Memo to Brown: Affordable housing is a life and death matter

A family housing illustration by arka38, via Shutterrstock

The same day Governor Jerry Brown delivered his proposed state budget, Barbara Brown died of exposure on a skid row street during an El Niño storm.

More than the coincidence of a common last name links the two. As a literal storm killed this unfortunate woman, Gov. Brown once again ignored California’s worsening housing crisis, instead calling on the state to squirrel away $2 billion on top of required state reserves in order to save for an economic “rainy day.”

For Barbara Brown, every day was a “rainy day.” The fact that more than 100,000 Californians are living on the streets, that millions more are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and that soaring rents deter companies from investing in California all seem to be lost on our Governor.  Asked by a reporter whether surplus state funds could be invested in affordable homes to help address these triple threats, the Governor retorted that the budget “is not a candy store.”

State investment in affordable housing has plummeted – primarily due to the elimination of redevelopment agencies in Brown’s third term.

When a safe and affordable home can literally mean the difference between life and death, such flippant comments reflect, at best, an insensitivity to those affected by California’s housing affordability crisis. At worst, they show an administration willing to let the widespread human disaster grow worse.

Meanwhile, rents have skyrocketed statewide. Los Angeles and San Francisco have led the way. But even inland areas like Sacramento are now seeing rents rise by double-digit rates annually.

California must address the unprecedented housing crisis in 2016.  Failure to do so in this time of surplus will ensure future surpluses will vanish.

For instance, when Toyota announced last year that it would move its headquarters out of Torrance, California, some blamed our state’s taxes and regulation. But newer reports show a different culprit. “It was really about affordable housing,” said insider Albert Niemi, dean of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. Toyota’s departure – along with 3,000 workers and their spending power – is another wake-up call that we can no longer ignore California’s housing crisis.

Unfortunately, even though business leaders including the Orange County Business Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group have been sounding the alarm bells for years — naming workforce housing affordability as a major threat to the state’s economy – action has been hard to come by.

State investment in affordable housing has plummeted – primarily due to the elimination of redevelopment agencies in Brown’s third term, and the expiration of state bonds that leveraged federal dollars and drew billions in job-creating private investment to the state. When the Legislature passed AB 35 (Chiu) in 2015, homeless advocates, affordable home builders, and business leaders alike were encouraged that the expansion of the successful state tax credits credit program would help get affordable developments off the ground and leverage $1 billion in federal money that we’re now leaving on the table.

Unfortunately, Governor Brown had a different idea. In his veto message for AB 35, the Governor wrote  “Tax credits, like new spending on programs, need to be considered comprehensively as part of our budget negotiations.” Yet, when the Governor launched budget discussions for the year with his proposal last week, new housing investment was noticeably absent.

The governor has said that he is focused on saving for a rainy day, even if it means holding the line on worthy programs in the short term. But with Californians literally dying on our streets, we wonder what more it will take for Gov. Brown to see it’s raining now?

Recognizing the urgent need to curb homelessness, build workforce housing, and the opportunity to create jobs by bringing federal housing investment to the state, representatives in both houses of the Legislature have called for renewing investments in affordable housing.  It’s a critical conversation that must begin now, and one where the Governor’s leadership is sorely needed.

Ed’s Note: Ray Pearl is executive director of the California Housing Consortium, a non-partisan advocate for the production and preservation of housing affordable to low- and moderate-income Californians.


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