Skelton: California lawmakers compromise for housing deal


When a legislature works as it should, great things can happen.

Working well means: leaders cooperate and jointly use their influence. Lawmakers pushing rival bills team up. People compromise. Insistent vested interests are set aside.

A textbook example happened last week. The Leader of the Senate and the Speaker of the Assembly have agreed to two important housing bills. The measures were in conflict politically, but not so much on substance. They complemented each other. And it was decided that everyone should pass.

Both bills open up commercial land to residential housing, in many cases replacing run-down malls, vacant office buildings or run-down motels — or just plain ugly patches of weeds.

Local governments are often reluctant to rezone commercial land to residential land because businesses generate more property taxes than homes. And they oppose legislation that weakens their local control.

Of course, local government restrictions have contributed to the state’s severe housing shortage. Demand exceeds supply, driving up house prices and rents.

Last week’s legislative agreement ended a years-long stalemate, caused in large part by a battle between two labor factions: the National Council for Building and Construction Trades – colloquially referred to as “the trades” – and the carpenters union.

The trades demanded that all housing projects be required to use a “skilled and trained” workforce – an understatement for union members. The carpenters were okay with just “governing wages” – a wage that is usually at the top of the local heap.

The carpenters claimed there were not enough union members to make a union hiring mandate work.

” Let’s be realistic. There is no way a union workforce can step in and meet the state’s housing production targets. It’s practically a non-union industry,” says Danny Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters.

But the workforce badly needs to be unionized, counters trades president Andrew Meredith.

“Residential construction workers have been abused for generations by developers,” he says.

Democratic lawmakers did not want to alienate either group of workers, especially the most powerful occupations. Both are significant contributors to the campaign. Thus, some housing laws have been stalled for years.

But this time, legislative leaders said enough was enough.

“They have quite an impact on the members. They divide and conquer,” Senate Leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) told me. “We said it wouldn’t work.”

“We try to respond to [housing] crisis,” she added. “At some point, we have to find solutions. Everyone involved, from carpenters to building trades, finally had to come to the table, realizing that we can’t do anything if we don’t do it together.

Lawmakers pressured their leaders to act on housing because they heard angry voters.

Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) said both bills should pass — and let everyone know they would make sure it happened.

With that muscle behind them, both bills are a virtual breeze to pass before the Legislative Assembly adjourns its two-year session on Wednesday. Governor Gavin Newsom will be eagerly signing both.

Developers will have an option: they can build according to the new law of their choice.

AB 2011 by Assembly Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) does not include a union hiring mandate. But this requires prevailing wages. It is strongly supported by carpenters.

SB 6 by Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Merced) requires both union hiring and prevailing wages. It is driven by the trades.

The purpose of Wicks’ bill is to produce affordable housing for low-income people. A certain percentage of units must be affordable – a requirement that developers do not like.

Caballero’s measure is targeted at middle-class housing. It does not require affordability. But local governments still could.

AB 2011 exempts projects from the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, dreaded by developers. The law requires a long process of analyzing the environmental effects of a project and reducing the negative impacts. It is often abused by housing opponents who file lawsuits that drag on for years, prompting frustrated developers to abandon their plans.

“We make it easy for housing opponents to filibuster,” says Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), author of several CEQA exemption bills. “We have to put an end to this nonsense.”

Caballero’s bill does not contain a CEQA exemption for projects. But it offers regulatory streamlining.

Wicks’ compromise on the bill led to amendments exempting its provisions from vacant land in very high-fire areas and within 3,200 feet of an oil well or refinery. Buildings over 65 feet tall in a coastal area were also prohibited.

“We didn’t go in there for one team to win at the expense of another,” Rendon said. “As a result, we have a housing victory that ticks many boxes: affordability, mixed use, transit accessibility, and labor [protections].”

Too many boxes for Dan Dunmoyer, who heads the California Building Industry Assn. He complains about all the conditions that a promoter must meet.

“By the time all the boxes are checked, there won’t be as much construction as they think,” he says.

But he praises Wicks and Caballero: “Two brave lawmakers who stepped up and put labor on the table. It’s very, very positive.

They were also smart enough to join forces months ago to get both of their bills passed. Wicks was the new Chair of the Assembly Housing Committee. Before that, Caballero’s bill was stuck in Assembly limbo — the victim of typical interhouse rivalry.

“He was kidnapped by the Assembly last year,” Caballero says.

Until last week, Wicks’ bill faced an uncertain fate in the Senate.

Now, the two measures will perform end-of-session parliamentary gymnastics and become law, opening up more sites for housing. A great thing.

Los Angeles Times

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