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Jason Walsh: Housing crisis finally has lawmakers’ attention

It wasn’t so long ago that on the menu of California politicians’ priorities, affordable housing was the spinach on the plate – everyone knew it was necessary to keep our economic body healthy and strong, but they’d much rather be seen by voters to be bringing home the bacon of greater middle class prosperity than the leafy greens of human services and environmentalism.

But as many have learned during the “housing crisis” of the past few post-recession years, California is something of an omnivore when it comes to how an area’s housing stability affects the overall state of its economy. For the middle class to climb the ladder, it can’t have cracks at the base rungs.

It seems this reality of the housing crisis is hitting home at multiple levels of elected bodies, from city councils like Sonoma’s – which last year dedicated $100,000 toward permitting relief for the Altamira Family Apartments on Broadway and recently approved new mapping for a subdivision on West Napa Street partly due its potential for a 30-unit apartment development – to our own California state legislature which is practically tripping over itself to pass more than a dozen housing reforms before its legislative year ends Sept. 15.

The housing relief package coming out of the legislature will contain a variety of potential measures, not all of them set in stone yet, but lawmakers promise, if anything, the final plan will include a bond proposal and the establishment of a dedicated funding source for affordable housing.

The bond proposal currently being hashed out would provide $3 billion to fund lower-cost housing and would likely come to voters in 2018.

The ongoing affordable housing funding source is a trickier deal, and it’s got some detractors in the legislature. Senate Bill 2, by state Sen. Toni Atkins (D – San Diego), would levy a $75 fee on certain real estate transactions, such as notices and deeds. The maximum total in fees for an entire real estate transaction would be $225 (or three of the $75 document charges) and is estimated to bring in between $200 million and $300 million annual for affordable housing. Exempt from SB2 would be documents related to property transactions; it would, however, apply to mortgage refinances.

Some lawmakers argue such a fee would put too much of the affordable-housing-funding burden upon middle-class homeowners many of whom, given the low interest rates of recent years, may refinance multiple times over the course of their mortgages.

In an alternate idea that would put more of the funding impetus on corporations, Sonoma’s state Assemblymember Marc Levine has drafted legislation that would increase the tax rate of large corporations by 1 percent – from 8.84 to 9.84 percent – to general about $500 million annually for construction of new housing.

Levine, however, may be a bit late to the game with his proposal. According to the Marin Independent Journal, the bill has yet to be introduced in the Assembly and, with legislators’ attention drawn toward the elements of the housing package already on the table, there may be little enthusiasm for a sizeable corporate tax hike with only three weeks left before the next recess.

Levine came under fire from housing advocates this summer when he quietly slipped a bill into the state budget that extended until 2028 a lowering of Marin County’s state-mandated affordable housing density requirements. He may have to wait until the next legislative session to rebuild his reputation with affordable housing proponents.

Meanwhile, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, who represents the unincorporated Sonoma Valley in the Assembly, has introduced ACA4, a bill that would grant local municipalities the power to establish special taxes to pay for affordable housing. Under ACA4, revenues from a special parcel tax, for instance, could also be used by local governments to purchase property for affordable housing projects. The bill would also lower the required two-thirds super majority to pass such a tax, instead bringing the threshold down to 55 percent.

The complete package coming out of Sacramento could also include affordable housing tax credits and other measures to encourage greater compliance with existing state requirements to meet housing goals.

However the legislature crafts its final housing package next month, no one expects it to solve the housing crisis -- let alone even drop it from “crisis” status.

Still, the idea that affordable housing has risen as a priority with some lawmakers is certainly encouraging. In some ways it’s a sea change in attitude from the days not long ago when lower-income housing received plenty of lip service from politicians during campaigns but, when push came to shove, would routinely cave to neighbor complaints about increases in traffic and undesirables.

It remains to be seen whether the state legislature passes a housing package with any teeth. But at least they’re willing to take a bite at it.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.