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State officials press cities on housing

  • Updated
Dan Walters

Dan Walters writes for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

Once upon a time, California city officials used two tools to shape how their communities evolved — setting property tax rates and controlling land use.

The former vanished when voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, not only cutting property taxes by more than half, but sharply limiting future tax bites.

In response, city officials relied more on land use to keep their municipal engines running — aggressively seeking profitable development, such as sales tax-generating retail complexes, and using, or misusing, “redevelopment” to subsidize favored developers.

A few years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature repealed redevelopment, saying it was being distorted and had become a vehicle for siphoning property taxes from school districts — about $2 billion a year — that the state had to make up.

Meanwhile, cities’ land-use powers have steadily eroded as the state increasingly tells local governments what they can, cannot and must do.

Some of that override has been on environmental grounds — based on the assumption that local officials have been too cozy with development interests, to the detriment of environmental quality.

The California Environmental Quality Act, signed by Ronald Reagan, was an early example, requiring cities and other governmental entities to assess and mitigate adverse impacts.

A few years later, during Brown’s first governorship, the Coastal Act came into being, giving a commission appointed by the governor and legislators the ultimate authority over land uses in the “coastal zone.” A similar body holds sway over land uses in the Lake Tahoe Basin and another oversees the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Other state agencies, such as regional and statewide water boards, wield indirect power over land uses.

Meanwhile, the governor’s Office of Planning and Research has morphed into a writer of rules under recent state laws seeking to reduce carbon emissions by compelling local governments to favor “transit-friendly,” high-density housing and disfavor low-density housing whose residents drive cars.

California’s chronic and worsening housing shortage will fuel what shapes up as a new clash over state land-use powers.

While state law has long attempted to set housing construction quotas in local land-use planning, cities often ignore them because housing is not particularly profitable for them, often generating more new costs for services than it generates in new revenue. Moreover, housing projects are often opposed by cities’ existing residents — and voters — who see them bringing more traffic congestion and perhaps more crime.

This month, Brown proposed that “in-fill” housing projects meeting certain criteria, including density, closeness to transit and serving low- and moderate-income families, be exempted from local control.

The Legislature’s budget analyst says the need is highest in coastal areas, and the exemption should be widened to include more kinds of housing and be tightened to prevent cities from circumventing the exemption.

City officials, already angered by past incursions, are unlikely to accept a major new dilution of their land-use powers without a fight.

Dan Walters writes for The Sacramento Bee.

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