Commentary: Can a new agency crack the housing nut?

By Dan Walters |
CalMatters Columnist |  

When California was admitted as a state in 1850, its 92,597 residents (as found in the 1850 census) were scattered among just 27 counties.

Almost immediately, efforts were mounted to create even more counties and ultimately, the number more than doubled to 58, the last being Imperial, which broke away from San Diego County in 1907.

Although county formation stopped, as California’s population exploded during the 20th century, it created more than 400 incorporated cities and several thousand other units of local government, from tiny mosquito abatement districts to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which now has more than 500,000 students.

The post-World War II era also saw the first stirrings of what became, in the 1960s, an effort to counteract the proliferation of local governments via regionalization.

An increasingly complex state, it was argued, needed broader attention to issues that crossed city limits and county lines, such as air pollution, transportation and water supply.

Over the last half-century, regionalism has taken two forms.

One has been the creation, by either the Legislature or voters, of single-purpose regional agencies to supply water (such as Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District), oversee water and air quality, provide urban transportation and regulate land use along the coast and in the Lake Tahoe basin.

The second form are the regional agencies formed by local governments themselves, albeit with state sanction, such as the Southern California Association of Governments and the Association of Bay Area Governments, to plan for population growth, allocate transportation funds and, in theory, foster regional cooperation.

There’s an obvious tension between what regional agencies of both varieties might espouse and what local government officials might want for their constituents.

That tension sometimes erupts in open conflict, as demonstrated nearly 20 years ago when an assemblyman from Sacramento, Darrell Steinberg, introduced legislation on behalf of the capital’s city and county governments. It was aimed at forcing suburban counties to spend more on low-income housing and social services, with the threat of losing some of their sales tax revenues if they failed.

Steinberg, who is now the mayor of Sacramento, eventually abandoned his bill because of stiff opposition and a rupture between Sacramento’s city and county governments over one amendment.
A new experiment in regionalism is now awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s approval.

Assembly Bill 1487, carried by Assemblyman David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat, would create the Bay Area Housing Authority encompassing the nine-county Bay Area and empower it to attack the region’s acute shortage of low- and moderate-cost housing.

It could raise several kinds of taxes with voter approval, impose “linkage fees” on commercial construction, and issue bonds. Revenues would be allocated for housing projects via a complex formula spelled out in the law, for tenant protection and for the preservation of existing housing.

The new authority would be governed by the same board that runs the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, which already dubs itself as Bay Area Metro, and is an obvious step toward the creation of a true multi-purpose regional government.

Despite high levels of political, civic and business support for the new agency, how it would contend with the reluctance of many smaller suburban enclaves to accept high-density and/or high-rise rental housing is unclear.

Its powers to enforce the state’s local housing quotas appear to be scant, especially since the bill specifically says it cannot seize land for housing via eminent domain, nor “regulate or enforce local land-use decisions.”

California desperately needs more housing construction and the Bay Area’s experiment will be closely watched.

CalMatters is 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

Elk Grove News is a media partner of CalMatters. 

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