Upfront: Many Mansions

Antonio Villaraigosa makes his housing-first case to be California’s next governor

Standing in front of a tall Christmas tree, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently laid out a vision for housing and redevelopment in California, surrounded by a living-room crowd of mayors, councilmembers, county supervisors, former politicians and Democratic heavyweights.

Villaraigosa, a frontrunner in the 2018 California governor’s race, came to the Bay Area for a meet-and-greet at the home of former Santa Cruz County Treasurer Fred Keeley, a friend of Villaraigosa going back to their days in the state assembly together. In his talk, Villaraigosa preached an “all of the above strategy” to bring down housing costs in the state.

“If you don’t have a strategy of all of the above, we’re really not going to deal with this crisis,” says Villaraigosa in a brief interview following the event. “Everybody talks about homelessness, everybody talks about the housing crisis, and we’re not treating it like it is a crisis, like it’s an emergency.”

Villaraigosa is hitting the campaign trail in advance of a June 5 primary election. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will go to a runoff in November. If the election were held today, it would be Villaraigosa squaring off against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Villaraigosa, 65, says he remembers buying his first home in a far different housing market at age 24, just by saving up—something he knows is impossible for most young people in 2018.

He has big ideas for how to make housing affordable once again. Some are hotly contested topics, like increased housing density and building along major transit corridors. He broke that plan into five bullet-point steps:

  • Put together a housing trust fund. Create a statewide revenue source to fund affordable projects.
  • Bring back redevelopment in what Villaraigosa calls “Redevelopment 2.0.” Even though the original decision to ax redevelopment programs was a controversial one, Villaraigosa knows that bringing it back won’t be easy because legislators have already gotten used to having the nearly $2 billion a year that came from local property tax increments. Still, he hopes to restore those tax increments—some of which used to go to affordable housing—to local governments. If elected, Villaraigosa hopes to restore the program, with the support of mayors from around the state, while eliminating the excesses that Lt. Gov. Jerry Brown had criticized while unveiling a plan to gut the redevelopment in 2011.
  • Encourage cities to plan “smart growth” housing construction. Cities that want to access state money would need a plan for affordable housing. That would include building for a variety of lower incomes, adding density and building along major transportation corridors. “Every mayor here, every councilmember here knows part of why we have a crisis,” Villaraigosa said. “Because the more affluent communities, with single-family dwellings, constantly complain about the lack of housing, homelessness, and then push back every time you try to build. And the fact of the matter is you’ve gotta build.”
  • Introduce regulatory reform. Require that local governments quicken permitting for proposed projects. Villaraigosa said the state also needs to look at reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, without weakening environmental requirements.
  • Make everyone pitch in. Under his plan, Villaraigosa said he would not give a pass to the affluent communities that don’t engage in “smart growth” and affordable housing. They will “have to put money in a kitty for the region so they can build that housing.”

Just hours earlier that same day, the Los Angeles City Council approved a linkage fee for new development that will charge developers between $1 and $15 per square foot, depending on the type of project and location. Villaraigosa supports that approach and says these tools are important, even though they could get in the way of housing construction if they’re too cumbersome.

“You gotta find the balance,” he says. “Obviously, if it’s overly bureaucratic—that’s the argument that a lot of developers make. New York has inclusionary zoning. Probably a hundred cities in the state have inclusionary zoning. Let’s look at the best practices, let’s look at the places that are doing it well. I agree there is no question that some of these things could have the effect of delaying and raising the cost of housing. But in a crisis like this, we can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”

Newsom has also called for a housing boom. He’s the only candidate leading Villaraigosa in the polls and says California needs to nearly quadruple its housing construction to meet the demand.

The governor’s race also features California State Treasurer John Chiang, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, attorney John Cox and State Assemblyman Travis Allen.

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