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More housing, fewer prisons: California outlines game plan

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Karl Mondon
/
Bay Area News Group
State Sen. Scott Wiener speaks at a press conference in San Francisco on Jan. 21, 2022.

Hanging over the heads of California’s newly sworn-in state lawmakers — and likely to be top of mind when they return to Sacramento next month — are the state’s intertwined housing and homelessness crises.

That was made clear Tuesday, when Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco introduced for the third time a bill to make it easier for religious organizations and nonprofit colleges to build 100% affordable housing on their property. The proposal — part of the YIGBY, or Yes In God’s Back Yard, movement — would allow those groups to bypass local zoning laws and California’s landmark environmental review process, both of which can delay projects for years and tack on millions of dollars in additional costs.

(The state itself wound up on the losing end of an environmental review lawsuit Tuesday, when a California appeals court ruled that the state Department of General Services didn’t sufficiently analyze the environmental impacts of its more than $1 billion project to demolish and replace the nearly 70-year-old Capitol annex building that houses offices for Gov. Gavin Newsom, lawmakers and their staff. The ruling will likely result in project delays.)

The high-profile bill announcement came the same day that police searched Wiener’s home after he received a bomb threat from a person who accused him of being a pedophile and of grooming children. Wiener, who received a similar death threat in June, attributed the threats to “my work to end discrimination against LGBTQ people in the criminal justice system and my work to ensure the safety of transgender children and their families,” in addition to “homophobic” tweets from Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and “MAGA activist” Charlie Kirk.

  • Citing a “rising tide of political violence,” Democratic Assemblymember Mia Bonta of Oakland introduced a bill Monday to make it easier for candidates and elected officials to use campaign funds to pay for electronic security systems and personal security for themselves, their families and staff. The bill would, among other things, eliminate the requirement that law enforcement verify a threat before funds are approved.

Back to housing: As policymakers consider seemingly every avenue to create more housing — some California lawmakers are pushing to turn empty state office buildings into homes, while the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday advanced a plan to fast-track housing development on gas stations and parking lots — concerns are mounting that California’s rapidly cooling housing market and economic headwinds could hinder development.

Still, there’s no time like the present to build. That was a key takeaway of a Tuesday report from California YIMBY, or Yes In My Back Yard, that outlines a roadmap to ending homelessness. It suggests that California — which has a growing unhoused population — might do well to follow in the footsteps of Houston, which cut homelessness in half from 2011 to 2020.

One big reason for Houston’s success, Ned Resnikoff, California YIMBY’s policy director, argued in The Nation: “While California cities have spent decades throwing up obstacles to housing construction, Houston has declined to even impose a citywide zoning code,” allowing it to build more homes faster and keep “prices lower than in much of California, even as the city’s population has grown significantly faster.”

In other development news: Amid a declining inmate population and with “an eye toward fiscal responsibility,” Newsom’s administration plans to shutter its third state prison — Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County — in March 2025, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced Tuesday. The state prison system also plans to terminate in March 2024 a $32 million annual lease with CoreCivic, a private company that operates the California City Correctional Facility, and deactivate certain facilities in six other prisons.

The announcement could prove divisive: The city of Susanville in rural Lassen County, for example, unsuccessfully sued the state over its plans to shutter by June 2023 the California Correctional Center, arguing that it would also shut down the city’s economy. (State labor officials recently announced $1 million in grants to help local workers.)

But criminal justice advocates cheered the news: “Research backs up decades of lived experience that over-reliance on incarceration only compounds the conditions that create violence and does nothing to actually prevent crime in the first place,” Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said in a statement. “It is far past time we … prioritize investing in the creation of a treatment and crime prevention infrastructure that millions of Californians have needed for generations.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.