SD waits as $400M in housing funds held up in capital

SD waits as $400M in housing funds held up in capital

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A proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown that attempts to relieve housing demands has stalled in Sacramento, frustrating some local advocates who say San Diego County is in desperate need of more places to live.

The governor’s plan would give $400 million for subsidized housing as long as lawmakers agree to pass a separate measure to speed-up approval for new projects supporting low-income residents.

The state Legislature has until Aug. 31 to approve the initiative but assembly speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said last week it had did not have enough support to pass.

The proposal has enthusiastic local supporters, such as the San Diego Housing Commission, who call it an essential step in getting more subsidized housing to fight a growing tide of homelessness.

However, environmental and labor groups — and even some subsidized housing promoters — have serious objections to major parts of the effort.

Brown’s “by right” housing proposal would approve developments without California’s stringent review process as long as it set aside at least 20 percent of units for low-income residents. Also, if the development is near a transit stop, it could be quickly approved as long as 10 percent of units are for low-income renters.

Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, said low-income San Diegans need more housing — especially near transit — but speeding up projects without strict environmental review would limit the public’s knowledge of what is going up in their neighborhood.

“Ten percent is not very much,” he said. “I’m always a bit leery of doing away with safeguards or expediting something because they think it is an impediment to build. Are we going to relax the (California Environmental Quality Act), which informs the public, for expediency?”

But Borre Winckel, CEO of the San Diego Building Industry Association, blamed state Democratic leadership for giving into environmentalists and other critics while the housing supply dwindles.

“Shame on you for paying lip service to caring about our state’s high housing cost crisis, while doing zilch to help advance even a modest proposal,” he wrote on the association’s website.

In addition to environmental concerns, many labor groups oppose Brown’s plan because they want a provision to require builders to pay prevailing wages, almost always higher than what developers want to spend.

“The reason housing is not affordable is because our workers are not paid enough to afford the rents of the homes they build,” said Murtaza Baxamusa, director of planning and development for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corp.

He said wages are more likely to be driven down for workers in residential construction than commercial. Yet, the San Diego BIA countered that prevailing wage would add, on average, 20 percent more to the price of construction — and defeat the governor’s attempt to lower housing costs.

Baxamusa said builders were too focused on building expensive homes, which he said eroded affordability.

“It is the building industry that has created this problem, in a lot of ways, by using what land it has available for very high-end products,” he said. “For the people that say to cut your labor costs, I say, ‘Cut your profits by 20 percent.’ They are making an absurd amount of profits.”

Some housing proponents sent a letter last week to Gov. Brown and other legislators asking them to provide the $400 million without tying it to the “by right” arrangement.

“Please do not penalize our state’s most vulnerable residents for the failure to reach agreement on the streamlining proposal,” reads the letter from 33 advocates, including the California Housing Partnership and Sierra Club.

Evan Westrup, spokesman for Gov. Brown, said Monday the administration’s position had not changed — the $400 million is still contingent on the “by right” proposal.

The Governor’s Office said the “by right” process eliminates several timely and costly hurdles for builders: No conditional use or planned unit development permit, and — most importantly — would skip local government review.

To qualify without any slow-downs, some of the things the developer would need to do is: Fit into local general plans, be on an infill site, not be on a wetland or earthquake fault zone and include subsidized units.

Even those who support the proposal would like to see some changes.

Steve Russell, executive director of the San Diego Housing Federation, said his organization would prefer more subsidized housing required, instead of just 10 or 20 percent. Or, to at least flip the requirement to require more subsidized housing near transit instead of far away.

Also, he said they were concerned about a net loss of subsidized housing. There is no requirement in Brown’s proposal to keep track of how many affordable apartments could be knocked down by a “by right” developer.

“If you tear down 20 units, and put only five that are rent-restricted, then we’ve got a net loss,” Russell said. “It was critical to us that we are actually seeing progress in affordable housing instead of actually losing housing in the bargain.”

He said there are still plenty of issues to be addressed, such as CEQA increasingly being used to block multi-family housing.

“This proposal appears to be dead for now,” Russell said. “My hope is it inspires a conversation in the new legislative session.”

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