Dunn & Done: It’s Time to Add ‘Teeth’ to CA’s Housing Element Law
The LA Times recently published a couple of stories on June 29 and July 11 about the continuing housing crises and the supposed failure of California’s housing element law to avert that crises. Simply stated, California’s housing element law requires that every city and county plan for its own population and jobs growth. Hard to argue with that concept, yet the articles highlighted local elected officials who solemnly swear to uphold the law, but then act with self-righteous indignation, exclusion and discrimination in ultimately rejecting proposed housing for lower income families and workers. When there are no consequences for local officials who freely acknowledge no intention of actually implementing a formally adopted plan for housing, it should not be a surprise, therefore, that no housing gets built.
The continuing gap among housing need, projected growth and actual housing development is real. As supply declines, home prices rise, rents skyrocket and homelessness increases. No surprise that business and industry groups in high cost areas identify housing availability and affordability as the number one job killer and primary impediment to employee retention.
So, yes, California’s housing crisis has continued to grow despite a law designed to ensure local governments plan to address their housing needs. In the same way, California continues to have traffic congestion despite planning, and continues to endure wildfires and earthquakes despite safety elements in local general plans. Planning well does not guarantee we can prevent traffic or end homelessness, but not planning ensures failure. The evidence is strong: cities that do plan are more likely to build. And, when local housing advocates take enforcement into their own hands by suing recalcitrant local governments, more affordable development follows.
What is to be done then? Requiring accountability to implement local plans is a first step—California must enforce its laws. While local governments do not build housing, their zoning and land use powers directly impact both the supply and affordability of housing. There are a number of worthwhile bills pending in the legislature that would improve implementation and accountability including AB 1397 (Low) and SB 166 (Skinner) and AB 72 (Chiu, Santiago) would require both the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the Attorney General to enforce existing law. These would go a long way to strengthen housing element law and add the missing “teeth” long overdue.
But these actions alone are not enough. Given the magnitude of the problem, the legislature and Governor must stop the collective hand-wringing and act. Strengthening and ensuring implementation of the state’s housing planning framework is necessary. Getting reluctant local officials to press the green button and say “yes” to housing, should come with both carrots—like a permanent source of funding for affordable homes—and sticks—real consequences for failure to implement approved housing plans—including enforcement by the Attorney General, the right to appeal housing denials to a state appeals board or “by-right” provisions that allow affordable housing conforming with local plans. No more delays. The time is now. The crisis is real.