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Affordable Housing Crisis Creates Federalism Tug of War (Washington Examiner) June 18, 2021

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill might once have been right when he said, “All politics is local.” These days, one wonders.

Now, everything seems to be a federal case. From K-12 education to the condition of bridges and highways, from how we vote to what farmers can grow, Washington seemingly has its hand in everything.

Now, a new case study in the erosion of local power is presenting itself in California and elsewhere. Pressure to address an affordable housing shortage is prompting state government, and probably soon enough Washington as well, to override local control over zoning laws and land-use planning. People who bought into comfortable suburbs with single-house lots suddenly find their American dream may be crowded out and diminished by distant government mandates to build more and denser housing in their backyards.

As usual, California is on the bleeding edge of this change. California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation law has long required municipalities to plan for the housing needs of their residents. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development then decides whether cities are compliant, and, if not, it may assign and enforce new goals. With a crisis in affordable housing, accompanied by a homelessness crisis, the goals for new and affordable housing are growing astronomically, and the state is rattling its enforcement sword. The Bay Area’s assigned growth increase of 135% is breathtaking but typical.Recommended Video

A new bill before the California legislature, Senate Bill 9, would up the ante considerably. If passed, the bill would allow single-family lots to be split into duplexes (and in certain cases even more units) with only ministerial approval. Previous bills, and others still working through the legislature, would allow greater heights and densities near transit systems.

Amid threats and lawsuits, there is now a major pushback in this housing tug of war. California Assembly member Al Muratsuchi has authored a constitutional amendment allowing city or county zoning and land-use regulations to “prevail over conflicting general laws.” It would, in effect, give local officials the ability to overturn state housing mandates in their jurisdictions, returning zoning to a matter of local control. It will be tough to enact, but it creates an important new battlefront.

There is a lot going on both on the surface and below. One issue is how readily our legislators turn to one-size-fits-all solutions whenever they face a crisis. The affordable housing crisis took decades to develop and now, suddenly, we face an emergency in which the state has to take over policies long considered a matter for local governments. The diseases in Washington of governing by executive order and emergency declarations have spread to the states.

Then, too, there seems to be little regard for placing responsibility for solutions on those who helped cause the problem. Local governments are excited when large new tech companies choose to locate in their cities and counties, with little regard for what this will do to housing, transportation, and the like. Instead, these state mandates for new housing are assigned across the state, from large cities to tiny ocean hamlets regardless of their role in creating or perpetuating a housing shortage.

On the surface, this is an important battle pitting the need for affordable housing against the rights of property owners who put their life savings into their American dream home and neighborhood. Below the surface, this is a political tug of war over who decides housing policy. The state would do well to loosen regulations that make building new houses so expensive and provide funding for affordable housing experiments and projects. But the actual decisions on zoning and land-use need to be left closer to home, in local governments.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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