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housing

It’s simple: housing is a necessity, a human right. Our state policies must be designed to ensure that everyone, regardless of income, race, or age, has safe, stable, affordable housing.

When people earning lower incomes have housing they can afford near their jobs and important family resources, we all get less traffic, a healthier community, a stronger economy, and more diverse neighborhoods and schools. In other words, when we prioritize people with the greatest need, everyone wins.

When it comes to basic needs and rights, we cannot trust the market to work for everyone. That’s why government intervenes in the market to provide public education, affordable health care, food and water.

Affordable housing should be no different.

With more than 1.5 million low-income households over-burdened by housing costs and 130,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in California, lawmakers have a serious challenge in front of them.

With a recent history of strong leadership, and a new governor who has prioritized affordable housing, they also have an unparalleled opportunity to make real progress.

My organization, Housing California, has been working to alleviate housing instability and homelessness for four decades. We understand the appeal of pursuing new and innovative strategies.

One such strategy that has gotten significant attention lately is freeing up the market by easing barriers to residential development and allowing taller buildings.

The thinking goes: make it easier and more profitable for developers to build housing, and they will build more and ease our housing shortage.

Freeing up the market may result in building more market-rate homes and may make homes more affordable for some middle-class families. But the market is unlikely to help the most severely rent-burdened Californians, who are disproportionately black and brown families, because of market and government barriers.

Worse yet, policies that haven’t specifically considered and addressed the needs of people most at risk of losing a home have often harmed them instead.

If our lawmakers are intentional and thoughtful as they develop market housing supply policies, everyone, including those most in need, can benefit. We can have a more balanced system.

With the right interventions–and the right principles guiding legislators’ work–their proposals can increase market-rate housing while at the same time directly benefit Californians struggling the most.

Here’s how:

— Collaborate with representatives of low-income communities, communities of color, and people with disabilities. They understand how the market has disadvantaged their communities and have thoughtful solutions. They must have a central role in policy making, and their voice is key to creating equitable neighborhoods.

— Include affordable housing. Set aside a meaningful percentage of homes for residents at lower income levels, including for people experiencing homelessness. It is essential that market-rate developers taking advantage of government benefits provide deeply affordable housing.

— Protect existing residents from displacement when investing in vulnerable communities. Investment in vulnerable communities is essential for advancing social and racial equity. But investments must serve the needs of the existing community and not result in their displacement. This includes direct displacement resulting from demolition, but also “indirect” displacement that results from gentrification caused by increased property values that motivate some landlords to pressure existing tenants to leave, accelerate evictions, and substantially increase rents.

— Open up communities that have traditionally resisted both market-rate and affordable housing. These communities are frequently low density (think mostly single-family homes) and often include good jobs and high-quality public schools. Yet new market-rate supply may end up mostly affecting historically redlined and vulnerable communities, making them particularly vulnerable to gentrification and especially in need of affordable housing.

Our leaders have the right intentions. But we must be sure that their policies have the right impacts as well.

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Tyrone Buckley is policy director of Housing California, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to prevent and end homelessness and increase the supply of affordable homes. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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