Santa Rosa vote will shape California’s response to housing crisis

By Andre F. Shashaty

When citizens of the Sonoma County city of Santa Rosa go to the polls for a special election June 6, they will help decide the fate of the Bay Area’s poorly-housed, rent-burdened and homeless population for years to come.

The referendum on the city council’s decision last fall to impose rent control caps a political season in which a number of cities enacted new rent controls, and legislation was introduced in Sacramento to allow localities even more power to “manage” the housing market.

The decision of Santa Rosa voters will reverberate throughout the Bay Area and potentially the entire state. It will go a long way to decide which path our governments take to address our housing affordability crisis in coming years:  Regulate rents for a limited and shrinking supply of older rental housing, or make a new political commitment to increase the supply of affordable housing, including low-rent apartments and homes for first-time buyers.

Rent control is a simplistic and politically expedient response to out of control housing costs. It lets politicians pretend that greedy landlords are the main problem.  They do make excellent bad guys, but they are a very small part of the problem compared to the legions of affluent voters and the many special interest groups that have driven up the cost of housing construction to astronomical levels.

The rarely reported truth is that despite politicians’ pretense of concern, creating affordable housing doesn’t rank very highly on the Bay Area’s list of priorities, falling behind generating municipal revenue, environmental protection, preservation of views, parking, traffic flow, union jobs (and political support), green building, and many other things.

In a region that is largely built-out with generally low-density construction, a small vanguard of builders, elected officials, and community planners are pushing a new paradigm of high-density development near transit.  It’s a promising new beginning but it faces massive resistance before it can produce significant volumes of housing.

To keep moving in the right direction, the resurgent demand for rent control must be viewed as a “teachable moment,” not a viable policy path to be followed.

Instead of regulating a dwindling supply of housing in a way that benefits a minority of those in need, we must confront the interest groups who have a vested interest in keeping production low and housing expensive.

Our politicians must stop pandering to the people who fear affordable housing in any quantity and stop excluding lower-income citizens from having a say in land use and zoning decisions.

The only path to a brighter housing outlook starts with the voters in Santa Rosa doing what voters in San Mateo and Burlingame did last November: rejecting rent control

The next and much more important step is for Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint a blue-ribbon panel of nonpolitical experts to review the complex web of policies and politics that keeps pushing costs higher every year, and to use it to make local officials confront tough policy choices that could actually help the rent-burdened, poor and homeless in the long run.

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Andre F. Shashaty has written about housing policy for 35 years and has been quoted in and published by The New York Times and many other publications and web sites.  He is author of the book, Rebuilding a Dream:  America’s new urban crisis, the housing cost explosion and how we can reinvent the American dream for all. He owns an apartment complex in Rohnert Park and is a licensed real estate broker in California focusing on affordable housing.

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