The Marin Post

The Voice of the Community

Blog Post

Susan Kirsch

A Cost Too High: 2020 Senate Housing Bills

Photo Note: I'm standing in the Senate Chamber where the housing bills will come up for a floor vote June 22-26 before moving to the Assembly which reconvenes after Summer Recess on July 13.

Appropriation. My online thesaurus defines appropriation as seizure (n), assumption, annexation and arrogation. A click on “arrogation” expands the definition to takeover, annexation and then back to seizure. Misappropriation, on the other hand, is defined as embezzlement, misuse, fraud, deceit, and double-dealing, among other definitions. That’s harsh.

I’m thinking about appropriations because the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Senator Portantino, is meeting on Thursday, June 18. The committee will cast live-or-die votes on nearly 100 bills that have passed through two or three hearings in one or more of the 20 Senate Committees, like Education, Health, or Housing. The Committees are tasked with assessing the validity of the bills and taking public comment in support or opposition to their merits.

The Appropriations Committee, on the other hand, is charged with assessing the fiscal impact on the state’s budget. According to their website, this includes bills “that appropriate money, result in substantial expenditure of state money, or result in a substantial loss of revenue to the state.”

In other words, the goal is sound, responsible, affordable fiscal policy.

Readers are most likely aware of the state’s fiscal environment, including a $54B state budget deficit, business closures, businesses moving out of state, and spiraling unemployment. The picture at the local level is also bleak with city employee furloughs and lost revenue. Brett Uppendahl, Marin County’s budget manager, told the Marin County Board of Supervisors the county is forecasting that revenues based on statewide sales tax will fall by around 20% (reported in the Marin IJ, 6/14/20).

Yet, California Senators on the Housing Committee are counting on the Appropriations Committee to approve heavy-handed bills that have significant fiscal impact on both the state and local communities. For example, bills that have been described in previous articles on the Marin Post like SB 902 (Wiener), SB 1085 (Skinner), SB 1120 (Atkins), SB 1385 (Cabellero) change local housing and zoning policy by allowing for streamlined ministerial approval. To developers this means faster decisions, fewer hoops. But to cities, it can result in increased costs of providing public services and infrastructure for rapid development.

To the community, “streamlined ministerial approval” means these bills take away decision-making authority and responsibility of locally-elected city councils and give it to the city manager as a matter of administrative action. In other words, the expectation for public notice, discussion, and a vote of the city council is eliminated. Who benefits? Developers and investors who have a green light to build higher, denser housing without community input and often without any more than 10-20% affordable housing.

Consider the ripple effect. Every bill that grants “ministerial approval” eliminates the 40-year old requirement for a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review. In other words, under the false premise that growth of any kind will provide “affordable housing,” there will be no disclosure, consideration, or mitigation requirements for negative impacts of high-density projects.The community will intentionally be left in the dark, making it possible for big-time investors and developers to control growth.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra oversees CEQA. His website calls CEQA “the state’s most important environmental law,” with a purpose to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony to fulfill the social and economic requirements of present and future generations.”

The question is, will that concern the Appropriations Committee?

What about the fiscal impact?

These bills, stacked on top of draconian legislation of previous years, has negative impact on both the state budget and California’s 482 cities and 58 counties. Our legislators seem to be mesmerized by their shallow, arrogant belief they have to do something! But doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing.

These bills require an accelerated expansion of the powers of the CA Department of Housing and Community Development. HCD is already a colossal Sacramento bureaucracy with over 900 staff. Despite statewide economic fragility, HCD is currently hiring for 21 new positions.

Consider a few back-of-the-napkins calculations: Assume a new HCD hire earns an average salary of $80K. At that rate, the state is adding an additional expense of $1.7M/year, without including new auxiliary costs for office space, travel, training, etc. Using the same $80K figure, the annual HCD budget for 900 personnel is $72M. HCD’s staff of 921equals two people per city or 16 per county. Our state budget is funding a growing bureaucracy to monitor, report, cajole, fine, sue and otherwise force compliance with laws that benefit developers, while withholding funds from cities shouldering an increasingly heavy fiscal burden.

Well-meaning, but misguided thinking permits legislators to disregard the added expenses these bills pile onto cities. For example, staff will need time to study and figure out what the new laws mean (like happened with the 2019 Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) legislation). They’ll need staff time to explain bills to the city council, write ordinances, monitor and report to the state, deal with angry residents, and consider suing or being sued by the state.

HCD’s biggest responsibility has been to oversee the statewide Regional Housing Need Allocation program. RHNA sets housing production goals in four categories of affordability on an eight-year cycle. Many agree that the assumptions about population and jobs growth are wildly off base resulting in unrealistic quotas. HCD’s growth portends a move to be the state’s building police with options to fine and sue already cash-strapped cities that are out of compliance.

What you can do?

The first half of the 2020 legislative session ends with the start of Summer Recess on July 2. Here’s what you can do before then.

June 18th, Appropriations Committee Hearing.

June 22-26, Senate Floor Vote: Send emails to Senator Mike McGuire, one at a time for each bill: Write the bill number and OPPOSE in the subject line.

July 13, Legislature reconvenes from Summer Recess. The bills that are still alive will switch from house of origin to the other deliberative body. This will be a time to re-engage with renewed vigor.

The legislation is complex, but the choice is simple. Who, with teamwork and support, will do a better job of planning for the funding and quality of life in our communities, including a balanced mix of housing, jobs, water, schools, libraries? An informed elected city council with responsibility to residents or unelected state-sponsored HCD?


Senate Housing Bills, Appropriations Committee, CEQA, streamlined review