Local control over affordable housing

Californians have a problem with housing. Too many just can't afford it, so they either pass up jobs that are too far from where they can afford to live, or they take them and wind up driving too far, clogging the roads and spewing too much exhaust into the air, or else they double, triple or quadruple up their families into cramped apartments or garages that can't safely accommodate them.

Los Angeles officials tinkered for years with proposals to require developers to reserve a portion of their units for below-market-rate housing. Such "inclusionary zoning" laws would necessarily make it more costly to build here, leading opponents to argue that there would be fewer units, not more, offered at affordable rates. Supporters countered that developers were constructing so many high-priced, high-profit apartments or condos that they wouldn't be deterred by the added cost of including affordable units.

The back-and-forth in City Hall seemed endless, and the action nonexistent; meanwhile, a third of all municipalities in California zoomed past Los Angeles and adopted inclusionary zoning ordinances, some just for sale units, others for rental housing as well. Here, city leaders rested on old land-use plans that mandated affordable housing only in particular neighborhoods, such as downtown-adjacent Central City West, where developer Geoff Palmer was building his Piero II project.

When the city denied Palmer's request for a waiver from the zoning requirement, he sued, asserting that the 1991 city mandate violated a later state law — the 1995 Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act — that limits rent control. Palmer won, rolling back in the process not only L.A.'s very modest affordable-housing law but also all inclusionary zoning laws around the state. Moneyed interests learned their lesson: Instead of fighting local policy decisions, they could get Sacramento to strip cities of the power to make their own laws.

The perverse result is that too many local officials have been shielded from responsibility. In Los Angeles, for example, officials no longer have to wrestle with whether to adopt citywide inclusionary zoning. And that's a shame, because whether or not the policy is the best one to increase the stock of affordable housing, the question is a local one that should be answered by local officials.

Gov. Jerry Brown is now considering whether to sign or veto AB 1229, a bill to authorize cities to require affordable units as a condition of development. Much of Brown's most recent incarnation as governor has focused on correcting the faulty division of powers between state and local governments; this bill would help do that. He should sign it, and return the burdens and benefits of local governance to local government.

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