SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Assembly approved a package of bills to address the state’s housing crunch late Thursday as lawmakers search for ways to generate more money and streamline regulations that can stifle new construction.
The tense and dramatic late-night vote in the Assembly sets up a final decision on Friday in the Senate, which has already approved earlier drafts of all the measures in the six-bill package.
California lacks an estimated 1.5 million affordable housing units compared to demand, and the state’s homelessness rate is disproportionately high. Still, alleviating the crisis has proved a difficult issue in the Capitol as lawmakers deal with thorny issues of raising taxes and easing environmental regulations.
“We are living during the worst housing crisis our state has ever experienced,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who leads the Assembly housing committee.
Republican critics said spending money wouldn’t solve the housing problem and advocated a more aggressive reduction in regulations, which they said would spur developers to expand the housing supply.
The bills “are based on the misguided premise that we can spend our way out of this problem with government spending,” Assemblyman Jay Olbernolte, R-Hesperia, said.
The major bills would: Put a $4 billion bond on the 2018 ballot, with $3 billion for existing housing programs and $1 billion for veterans’ housing; allow developers to bypass some local development regulations when building affordable apartment complexes; and establish a $75 fee on real estate transaction documents such as those signed when refinancing a mortgage. Several lower-profile bills aim to ensure that local governments allow building of homes for all income levels and waive environmental reviews that can be used to slow down the building process.
The real estate fee is expected to generate $200 million to $300 million per year for local and state government to share. Documents from residential and commercial sales would be exempt, and total fees couldn’t exceed $225 per transaction. Still, several Democrats from competitive districts were hesitant to get on board, prompting a weeks-long delay in bringing the bills up for votes. All new taxes and fees require two-thirds support to pass.
Assemblyman Brian Maienschein of San Diego was the only Republican to vote for the fee after citing a hepatitis outbreak among the homeless in his city. Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, a freshman from a competitive Inland Empire district, was the only Democrat opposed.
The measure passed after a tense last-minute effort to cajole two Democrats. The vote that would typically last seconds was held open for an hour while Speaker Anthony Rendon and others met privately with Assemblymen Marc Levine and Adrin Nazarian. A photo later posted to Twitter by Levine showed Rendon and Nazarian sitting on a couch with beer and coffee on the table under the caption, “The room where it happened.”
Rendon said the Assemblymen had lingering questions about the measure.
A bill amended last week creates a “hardship refund” that would waive the fee for some low-income homeowners, a clear effort to earn votes.
Money generated from the fee is just a minor piece of the funding source for more housing. Most would come from the $4 billion bond if voters approve it next year. One billion would be set aside for veterans housing programs. Of the remaining $3 billion, half would go to an existing program that aids construction and preservation of rental housing units for people with incomes up to 60 percent of an area’s medium income. The rest of the money would be distributed to existing programs that aim to build more housing near public transportation, provide grants for “innovative” housing programs and give homeowner loans, among other things.
A third bill by Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco will waive some local regulations for apartment builders in communities that aren’t meeting housing production targets. To qualify for the streamlined process, developers will have to pay workers a “prevailing wage,” an industry standard rate that is backed by labor unions.