California’s Top Housing Officials Share Vision for Affordability, Accountability

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In the new episode of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast.” CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon interview the heads of California’s top three housing agencies under the Newsom administration.

What is California doing about its sky-high housing prices? Just ask the state’s housing chiefs.

In this special edition of the California Housing Crisis Podcast, The Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon and CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias interview Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency; Gustavo Velasquez, director of the California Department of Housing & Community Development; and Tiena Johnson Hall, executive director of California’s Housing Finance Agency.

They each weighed in on the most controversial issues dominating the California housing crisis debate — including rent control, Proposition 13, and building market rate homes in low-income neighborhoods — and provided some insights into what their agencies are working on to address housing affordability.

Castro Ramírez, who oversees housing and various other state departments, commended the predictability afforded by California’s capped property taxes — a controversial measure that has been blamed for many of the state’s housing woes — in stark contrast to those in Texas, where she was previously head of the San Antonio Housing Commission. “The price of homes may be lower than the price in California, much lower; the property taxes that one pays (in Texas) and the increase in that tax year over year over year, makes it difficult to project and to anticipate how much of your income you’re going to be spending,” she said.

Johnson Hall, whose agency provides financing and loans to low-income renters and homebuyers, described a new program that will provide grants to low-income households looking to build accessory dwelling units in their backyards. She said her experience living in public housing as a single mother right out of college shapes and informs all of her work.

“I look at (housing) still from the lens of a 26-year-old woman who but for affordable housing would have been homeless,” she said. “It changed not only my life, but it changed my children’s life as well. I lead with that passion.”

Velasquez, whose agency finances affordable housing and assesses local housing building production, called rent control “one of those important anti-displacement tools that are in the toolbox,” and hailed the rent control in the District of Columbia as “this golden kind of model for rent control and it has worked organizing tenants and ensuring that they utilize these measures.”

Velasquez’s agency just tripled the number of policy staff and attorneys to ensure local jurisdictions plan for and build enough housing to meet the state’s regional needs through a new Housing Accountability Unit. The department is investigating the rejection last week by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors of a 495-unit apartment complex proposed for a parking lot.

“There are jurisdictions that will be unwilling. We know that,” he said. “But we have now, thanks to the governor and the state Legislature, additional resources to have more capacity to track this work, to monitor this work, and if need be, take enforcement actions as required by state law. So persistence is the key here.”

CALMATTERS | CONTRIBUTED

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