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Most of our state elected officials will tell you that they agree: California is in the midst of a housing crisis. But once again, we ended the legislative session without passing anywhere close to the level of policy change needed to fill our housing needs.
This past spring, both the Senate and the Assembly introduced housing packages – a total of 15 bills intended to take steps toward getting more homes built that more Californians can afford. These were not sweeping changes designed to reshape housing policy (no matter how much that might be needed). They were instead a series of modest revisions that would make it easier to build smaller, more naturally affordable housing and streamline rules that are often abused to keep projects in endless litigation by anyone in opposition.
But instead of ending the session with any sort of cohesive reform package, legislators managed to approve only two production bills – one encouraging cities to plan for more multi-unit housing and one that would permit churches to convert parking lots to housing. These are smart and important changes, but by themselves they won’t begin to make a dent in the problem.
Our elected officials must do better.
The housing crisis does not impact all Californians equally. An estimated 41 percent of California’s total households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Of the Californians paying unaffordable rents, almost 70 percent are people of color. These are the people who are often working and living one unexpected expense away from being at risk of losing their home. For far too many, COVID-19 has turned that risk into reality due to lost wages, business closures, layoffs and salary reductions.
Only 27 percent of households in San Diego County are able to afford the county’s $655,000 median home cost, and low-income residents spend nearly all their paycheck on rent. Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s efforts to make it easier for developers to build taller buildings with affordable apartments near transit is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. The proposal only applies to areas where apartments or townhomes are already allowed, not single-family areas where real, major reform for inclusionary zoning is needed. Over half of the city’s residential land is reserved exclusively for single-family homes, constraining opportunities to zone for multi-family housing that are more affordable and accessible to low-income, Black and Brown residents.
Rallying cries from opponents of housing reform bemoan that even modest increases in density are a threat to their community’s “character” or the “California dream of single-family home ownership.” But what these arguments boil down to are the continuation of decades of systemic racism and housing inequity for communities of color. Historians and housing experts have made it clear how single-family zoning was adopted in the early 20th Century to segregate areas explicitly by race and income. The results continue today in San Diego and communities across the state where Black, Brown and poor residents are unable to afford to live in wealthier, whiter and high-resource neighborhoods that contain only expensive, sprawling single-family homes.
At its core, banning multi-family housing in large swaths of the state is perpetuating structural racism, and research from UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute shows that repealing excessive exclusionary zoning will help create more diverse communities. For that reason, our coalition, SD-50 is working to end the enforcement of minimum lot sizes or single family zoning in San Diego to open parcels up for housing options inclusive of a diverse population. We urge local and state government to stop being complicit in structural racism and pass inclusionary zoning policies that break down barriers to create more housing with multifamily zoning and subdividing lots. This will allow Black, Brown and low-income Californians to start building wealth through homeownership, which they have never been able to do before.
Al Abdallah is CEO of the Urban League of San Diego County.