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Housing Is the Most Important Issue for California Voters, So Learn Up

A progressive’s guide to the midterm votes that matter most

Mike Dunham
Oct 11, 2018 · 20 min read
Photo: TbonePuddinghead/Reddit
Photo: Mirah CurzerUnsplash

California is the most important state in the country, by almost any metric you can think of: population (39.8 million, 11 million more than second-place Texas), gross domestic product ($2.7 trillion, more than the U.K., India, and France), economic influence (three of the top five most valuable companies in the world are headquartered here), or cultural influence (epicenter of the global film and television industry).

Yet, if you’re a typical person, you probably don’t hear much about California politics. Part of this is structural: We live in a federal system of government, so even though politics in California is incredibly important, national politics frequently overshadows it. Our U.S. senators only get two votes, the same as Wyoming, which has 1/68th the population.

Another factor in California’s low profile is the politics of the moment. Our Republican president’s penchant for spectacle (and history of alleged criminal conduct) sucks up the oxygen in every news cycle. And given Republican control of the House, 39 of California’s 53 representatives are stuck in the minority party. Plus, our Republican representatives have become infatuated with putting the interests of their party over the interests of their constituents. This is why Rep. Devin Nunes has done everything he can to undermine the Russia investigation and most California GOP representatives voted to repeal Obamacare with no reasonable replacement plan ready, which would’ve completely fucked over their most vulnerable constituents.

So if you’ve started to hear about this fall’s California ballot propositions and thought to yourself, “I have no idea what those are about,” you’re not alone. However, they really matter, and it’s time to get up to speed so you’re at least not willfully ignorant.

Housing Is by Far the Most Important Issue in California

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a college-educated professional of some kind who found this link through social media. If so, you’re probably like my wife and me, paying rent far higher than seems reasonable for what we get. And if we want to buy a home, we’ll have to wait until later in life and settle for a much smaller space than we would in virtually any other state.

If that sounds like you, congratulations, you’re one of the lucky ones. We’re not in imminent danger of being kicked out of our homes. We’re not worried that if we lose a job or an unexpected expense comes up, we’ll be short on rent and get evicted. We’re not worried that if our rent goes up a few hundred dollars a month, our family finances will be in the red.

However, millions of Californians are in that situation. Two statistics bear this out. First, under traditional measures of poverty, 13.4 percent of Californians are impoverished, which is only slightly higher than the national average of 12.9 percent over the last three years. However, under the Obama administration, the Census Bureau began calculating a “supplemental poverty measure” that accounts for the costs of housing, health care, and child care where people live. Under this measure, California’s poverty rate climbs to 19 percent, making it the state with the highest percentage of impoverished residents in the country — Washington, DC and Florida are the only other places in the same ballpark. Because of California’s enormous population, that means there are about 7.5 million residents living in poverty, almost as many as in Texas and Florida combined.

Second, on any given night in California, there are 134,000 people experiencing homelessness. From 2016 to 2017, that number increased 14 percent — in a single fucking year. This problem is horrific, getting worse every day, and inextricably related to the cost of housing. If a poor individual or family is living on the knife’s edge of affording their rent, and the housing market continues to rise, that very well could push them into homelessness. If they’re lucky, they own a car or can get their hands on an RV to live in, or they have family or friends they can crowd in with. If not, they’re at the mercy of whatever government services they can manage to find, or they’re out on the street.

Even if you are in the lucky 80 percent that is not in danger of financial catastrophe due to the housing market, this problem still affects you. If you’ve been to San Francisco in the last few years, you’ve seen first-hand the magnitude of the city’s homelessness problem. The New York Times recently published a piece, “Life on the Dirtiest Block in San Francisco,” that contained a startling nugget of information: The city spends $70 million per year on street cleaning, largely driven by the enormous volume of used needles and human waste covering its sidewalks.

Similarly, the volume of property theft and car break-ins in SF is so bad that one resident found some security with this creative solution:

If you live outside of San Francisco, you’ve likely experienced numerous related problems. Because of high housing costs, lots of people can’t afford to live near their jobs, so they drive long distances to work, contributing to ever-worsening traffic. Every additional mile between home and work is another car-mile on the road. As home prices rise in central areas closest to jobs, this problem will just get worse and worse. Plus, a longer commute means less time you and everyone else gets to spend with family or doing other things you enjoy.

There’s also a good chance you can’t afford to buy the home you wish you could. The federal tax code strongly incentivizes home ownership through the mortgage interest tax deduction, and California, in particular, incentivizes it through Prop 13’s limits on how fast your property taxes can rise. For instance, the actors Jeff and Beau Bridges inherited a home in Malibu from their parents in 2009, but pay property taxes on it based on an assessment from 1975.

As you can see, this saved them over $300,000 in property taxes on a property that’s priced to rent out at about $16,000 per month. You likely won’t be buying a beach house in Malibu to get that scale of a tax break, but if you’re still renting, you’re missing out on huge federal and state subsidies for homeownership. And rising home prices mean that purchasing something reasonably sized and conveniently located gets more and more difficult every year.

And none of this even gets to the climate effects of the California housing crisis. The U.N. just released a report warning that we have only 12 years to seriously curb greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change: rising sea levels, destruction of coral reefs, extreme weather, and more severe heat waves. If you live in California, failing to seriously tackle this problem likely means you’ll experience more frequent 100-degree days, droughts, and water rationing. You’ll also increasingly face the consequences of wildfires (smoke blowing over cities, parks shutting down, travel restrictions, and threats to homes in outlying areas), which are already a serious problem every summer.

Forty-one percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions are due to transportation, the single largest factor. When people live far away from their jobs and far away from reliable public transportation, they drive, and those cars spew emissions. We have to change this if we don’t want to live in a dystopian hellscape in a few decades.

Source: California Air Resources Board

So, How Do We Fix Housing?

I hope you’re convinced that no matter who you are, the California housing crisis is your problem, and even if our Republican president commits yet another crime (allegedly), you still need to fucking pay attention to state politics. Fixing the housing crisis is complicated, but after a few months studying this issue in-depth, I think there are two main solutions we need to pursue:

1. Build more housing close to jobs and public transportation

The housing crisis should be more accurately described as a “housing shortage.” For a variety of complex reasons, California has under-built homes relative to demand for decades. For instance, the state estimates that simply to keep up with population growth, we need to build 180,000 homes per year, yet we’re only building about 100,000. So right now, we are digging this hole deeper and deeper, and it’s already super fucking deep, as this graph shows:

Source: California Legislative Analyst’s Office

A McKinsey Institute report estimates that California needs to build about 3.5 million homes by 2025 to adequately deal with the housing shortage. Our likely next governor, former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, has pledged to do just that — though experts say it’s likely an impossible goal.

However many homes we manage to build, location is key. The consensus among folks who study this issue is that we should pursue something called “transit-oriented development.” That means building homes near existing public transit, so that residents don’t need to own cars (or at least, own less than one car per person). This means less physical space dedicated to parking and fewer cars on the road at rush hour. Ideally, you’d have plenty of housing near jobs, so people could walk, bike, or quickly commute to work on public transit.

This is easier said than done. Many cities are hesitant to approve more dense housing for fear of messing with their “local character” or worsening traffic and parking problems and because people who already own homes and benefit from government subsidies don’t feel any pressure to change. (Plus, they get richer and richer as home prices rise.) But regardless of the strength of entrenched political interests, building more housing near jobs and public transit is essential.

2. Protect people of all income levels from the negative effects of the California housing shortage

Even if we as a state decided to take drastic action today to tackle the housing crisis, it would take several decades to get out of the hole the state has dug for itself. As mentioned previously, California currently builds about 100,000 homes per year, and the state has only built more than 300,000 homes in a year twice since 1956 — once in 1963 (yes, the year JFK was assassinated), and again in 1986 (the year Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out).

All of that is to say that we won’t see serious relief on housing prices for decades, even if we start building 300,000 homes per year going forward. [Quick math: 300,000 homes per year — 180,000 homes per year to maintain status quo = 120,000 surplus. A conservative 2.5 million homes needed / 120,000 surplus = 20.8 years to solve this problem.] For anyone facing housing insecurity today, waiting 20.8 years — in the most optimistic case — is untenable, and they will likely be pushed out of their homes long before then. But there are things we can do now to mitigate this.

First, it’s well within the ability of the state (and potentially of cities, depending on what happens with Prop 10) to protect renters. California through Prop 13 provides protection for homeowners by capping property taxes at 1 percent of a home’s assessed value and limiting increases in the assessed value to 2 percent per year, regardless of market value. This is how a millionaire actor like Jeff Bridges can pay a fraction of the property taxes he otherwise would on a Malibu beach home. If we as a people are okay protecting homeowners this way, then we should also protect renters this way, principally through reasonable caps on rent increases and restrictions on “no cause” evictions. (i.e., if you pay your rent and follow the terms of your lease, your landlord shouldn’t be able to force you out, even if the landlord could get more rent from a new tenant.)

Vote for things that protect California residents of all income levels from the negative effects of the housing crisis.

Additionally, even if there weren’t a severe housing shortage, it would still be important to create communities that are inclusive of all income levels. Every town and city needs teachers, firefighters, police officers, restaurant workers, janitors, retail workers, and many other occupations in order to function. If housing is only available for wealthy professionals, this creates unhealthy communities where the kids of rich people only associate with other kids of rich people, and essential working-class folks drive in and out each day.

Not to mention, a lot of the communities that are already like this evolved that way because for many decades, the federal government intentionally segregated communities and blocked people of color from owning homes in richer, white neighborhoods through “redlining.” (See Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” or Richard Rothstein’s The Color of the Law for more.)

The standard mechanism for dealing with this is affordable housing, where various levels of government provide subsidies to build housing that is restricted to families of certain income levels. When we invest in affordable housing in communities with strong job markets, the folks who fill essential roles in communities can live near where they work, their children can grow up in those communities, and we’ll have a more equitable society.

Additionally, affordable housing can provide much-needed stability in all communities. Traditionally lower-income neighborhoods that are within commuting distance to job centers are ripe targets for gentrification. If subject purely to the whims of the market and policymakers single-mindedly pursuing “economic development,” people who’ve been in communities for decades are routinely forced out. Affordable housing can mitigate some of that, but the subject of gentrification will require far more comprehensive solutions.

However, the nice thing about housing is that there are many levers that can be pulled.

It’s important to recognize that these two solutions — building more housing near jobs and public transit, and protecting people of all income levels — can sometimes be in tension. If you establish renter protections in a city, that can create incentives for landlords to pull a unit off the rental market and rehab it into a condo they can then sell at market rates. Or depending on the nature of how rents are allowed to rise, that could reduce the incentive for real estate developers to construct new apartment buildings, since they need to make back their investment from many years of rental income in the future.

However, the nice thing about housing is that there are many levers that can be pulled. Even if we establish moderate caps on rent increases, there are other public policy measures to offset that. (Allowing denser construction of units, for example, which makes each individual unit cheaper to build. Or exempting the most recent 15–20 years of housing construction from rent stabilization.) Plus, California and the federal government already give market-distorting subsidies to homeowners, so it’s hard to pretend a thumb isn’t already on the scale.

Shut Up Already. How Should I Vote?

So that was about 2,400 words of context that will hopefully make this next section a relative breeze. I focused on housing, because seven of the 11 statewide propositions on the November ballot have to do with housing or infrastructure, and because housing will be the most urgent problem for the next governor to tackle.

So to summarize, here are the general heuristics I’m applying to my vote:

  1. Vote for things that protect California residents of all income levels from the negative effects of the housing crisis.
  2. Vote for things that build more housing near jobs and public transit. (Yes, #1 and #2 can be in tension sometimes. That’s okay — we have to lean on the Legislature and local cities to make reasonable trade-offs to promote both goals.)
  3. Vote for Democrats, because the Republican Party is an irrational, climate change-denying, democracy-undermining, extremist, xenophobic, white identity politics cesspool stoked by hatred and Fox News propaganda. If you care about the future of America, you should never vote for a Republican, at least until sanity prevails and we have a reasonable center-right party in politics again.
  4. If only Democrats are running, preference younger Democrats, because the sooner we expel Baby Boomers and the older Gen X’ers from office, the sooner we’ll be able to make the radical progressive changes we need to in order to build a sustainable future.
  5. Consider what the major state newspapers endorse, given that they have the resources to dig deeply into each issue.

Given those heuristics, here is how I’m voting on the propositions and statewide offices:

Propositions

Prop 1: Veterans and Affordable Housing Bond Act of 2018 = YES

  • Prop 1 is a $4 billion bond measure that would allow California to borrow money to build housing for a few groups of public concern, including veterans and lower-income residents. This is put forward as a bond and not as part of the state budget, because: 1.) large investments like this are expensive and hard to finance from a single year’s tax revenues given the other pressures on the state budget; 2.) like many infrastructure investments, the benefits of this bond spending will accrue over many years, so it makes financial and political sense to pay for them over many years; and 3.) the money will likely be spent over multiple years, so it makes sense not to borrow the money until a live project is ready to go. (See here for an overview of how the state thinks about bond funding.)
  • Given that, this one is an easy yes. Some $1 billion will go toward helping veterans buy homes (which the veterans themselves will pay off over time), and $3 billion will go to housing-related programs. Because affordable housing necessarily brings in below-market-rate rents, developers can’t build these projects without public subsidy, and this money is sorely needed across the entire state.

Prop 2: No Place Like Home Act of 2018 = YES

  • This proposition will allow California to issue $2 billion worth of bonds to build housing specifically for mentally ill homeless people. According to recent research, there are 34,700 people with mental illness living on the streets of California, which is just over 25 percent of the total homeless population. This bond measure would finance 20,000 units of “permanent supportive housing” that would help these folks get off the streets and into permanent homes where they can receive treatment. If you’ve been to San Francisco, you’ve seen how urgent this need is, so this proposition is also an easy yes.

Prop 3: Authorizes Bonds to Fund Projects for Water Supply and Quality, Watershed, Fish, Wildlife, Water Conveyance, and Groundwater Sustainability and Storage = NO

  • This is an interesting one, and endorsements from reasonable sources go both ways. Basically, this proposition would authorize $8.9 billion in bond financing to fund a grab bag of water and environmental projects. Opponents, including the Sierra Club and the Sacramento Bee editorial board, say there’s insufficient oversight of the projects and that they don’t line up with the state’s most pressing water needs. Instead, a lot of the support for this proposition is from businesses that stand to profit from the new spending.
  • I think there’s wide consensus given the recent drought that California needs to invest more in water infrastructure. But if a proposition is controversial enough to merit this much opposition, it’s probably the wrong move.

Prop 4: Authorizes $1.5 billion in bonds to funding construction at various hospitals providing children’s health care = YES

  • This proposition would issue a $1.5 billion bond to invest in capacity, safety, and equipment at nonprofit and public children’s hospitals around the state. Editorial boards (e.g., the LA Times and Mercury News) seem to be unanimously in support, so you should be too.

Prop 5: Changes Requirements for Certain Property Owners to Transfer Their Property Tax Base to Replacement Property = NO

  • As referenced in my long intro, Prop 13 is the 1978 voter-approved proposition that puts strict limits on property taxes for existing property owners. While it was intended to protect folks from getting forced out of their homes by high taxes, it has had severe unintended consequences. Prop 5 would basically double down on the ability of wealthy homeowners to transfer their existing artificially low property tax assessment to a new home when they sell. It’s estimated that cities and counties would lose $1 billion in revenue as a result.
  • Ultimately, Prop 5 is a play by the California Association of Realtors to get something that it wasn’t able to negotiate out of the Legislature. The powerful special interest group is generally on the side of landlords, and even if there are some improvements to be made to property tax policy, those should come in a negotiation. That’s the only way landlords will give something up in exchange. If Prop 5 passes, it’ll be a freebie for the realtors, so the next time Prop 13 reform comes up in the Legislature, which it likely will, they’ll already have won this bargaining chip. Vote no.

Prop 6: Eliminates Recently Enacted Road Repair and Transportation Funding by Repealing Revenues dedicated for those Purposes = NO

  • In 2017, the Legislature passed a gasoline tax and increased vehicle fees to fund $5 billion per year of desperately needed transportation infrastructure improvements. While taxes like these are by nature regressive (richer people care less how much their gas costs), there are only so many sources of revenue, and it makes political sense that folks who use public roads should also pay for improvements. Additionally, Prop 6 is supported by Republicans and anti-tax advocates, because it has provisions that would force the Legislature to take any future gasoline taxes or vehicle fee increases to voters for approval.
  • California desperately needs to invest in infrastructure, and gas taxes are a good way to do it. Don’t give in to the anti-tax zealots in the Republican Party. You should vote no.

Prop 7: Permanent Daylight Saving Time = YES

  • This is a surprisingly complex issue. Basically, Prop 7 would give the state Legislature the option to approve year-round daylight saving time (i.e., you wouldn’t have to “spring forward” and “fall back” any more) by a two-thirds vote. This is currently blocked by a 70-year-old law, so we are prevented from even considering this unless that is changed. I would trust the Legislature to make the right decision on this, so we should give them the power.

Prop 8: Authorizes State Regulation of Kidney Dialysis Clinics = NO

  • Prop 8 is a result of a negotiation battle between unions and health care providers over wages at dialysis clinics. I don’t know enough to say who’s more right or wrong in that fight, but Prop 8 is exactly the type of special interest proposition that should not be handled with a popular vote. If action is needed, the Legislature should take it. Newspaper endorsements seem nearly universal that “no” is the right answer (e.g., Sacramento Bee, Mercury News).

Prop 9: Division of California into Three States = n/a

  • This was a crazy proposition, but it was pulled from the ballot by the California Supreme Court, so you won’t get to vote on it.

Prop 10: Expands Local Governments’ Authority to Enact Rent Control on Residential Property = YES

  • Prop 10 is probably the most legitimately controversial initiative on the ballot, because the status quo law (Costa-Hawkins) blocks cities and counties from having full freedom to implement rent control policies. For instance, no city can pass rent control on buildings built after 1995, or on single-family homes. This is despite the fact that the housing crisis has gotten dramatically worse over the last 23 years, and that millions of single-family homes are now occupied by renters instead of homeowners. For instance, Blackstone, the private equity firm, snapped up an enormous number of California homes for a bargain after the financial crisis, and it is very much in its corporate interest to prevent rent control from happening.
  • As I’ve mentioned above, opponents of rent control say it will prevent housing from being built, but that can be mitigated other ways. Plenty of California cities have rent control and reasonably robust housing production (SF and LA, for example), and people who are getting screwed by rapidly increasing rents need protection.
  • Ultimately, yes on Prop 10 means that each city gets to decide what renter protections make sense for its circumstances. It’s very possible that San Francisco and Oakland will want something different from Los Angeles or cities in the Central Valley. We should let local policymakers decide what’s appropriate for their constituents, so a yes on Prop 10 is the right answer.

Prop 11: Requires Private-Sector Emergency Ambulance Employees to Remain on Call During Work Breaks = NO

  • Prop 11 is on the ballot as a result of a pro-worker court decision that said on-call meal and rest breaks violated state labor laws, even if they were only interrupted for an emergency. While that case involved security guards, the ruling has led to a lawsuit by emergency medical workers against a major ambulance company over backpay for missed meal breaks. Basically, if Prop 11 passes, the lawsuit will be dismissed and the company will save tens of millions of dollars. If Prop 11 fails, then the lawsuit goes forward and the courts can sort it out.
  • After a long discussion on this issue with my friend who is an EMT, it’s clear that a “no” is the right answer. The mechanics of EMT meal breaks are a bit complicated, but this proposition ultimately has very little bearing on the quality of emergency services in California and is a cynical attempt by a major corporation to save money. Vote no.

Prop 12: Establishes New Standards for Confinement of Certain Farm Animals; Bans Sale of Certain Non-Complying Products = YES

  • This proposition mandates that all hens in California be cage-free by 2022 and sets a minimum square footage of housing space per hen. It provides similar rules for pigs and calves used for veal. The Mercury News has a good write-up and says yes is the right answer. The LA Times agrees.

Statewide Offices

Governor: Gavin Newsom

  • The choice we have this fall for governor is between a Democrat and a Republican, which is to say, this is no choice at all. Both candidates agree that a housing shortage is a severe problem in California. Yet Gavin Newsom has a fairly comprehensive strategy for housing on his campaign website, while his opponent only has four paragraphs on housing and homelessness. As expected, the Republican agenda is basically “cut regulations, because that is the solution to every problem we have as a society.” Voting for Newsom is a no-brainer.

Lieutenant Governor: Eleni Kounalakis

  • This is actually a somewhat divisive race, because it is between two Democrats, even though the lieutenant governor hardly has any official power. Eleni Kounalakis has the endorsements of the Mercury News and Sacramento Bee. Ed Hernandez has the endorsements of the LA Times and SF Chronicle. However, Kounalakis is both younger by eight years (heuristic #4) and promises to focus more on housing and homelessness (heuristics #1 and #2), versus Hernandez, who wants to focus on education and healthcare. While all those issues are important, housing is far and away the #1 issue in California, and Kounalakis has experience as a property developer. She’s the better choice.

US Senator: Kevin de Leon

  • I admire Dianne Feinstein, but she is 85 years old and hardly representative of California ideologically anymore. It’s time for a change, and Feinstein should’ve retired this year to let another generation take over, like former state Senate leader Kevin De León. I’ll be voting de León, though I’m guessing his odds of winning are slim.

Secretary of State: Alex Padilla

  • Democrat vs. Republican. Easy. (See heuristic #3, which also applies to the next several offices.)

Controller: Betty T. Yee

Treasurer: Fiona Ma

Attorney General: Xavier Becerra

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Marshall Tuck

  • This is a position, like the lieutenant governor, that doesn’t have a ton of formal power. However, this race has become a teachers’ union vs. charter school battleground, which Tuck representing the charter reform side, and his opponent representing the unions. Given that Gavin Newsom has come out hard in favor of unions and against charters, I think it’s reasonable to have a Superintendent of Public Instruction that will balance against that, and Tuck is well-qualified as a former leader of a school network.

Insurance Commissioner: Steve Poizner

  • This one is technically Democrat vs. No Party Preference, though Poizner is a former Republican. However, I’m willing to grant a former Republican some benefit of the doubt if he’s renounced the insanity of that party. Plus, Poizner ran the table on endorsements (LA Times, Sacramento Bee, Mercury News, SF Chronicle) and seems like he’ll do a balanced job, rather than favoring one special interest over another.

State Board of Equalization: Malia Cohen in District 2

  • This is a board that oversees some tax issues. It probably should be disbanded, but until it is, the only person that seems to be liked is Malia Cohen for District 2 (resounding endorsement from the Mercury News). I couldn’t find any other endorsements, so if you’re in another district, just guess or leave it blank.

Fin. If you spend your time looking at nothing else, the one issue that really matters is Prop 10. Read about it—here’s a good summary of the arguments on both sides—and I hope you vote yes.

Former 5th grade math teacher running for City Council in Burlingame, CA. We are not doing nearly enough to solve the housing crisis.

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