By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown News
Governor Gavin Newsom tries to not overuse the word “crisis” because it can tend to normalize an issue. At a press conference in San Diego on Oct. 9 where he signed SB 113, a bill that allows $331 million in state funds to be used by renters and homeowners for legal aid, Newsom said he normally steers clear of the word, but the issue of affordable housing in California has truly become a crisis.
His visit to San Diego came amid his housing tour where he signed 18 bills aimed at addressing different parts of the complex housing issue. Senate Pro Tempore Toni Atkins joined him at the press conference. The San Diego politician ensured bills protecting renters, cutting red tape on building new housing, and upending single-family zoning made it to his desk in the first place. Since Newsom vetoed Atkins’ signature piece of legislation this year (an ambitious bill keeping in place the environmental standards of the Obama administration), she said the work to address the housing crisis (a term she freely uses to describe the issue) is her proudest accomplishment from the last legislative session. In addition to addressing climate change and coastal erosion, her goal next year is to boost production of new housing now that stop-gap measures to prevent “price gouging” of renters are in place.
Atkins has spent much of her own career shaping the language used around housing, and thus the vision of how government needs to address it. In 2002, when she was on the San Diego City Council, she led the rest of the Council to declare a State of Housing Emergency. She resubmitted the declaration each week to keep the issue at the forefront of her colleagues’ minds, even as they grew weary of her insistence on addressing it. Atkins also tallied how many affordable housing units were approved by the Council each week.
“I felt like I really was there to be able to push the city of San Diego to develop more units and a lot of them were developed in my district,” Atkins said in an interview in her Downtown office. Her efforts meant much of the new housing was produced in North Park, City Heights, Normal Heights and other areas along transit corridors that embraced her vision.
“All we‘ve done since then is lose ground,” the Senator said.
San Diego has continued to fall short of building enough units to sustain the population, leading to higher rents and housing costs as well as an increasing homelessness crisis.
“[Housing] is the most important issue because it impacts so much of everything else about our lives,” Atkins said. “If we can‘t afford the rents, if we don‘t have a house, if we‘re forced to live in our cars now because of high rents or losing our home or foreclosure issues, you can‘t do anything else.”
For her, housing is most significantly connected to the economy. She cited predictions that the next downturn California faces will be because employers will not be able to afford to keep workers from leaving the state.
She also connects housing to mental health. People trying to stabilize their mental health will have an impossible time doing so while also facing the stress of housing insecurity.
Fixing housing has been Atkins’ singular career focus even before she was elected into office and working in the office of then-City Council member Christine Kehoe. Despite each new position, from City Council member, to interim mayor, to Assembly member, to Assembly speaker, to Senate pro tempore and even briefly acting governor, the problem has only worsened around her.
Last year, she shelved an ambitious — and controversial — effort to increase housing production by limiting the powers of local governments to impede development. Atkins guaranteed that work would continue on SB 50 and it would come up in committee again in January or February. She said the bill’s author, Senator Scott Weiner, is going over the bill again while on break.
“We may need to undo some of the exemptions and compromises that have been made. Scott‘s taking a fresh look,” Atkins said.
Under the latest form of the bill before it was turned into a two-year bill and set aside, 80% of the city of San Diego was exempt from it due to being a high-fire risk zone, according to Atkins. SB 50 also differentiates between small and large cities, a move Atkins agrees with.
“I don‘t think one size fits all. I think small cities and large cities are different.”
The only path forward she sees to passing the bill is by involving more people in the process, including having conversations with communities that do not want to add any housing.
“The crux of this is really going to be can you bring other stakeholders to the table and get them to agree on how to do this,” Atkins explained. “The dilemma is how do we get broad support from legislators to support a bill that basically pushes — maybe incentivizes, I don‘t know what the bill turns out to be at the end of the day but pushes — for actual development to happen where it needs to happen.”
For her, senators need to figure out a way to accomplish the goal of adding production through a broad piece of legislation that impacts the lowest levels of government, including the 42 community planning groups and areas in San Diego.
“We are not going to be able to take a sledgehammer and just beat it over the heads of every city. We‘ve gotta be more precise about it. And that‘s what makes SB 50 difficult because I don‘t think one size fits all. But I do think there is a way to do this,” she said.
Atkins believes that without the crisis, housing advocates would not have made as much progress as they even have on SB 50 because the conversation around housing was so different just three years ago when then-Governor Jerry Brown added a by-right housing proposal to the budget.
“I think the [Yes In My Backyard] movement [and] the crisis have given us the bandwidth to go further than we might‘ve gone before,” Atkins said. “Many people feel like, ‘Great, we should have done it 10 years ago, 20 years ago.’ In fact, I said this decades ago and nobody was listening to me.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.