California governor signs laws to boost housing production

By ADAM BEAM
Associated press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — They’ve become a familiar sight along America’s wide shopping corridors — empty buildings once filled with major retailers that have shuttered, in part because many of their customers shop online.

Now two new laws in California would allow developers to build homes on that land and largely prevent revenue-hungry local governments from shutting them down.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed two laws that would open up much of the state’s commercial land to residential development. It’s a victory long sought by affordable housing advocates, who say these sites are ready for apartments because they’re often near populated areas and have ample parking.

“It’s a moment on a journey to reconcile the original sin of the state of California, and that’s the issue of housing and affordability,” Newsom said in San Francisco before signing the bills. “We all need to be a little more responsible in the face of this affordability crisis.”

Local government officials say the laws undermine their authority and upend years of careful planning that reflects community preferences. But there is also a financial consequence, they say, because stores generate more property taxes for local governments than homes.

“It’s a concern when state law is going to overrule these local decisions, especially when these local decisions are made through a public process with the community as part of a larger housing plan.” , said Jason Rhine, deputy director of legislative affairs for the League. cities in California.

California, the nation’s most populous state with just over 39 million people, is experiencing a housing shortage that has driven up house prices and contributed to a homelessness crisis. State officials say California needs to build about 310,000 new homes each year for the next eight years, more than 2.5 times the number the state normally builds each year.

Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature introduce dozens of bills each year in an attempt to increase housing production, but many of their boldest ideas often fail in the face of opposition. local governments, unions and neighborhood groups.

A popular idea in recent years has been to override local laws on where homes can be built. Housing advocates complain that local governments often just leave commercial buildings vacant for years — sometimes decades — in hopes of a replacement that will generate more property taxes, rather than changing the law to allow accommodation there.

Previous efforts to do so failed to pass the Legislative Assembly, but this year lawmakers passed two bills, both signed by Newsom on Wednesday.

A law will allow developers to build housing on certain commercial land without having to seek permission from local governments, as long as a certain percentage of the housing is affordable. Another law will allow developers to build all homes at market price on certain commercial land – which would be more lucrative – but projects would still have to go through an environmental review process.

“Stores are definitely leaving, Sears, Toys R Us, JC Penneys, Kmarts — they’re closing,” said Democratic Senator Anna Caballero, author of one of the laws. “There’s nothing that’s going to take place here commercially, and so the ability to actually transform the property and do it in an accelerated fashion… is invaluable.”

When he was running for governor in 2017, Newsom pledged to develop 3.5 million new homes by 2025 — a number the state is likely to be far from reaching. Newsom said on Wednesday he is now aiming for 2.5 million new homes by 2030, saying his original figure “was still an ambitious target” which “trying to reach it will allow us to see what is possible”.

“We intend to continue to have bold goals because Californians deserve them,” Newsom said.

The new laws reflect a compromise between unions and property developers. Some unions, including the powerful State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, had insisted that the legislation should require “skilled and trained” labor to build the homes. This means that a certain percentage of workers would have participated in a state-approved apprenticeship program.

But property developers argue there aren’t enough workers available to meet that standard, which would make some projects difficult to complete.

The solution was to give homebuilders a choice. The bill that requires affordable housing does not require a skilled and trained workforce, while the bill that does not require affordable housing does.

“Doing anything big or important in the Legislative Assembly is not easy. And it can be messy. But at the end of the day, all parties came together,” said state Senate Democratic leader Mike McGuire.