantasy for many Californians. The rate of home ownership in California is approximately 10% less than the national rate. Our state population is starting to decline for the first time in state history and homeless numbers continue to climb. It’s clear that California’s affordability problem is trading away the state’s allure.
The simple problem is that our state lacks enough supply of housing units to meet the demands of our population. The new rage in Sacramento is to introduce measures to grant various housing developments the right to bypass local approval processes to spur the development of new housing units across the state. SB 35 in 2017, SB 9 in 2021 and now AB 2011 all create circumstances in which housing units can be built without going through the public approval process.
On the surface, the motivations behind these bills are completely understandable; these bills are intended to streamline certain developments to increase the supply of housing in order to more quickly meet the demand of our state population. However, before imposing these by-right policies from the top down, we need to ask ourselves why local governments exist in the first place and at what cost do we interfere with local policies?
Our country and our state is diverse in many ways: population, values, geography and industries. The fact is that people from densely populated urban areas with urban values and interests are going to have a lot more influence in state level elections than people from more rural places or less densely populated areas. Consequently, policies stemming from state-level officials are not likely to be as reflective of the values of smaller individual communities. However, if those communities have a local government elected by its own residents, then policies enacted by that local government are going to be far more reflective of the community values than the state level policies would be.
An individual painted the following picture in a recent legislative housing committee hearing: “Imagine if we had a process whereby we deemed some issue so important, that we decided to bypass the legislature and we just said ‘no the legislature doesn’t get to vote on this. It’s too important.’”
How would that reflect our democracy? Would that not silence other opinions? Yet this is effectively what we are doing to our local governments with by-right housing policies. Essentially, elected officials who live in entirely different counties are passing housing policies for communities across the state that they do not represent, and they are doing so against the expressed will of the people living in those communities.
There are other ways to go about addressing this crisis. Many regulations that do stem from state legislation make development extremely expensive in both time and money in California. Maybe we should start reevaluating whether those regulations are actually providing any actual benefit to our communities.
What is certain is that policies overriding the jurisdiction of local government at the expense of community residents are not the right approach. We should leave local governments to make the best decisions for their communities. A little more appreciation for the diverse needs of our state will go a long way in addressing larger statewide issues of any subject matter.