Election Section

Bill to stimulate more low-income apartments moves

By Jim Wasserman, The Associated Press
Saturday June 15, 2002

SACRAMENTO — After months of haggling, arguing and occasional screaming about California’s toughest housing dilemma, a bill to make more room for low-income apartments is moving again. 

The bill, SB910, passed the Senate last June proposing to yank millions of dollars from cities that discourage apartments. But the idea, considered too harsh by cities and counties, stalled while officials have searched for a fairer, more agreeable way to house the poor. 

Now, in a state rife with homeowner battles against apartment complexes and lawsuits when city councils approve them, the outlines of a new approach are emerging. 

Though still tentative, they reveal the fierce complexities of deciding who should provide what amount of the desperately needed housing that many communities simply don’t want. 

The bill, scheduled for a June 26 hearing before the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, now sets “unspecified” fines for balking cities instead of taking money away from them. It also allows city halls and county courthouses more easily challenge the number of low-income units the state assigns them. 

It’s a system that many in local government consider flawed. 

“This is really not about cities not wanting housing. It’s about the process,” says Sande George, lobbyist for the California chapter of the American Planning Association. City and county planners, California Association of Counties and the League of California Cities still oppose the bill for its emphasis on sanctions. 

That opposition, after months of meetings, frustrates the bill’s author, Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana. He says he made compromises “in areas, that to be honest, we’d rather not have compromised. Now that we’re asking the League to compromise, they won’t.” 

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which makes cities and counties assume a share of the state’s housing demand, estimates up to 30 percent of California’s 476 cities avoid their low-income housing requirements. 

Many are middle-income suburbs and smaller wealthy cities. 

Dunn has long complained that the existing law lacks teeth. 

“The ability of local jurisdictions to get away with this has been unfettered,” he says. 

Many cities, in return, complain the state’s numerical allocations of housing don’t account for urban areas constrained by slow-growth politics and lack of vacant land, or those trying not to grow into surrounding farmland. The bill doesn’t require cities to build low-income housing, only to zone acreage to accommodate their share. 

Craig Reynolds, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, says the state’s numbers have “potential danger of being sprawl-inducing as opposed to a recipe for smart growth.” 

As the hearing approaches, cities are pouring their opposition into a Housing and Community Development Committee mailbox. Among the official city hall letterheads: Poway, Campbell, Vista, Redwood City, Santa Clara, Hawthorne and Burlingame. 

Paso Robles Mayor Frank R. Mecham says the bill fails to give cities such as his legal protection when they do zone land for affordable housing. Mecham noted the “heavy and bitter opposition from neighbors who have threatened litigation” after the city changed its general plan to enable a project for moderate-income housing. 

But supporters also abound, including the Building Industry Association of California, which represents the state’s homebuilders. 

Tim Coyle, the BIA’s senior vice president for governmental affairs, cites the state’s pressing housing shortage, and says, “That’s the kind of public policy we need.” Other backers include the California Chamber of Commerce, affordable housing advocates and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Petaluma and Oxnard. 

The bill, in its new version, must pass the Assembly and be approved again by the Senate by Aug. 31, or the idea dies.