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A Golden Rule for the Golden State? How State Action Could Help Solve California’s Housing Crisis

In the United States today, over 20 million households are spending more than 30 percent of what they earn just to pay the rent or mortgage on their home. Both locally and nationally, the repercussions of this affordability crisis are taking center stage. In recent weeks, the resignation of one local leader over housing costs and frustration with chronic political inaction in her community set off a flurry of media coverage and social media conversation. Meanwhile, recent poll results have elevated the issue of housing affordability onto the national stage as well.

Underlying these recent events is the reality that the growing cost of housing is due in part to a shortage of supply. In many of the country’s fastest growing regions, a consistent lack of housing production has resulted in a post-recession economy with strong job growth, but nowhere for employees to live. Even middle income families – the backbone of the American economy – are increasingly struggling find a home they can afford.

California alone needs to make room for almost 2 million new households in the next 15 years. Many are already here – young millennials eager to remain as they join the workforce – and many others hope to come in search of educational and job opportunities.  Where will these households live? Who gets to live and stay in California? And importantly, who decides? These are the fundamental and difficult questions this affordability crisis is raising, and it is an urgent, and perhaps propitious, moment for answers and action.

If we want to ensure California is a place of equitable opportunity, we must address one of the key barriers to housing production and contributors to constrained supply: exclusionary land use policies. These policies complicate, inhibit, or even impede the housing development approvals process, especially for multifamily construction. They also add significantly to development costs, making it very difficult to finance the construction of affordable units. We need policies that provide greater predictability, efficiency, and standardization, and which put an end to the political manipulation and exclusion built into the current process. The walls must come down.

But to paraphrase a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “winning is easy; governing is harder.” When it comes to expanding housing supply, identifying the issue is certainly simpler than getting to agreement on how to solve it.

That is why, today, the Terner Center for Housing Innovation is releasing a working paper examining Chapter 40B, a Massachusetts policy that is complementary to Governor Brown’s “by right” proposal in many ways, and which has effectively streamlined the housing approval process and expanded affordable housing production in communities across Massachusetts for over five decades. Our paper, Borrowing Innovation, Achieving Affordability: What We Can Learn From Massachusetts Chapter 40B, describes how Chapter 40B has worked in Massachusetts to address local barriers to housing production, and provides an analysis of how this policy might be adapted and adopted in California, introducing the concept of a “California 40B.”

California 40B is the kind of policy proposal that, though not the only solution, would position California to intervene in exclusionary practices where they are most aggressively practiced and promote more equitable development in communities across the state. As with all bold ideas, the devil will be in the details. A convening to explore the implementation of California 40B would be an important opportunity for a broad set of stakeholders and citizens, including the voices of those who are most affected by the consequences of inaction, to engage with the idea.

If we want to expand the housing supply and ensure California is a place where all families can live and thrive, California 40B provides a compelling way forward.

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