Solving California’s Housing Crisis

More private development isn’t enough to solve California's massive housing crisis — we have to break with the for-profit model and build affordable social housing for all.

The Oakland cityscape at night. 1flatworld / Flickr

“What happens if my rent goes up and I have to move out?”

“Will we ever be able to buy a house?”

“What if people like me just can’t afford to live in the Bay Area? Should I give up and move away?”

As a thirty-year resident of the East Bay and a two-term Richmond City Councilmember, I’ve heard concerns like this from friends, neighbors, and constituents over and over. The housing crisis is on everyone’s mind, and it’s affecting almost everyone. But as a woman of color, and as a candidate for California’s 15th Assembly District, I’ve seen firsthand that this crisis is not just an economic injustice — it’s a racial injustice as well.

A recent study from the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California-Berkeley confirms what housing activists have known for years:

Increases in housing prices have intensified racial disparities in access to neighborhoods with better environmental quality, educational resources and economic opportunities, increasingly placing these neighborhoods out of reach for low-income people of color… Rising housing costs and migration patterns have contributed to new concentrations of segregation and poverty in the region.

In short, soaring rents have led to massive displacement and increasing segregation of working-class people of color. We are witnessing a return to levels of segregation not seen since the era of legally sanctioned housing discrimination.

Now that we’ve identified the problem, what are we going to do about it? One approach that you may have heard about is “just build more.” The idea is that private developers would build all the housing California needs, if only we’d let them.

So, the thinking goes, we just need to strip away zoning and community input rules, pile on the developer incentives, and wait for prices to go down and communities of color to be “revitalized.” This was the theory behind State Sen. Scott Wiener’s failed housing bill (SB 827) earlier this year, and it’s the theory that my opponent for AD15 has embraced wholeheartedly.

I understand why this theory is attractive: it’s a simple explanation based on Econ 101 (supply and demand!). And we should be willing to take action when communities — especially affluent ones, zoned primarily for single-family housing — abuse their community input processes to keep newcomers out. But the theory is wrong, and so is the proposed solution.

Just look at Seattle. A recent apartment construction boom, coupled with a cooling rental market, has led many to conclude that the “just build more” plan has worked as promised. But a closer look at the types of buildings being constructed — ones where “gyms, rooftop areas, yoga rooms and dog runs are now standard” — makes it obvious that only the top of the housing market is getting relief. Indeed, research has shown that it can take decades for the bottom of the market to benefit from new development at the top.

It’s also not realistic to think this plan will do anything to solve the crisis of resegregation and displacement. As long as it’s profitable to build luxury housing in gentrifying communities, driving out long-term residents, why wouldn’t developers continue to do so?

The fact is that we have a crisis because the housing market is not designed to meet the human need for shelter. Instead, most housing is built and priced to maximize the profits of developers and corporate landlords, who then relentlessly push anyone too black, too brown or too poor out of their homes in favor of more “desirable” residents.

This is why simply ramping up private housing development will not solve the problem. What we need to do is break with the current for-profit model, fight for policies that keep people in their homes, and build a housing system that puts people over profit.

That’s exactly what my Housing for All plan will do.

I am the only candidate for AD15 who supports Proposition 10, the ballot measure that would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act and lift the ban on comprehensive rent control. Expanding rent control will prevent price gouging, slow housing speculation, and reverse the trend of displacement and segregation. That’s why I led the effort in Richmond to adopt the first local rent control ordinance in California in over thirty years. And despite the scaremongering of corporate landlords (and my opponent), it’s not true that rent control would stymie new construction or drive up rents, according to multiple analyses.

Of course, rent control alone isn’t enough. My platform also calls for building several hundred thousand units of high-quality, affordable social housing. Because they value profit over people, private developers will never build enough affordable housing, and what little they do provide is likely to be substandard. Other countries have come to the same conclusion, so they’ve built beautiful social housing, with high density near transit, and it’s long past time for California to do the same. And if wealthy enclaves abuse their zoning and community input rules to block the development of social housing, we must take state-level action to remove those roadblocks and build housing for all.

We’ll pay for this plan by reforming Proposition 13 to make corporations pay their fair share of property taxes, and by raising taxes on corporate profits, millionaires, and housing speculators, including the imposition of a vacancy tax.

Together we can solve the housing crisis, but only if we stand in solidarity with working people to challenge the power of the millionaires and billionaires who are profiting from our broken system.