California housing politics enters uncharted waters

This article appeared on Calmatters

Apartment buildings are seen in San Francisco in 2017. Photo by Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

For northern California housing politics, judgment day has come.

Cities across the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area had until Wednesday to show state regulators how they plan to approve a sufficient quantity of housing over the next decade. 

Some submitted their plans on time. Most did not. Some made an earnest effort to comply. Others not so much. Some will have their plans accepted. Others have already had theirs rejected. Suburbanites viscerally opposed to new construction and density in their neighborhoods are incensed. Pro-development activists are celebrating a “Zoning Holiday.”

As of Thursday afternoon, of the 109 cities and counties in the region, 66 have either had their plans rejected, or failed to submit one at all. Two have had their plans approved and finalized: San Francisco, which approved a plan for 82,000 additional units, and the city of Alameda, which agreed to make room for another 5,000 homes and apartments. Emeryville and Redwood City have both gotten tentative thumbs- ups, too.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom celebrated the San Francisco approval, 82,000 units in eight years is a far cry from his statewide goal of 2.5 million, which itself is a big cut from the 3.5 million he campaigned on in 2018.

With housing scofflaws abounding, the question remains: What’s the state going to do about it?

First, a brief primer on how we got here:

Advocates on both sides of the issue have been alternately clamoring for, and dreading, a “builder’s remedy” bonanza. But housing experts note that we’re in uncharted waters.

Southern California may provide some glimpse of the Bay Area’s future. The state has been slow-rolling its housing plan deadlines, region by region, and much of Southern California fell out of compliance in mid-October. The legal battles are on: Huntington Beach has vowed to “unleash” its city attorney against the state’s mandates and housing groups are suing Beverly Hills to see whether the builder’s remedy applies there.

Top of mind: In a statewide survey this week from the Public Policy Institute of California, 60% of respondents said they were “very concerned” that the cost of housing will prevent younger members of their family from buying a home in their part of the state. 

That’s compared to 4% who reported being not at all concerned. Lucky them.

But there’s some progress: A dozen community colleges have been awarded $500 million (with hundreds of millions more on the way) to build new dorms and expand existing ones. Andrea Madison and Katherine Bent with CalMatters’ College Journalism Network reported on two new projects that offer different possible versions of the future for California’s student housing.

Are you a college student in California, or care about higher education? The CalMatters College Journalism Network wants to hear from you. If you have questions about applications, financial aid, housing, diversity and equity, or anything else, drop us a line and your question could be answered in a CJN column.

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Another one for the 2024 ballot

Election workers collect ballots at the Alameda County Ballot Drop Stop in Oakland on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Election workers collect ballots at the Alameda County Ballot Drop Stop in Oakland on Nov. 8, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

Atop a November 2024 ballot already teeming with contentious propositions, a new initiative qualified this week that might be the biggest doozy of them all: A proposal to hobble the ability of state and local governments to raise taxes.

In the spirit of California’s 1978’s tax revolt, the proposed constitutional amendment would require the Legislature to put any new statewide tax up for a popular vote. Local governments would have to do the same. Other fiscal tighteners include expanding the definition of what a “tax” is and requiring all local taxes raised for a specific purpose to win a two-thirds majority, undoing a series of recent state Supreme Court rulings that loosened that rule.

California Business Roundtable, an advocacy group that represents the state’s biggest businesses, is the public face of the campaign —  though much of its funding has so far come from major real estate firms.

Opponents, which include advocates for local government and organized labor groups, have responded to the measure like a declaration of war.

  • Marcel Rodarte, executive director of the California Contract Cities Association: “This measure could cause irreparable harm to a city’s ability to provide essential services to its residents. This measure is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

They say it’s a wolf that looks like one pitched in 2018 by the Business Roundtable, with the financial backing of the American Beverage Association. Those proponents ended up pulling that measure, but only after the Legislature agreed to pass a 13-year ban on local soda taxes. Irate lawmakers likened the maneuver to “extortion” and a “nuclear weapon.”

Is there a similar strategy in the works this time around? Pointing to the heavy real estate industry backing, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik suggested that a narrow ban on a particular property development tax might be the ultimate target.

But Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, said the soda deal was “never intended as the strategy” in 2018 and he denied that proponents this time have any ulterior motive.

  • Lapsley: Voters “want the opportunity to have the final say on future taxes…We would not have introduced it if we weren’t intent on going full speed ahead to pass this.”

The 2024 ballot is already plenty crowded: An $18 minimum wage, a measure to overturn a union-backed law meant to empower fast food workers, a repeal of a 2004 law that makes it easier for employees to take their bosses to court over labor law violations and, most likely, a repeal of new restrictions on where the oil and gas industry can drill.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the petition drives needed to qualify these measures are a big business — one that gives paid signature gatherers every incentive to get voters to sign and little incentive to tell the truth. In Los Angeles, Simi Valley and the Bay Area, voters report being told that the referendum to kill a state-run council to negotiate wages, hours and working conditions would really “raise wages for fast food workers.”

Paid signature gatherers hired by the oil buffer referendum campaign have been accused of resorting to similar tactics.

More news from ’24: Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Burbank Rep. Adam Schiff to replace Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate. That’s assuming Feinstein will not run for re-election, as most are.

A seal of approval from Pelosi, a deep-pocketed fundraiser and a venerated voice in California Democratic circles, gives Schiff a boost against Orange County Rep. Katie Porter. It may also muddy the waters for Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna — both Bay Area Democrats who may soon enter the race as well.

Newsom feuds with Fresno DA

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp speaks at a press event in downtown Fresno on Oct. 21, 2020. Photo by Craig Kohlruss, The Fresno Bee

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp speaks at a press event in downtown Fresno on Oct. 21, 2020. Photo by Craig Kohlruss, The Fresno Bee

It took less than 24 hours for the tragic killing of a small-town police officer to turn into a state-spanning political shoutfest between California’s liberal governor and one of its most outspoken conservative district attorneys. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Selma Police Officer Gonzalo Carrasco Jr., 24, was shot and killed while on patrol, the first line-of-duty death ever for that Central Valley town’s department.

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp put out a press release blaming a spate of California policies enacted by both lawmakers and voters that make the state’s criminal justice system less punitive. 

More specifically, she blamed the governor. 

  • Smittcamp: “Governor Gavin Newsom, and every legislator in the state of California who supports this over-reaching phenomenon they try to disguise as legitimate criminal justice reform, has the blood of this officer on their hands.”

According to KSEE in Fresno, Carrasco’s alleged shooter, Nathaniel Dixon, was arrested in 2020 and charged with multiple felonies, including illegal possession of a gun and resisting a police officer. After two years in jail, he was sentenced to five years in prison, but released after five months. According to the district attorney’s office, that was thanks to a 2011 law meant to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons. Smittcamp also pointed to policies implemented under Proposition 57, a 2016 ballot measure making it easier for certain inmates to qualify for early release.

Both laws were passed before Newsom was elected governor, though he’s been broadly supportive of the state’s “criminal justice reform” movement.

Asked Wednesday about Smittcamp’s remarks, Newsom fired back, saying she should have done more to keep Dixon behind bars. Dixon was reportedly convicted of only two felonies in a plea deal

  • Newsom: “I’m sick and tired of being lectured by her on public safety…She should be ashamed of herself and should look in the mirror.”

Smittcamp responded by saying that Newsom did not understand the criminal justice system. She also called him a “jackass.”

And thus their war of words quickly overshadowed the young officer’s death. 
Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher from Chico called Newsom’s comments “atrocious.” But the Fresno Bee’s editorial board scolded the D.A. for racing “ahead of events to make political points.”

Price cap as a stopgap

Insulin at a pharmacy in Sacramento on July 8, 2022. The recent passage of legislation that would limit the cost of insulin for Medicare patients has renewed hope for advocates pushing for Congress to do more. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

Insulin at a pharmacy in Sacramento on July 8, 2022. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

The state of California is moving ahead with a plan to manufacture and distribute it’s own low-cost insulin under the state’s generic label. But until Cal Rx’s products begin hitting the pharmacy shelves (which isn’t expected for another few years), state Sen. Scott Wiener is proposing a stopgap.

As CalMatters health reporter Ana B. Ibarra explains, the San Francisco Democrat’s bill would limit copays to $35 for a 30-day supply. The current cap is $250. The goal: Bring to all insured Californians a benefit that Congress conferred on just those 65-and-older last year when it passed a similar cap for Medicare users. But opposition of the insurance industry, which successfully killed a similar California bill last year, is all but certain.

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CalMatters Commentary

Correctional officers will also benefit from the closing of state prisons, especially their health,  writes Steve Brooks, an inmate and journalist at San Quentin State Prison.

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