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Housing battles on the horizon

The story appeared on Calmatters

Huntington Beach. Photo via iStock

By now most of us have been here ourselves: Gavin Newsom’s press team texted reporters last night to say that the governor has COVID again — describing his symptoms as mild and later saying he’ll isolate for at least five days.

He’d better rest up, given the number of political battles on his to-do list. Among them: another round with Huntington Beach.

On Tuesday, the city council in the Orange County city, a regular fount of anti-Newsom sentiment, followed through on its pledge to pass an ordinance blocking a contentious state housing law within its sun-soaked borders.

The as-yet untested law, known as “the builder’s remedy,” allows developers to construct what they like where they like — so long as 20% of the new units are affordable —in any city that’s defying state-set housing production goals. 

Defiers such as Huntington Beach. 

  • City attorney Michael Gates: “There are currently approximately 280 cities out of housing compliance…Yet Huntington Beach is being picked on…. We’re the focus of enforcement while the other 280 cities aren’t.”
  • Councilmember Natalie Moser, who voted no: “Well, we’re passing an ordinance that goes against state law. That would be a reason to pick on us.”

Gates is right that hundreds of cities and counties across the state have yet to provide housing plans that pass muster with state regulators — nearly 250 as of Wednesday.

But Moser is also correct in noting that Huntington Beach has been uniquely bold-faced about it.

  • A subtler approach: Though the Marin County city of Sausalito is known for its houseboats, its housing plan — which listed among the local sites for possible development dozens of parcels that were, in the words of one developer, “mostly underwater” — has raised the eyebrows of pro-housing advocates. While the state reviews the city’s plan, those advocates are taking the affluent ‘burb to court.

For its more flagrant approach, Huntington Beach is all but certain to wind up in court too. That will be a return to form: In one of his first actions as governor, Newsom had his administration sue the city for failing to permit enough housing in 2019.

Just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Rob Bonta warned the city to abandon its planned ban, warning that his office was “ready to take action.” After Tuesday’s vote, the governor’s office struck a similarly ominous tone:

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From Alejandro Lazo, a reporter with CalMatters’ California Divide project:

Should the state with the largest homeless population in the U.S. and some of the country’s most expensive housing markets enshrine a right to a home in its state constitution

And what would that even mean?

San Francisco Assemblymember Matt Haney, backed by a coalition of civil rights groups and anti-poverty activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, is hoping to spark that debate this year in California.

Haney is reintroducing a proposed constitutional amendment originally introduced by former Assemblymember Rob Bonta, now the state’s attorney general. That measure went nowhere in the midst of the pandemic but Haney hopes it will gain traction now.

  • Haney: “The right to privacy, the right to pursue liberty and happiness. None of that is possible if you don’t have access to housing.”

No other state has enshrined a right to a home in its constitution, though New York City has a right to shelter — which state courts have interpreted to mean that anyone who does not have a place to sleep can at least get a bed in a shelter.

The California proposal could be a tough sell: It would need to be passed by two-thirds of the Legislature before it is put on the statewide ballot.

It would not guarantee that the government would provide free housing for all Californians, Haney said, nor would it require the state budget to spend all of its resources on housing. 

What it would do: Give housing advocates more leverage in the courts. It could also give the state attorney general another stick with which to jab local governments that are failing to meet their housing production goals.

  • A page from history: After courts ruled that New Yorkers had a right to shelter, the city entered into a legal agreement to build out a multi-billion dollar shelter network.
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1
Newsom vs Walgreens: It just got real

A Walgreens in Oakland on Mar. 6, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
A Walgreens in Oakland on Mar. 6, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

Maybe you remember that on Monday, the governor vowed to cut the state’s financial ties to Walgreens after the pharmacy giant bowed to the legal threats of 20 conservative state attorneys general and agreed to stop distributing abortion pills in their states.

Newsom’s pledge seemed to catch much of California’s public health system off guard, as reporters scrambled to find out which contracts were on the chopping block.

On Wednesday, we got at least one answer: The governor’s office announced that the state will not renew a $54 million contract with Walgreens for “specialty pharmacy prescription drugs,” primarily for state prisoners.

2
When you can’t bank on it

Anneisha Williams in El Segundo on Feb. 20, 2023. Williams decided to stop using traditional banking systems after a bank declined to refund her for money stolen out of her account by a hacker. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Anneisha Williams in El Segundo on Feb. 20, 2023. Williams decided to stop using traditional banking systems after a bank declined to refund her for money stolen out of her account by a hacker. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Would a state-run bank help California’s poorest households or create more expenses for taxpayers? 

While lawmakers continue to mull this question, some of Californians most vulnerable — such as like Anneisha Williams, an L.A.-area Jack-in-the-Box employee who is raising six children — are so fed up with the fees of traditional financial institutions that they bank with less regulated fintech companies instead, reports CalMatters’ Wendy Fry

One in four Californians are either “unbanked,” meaning they don’t have a bank account, or  “underbanked,” meaning they do have an account but can’t access services like credit cards and loans.

It’s a problem that disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income families who are often burdened with overdraft fees — a penalty for not keeping enough money in their accounts. (An example of the oft-repeated “it’s expensive to be poor” phenomenon.)

Legislators voted in 2021 to create a commission exploring a state-run public banking option. Known as CalAccount, it would offer services like free checking, overdraft protection, ATM cards and savings accounts for underserved communities. 

  • Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat: “We can’t create a stable economy when financially underserved households spend an average of 10 percent of their take-home pay in fees and interest, just to access their own money and pay bills.”

But critics are skeptical. Some say the poor really just need more cash, not alternative banking options. There’s also the fear that a public bank could hide bad lending practices for which taxpayers would ultimately foot the bill.

3
Cities get a post-pandemic report card

Downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters

Downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 18, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters

From Alejandra Reyes-Velarde, a reporter with CalMatters’ California Divide project:

How well did California fare economically during the pandemic?  

A new report by Brookings, a D.C. think tank, ranked U.S. metropolitan areas on a range of metrics — economic growth; productivity; regional, racial and economic inequality — that adds up to what they call inclusive growth.

In general, large metropolitan areas in California – including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco – haven’t done so well. 

Of the 192 metro areas studied, L.A. fell from an “inclusive growth” ranking of 34 before the pandemic to 165 during the pandemic. San Francisco lost massive ground, falling from  number 4 to 109 on the list. And San Diego dropped from 54 to 139. 

On Brookings’ “Overall Racial inclusion Index,” the San Diego metro area ranked 55th out of 56 regions. San Jose came 54th and San Francisco came 46th.

Even on more traditional measures of economic well-being, which have long favored the state’s big cities, California has struggled.

  • The report: “For many years it appeared nothing could dent the economic momentum in these major hubs of technology and commerce, but the pandemic did so significantly.”

Joseph Parilla, director of applied research at Brookings, partly blamed the state’s public health policies.

  • Parilla: California “had a lot of industries that allowed people to work remotely because they were these centers of finance, business and technology. Because economic activity didn’t return, a lot of folks that were lower income or workers of color really lost jobs or couldn’t find new jobs as a result.”

That squares with a finding in a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California: During the pandemic, income among the highest earners increased, while it sank for lower earners, widening the gap between the state’s haves and have nots

That trend, the report found, is “driven by a job market that favors highly educated workers.”

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