Jan. 17--One of the central issues looming before California's new governor, Gavin Newsom, is the state's acute housing affordability crisis. As he unveiled his first budget blueprint this month, days into the job, Newsom spoke at length about the depth of the problem and how he aimed to attack it, from new state investments in affordable housing to better local planning.
In his speech, Newsom hit a notably different tone than that of his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, who in an exit interview with NPR last month questioned the limits of the state's ability to make housing more affordable.
We talk with Ben Metcalf -- a Brown appointee who leads the California Department of Housing and Community Development -- about that marked contrast in perspectives and what state government can and can't do about California's housing woes.
Q: Everyone knew Gavin Newsom would place more of a focus on housing and homelessness than Jerry Brown, but we didn't know the specifics. What are you and other housing-policy people buzzing about in the aftermath of the governor's budget presentation?
A: Where to begin? He put a lot on the table, and he did it not just with the drop of a budget but also with his own personal remarks at the press conference. What was exciting was that he laid out a very large proposal while saying this isn't just a piece of paper, this is about what I want to do to deliver on my campaign promises and to make California great.
Q: I doubt the average Californian knows much about your department. What's one really important thing the Department of Housing and Community Development does?
A: The thing that we get the most attention for is the investments we're making to allow new affordable housing to get built. We're giving grants to cities to help them create down payment assistance programs for first-time homeowners and working in rural California to help fund farmworker housing. But I would also say that there's a lot of other stuff we're working on every day. We have staff working on making sure that all of California's mobile home parks are safe places to live. We are making sure the state's building code is energy-efficient and green. So it's a kitchen sink of a housing agency.
Q: When you think about the housing crisis, what troubles you the most about the direction we're headed?
A: There are a few things that worry me a lot. One is definitely that California is now number one in the nation for poverty rates. When the U.S. Census Bureau counts in cost of living, a larger percentage of our residents are living in poverty than in any other state in the union. And so there are a lot of working families -- 1.7 million families -- that are low income, paying more than half their income in housing costs, and not getting any assistance from anybody on housing. Every single one of those families is just one missed paycheck or broken car away from becoming homeless. It's perpetuating a pattern of poverty too. It's becoming harder and harder for folks to move up into the middle class. The other thing is that there's a huge exodus of folks leaving California right now. California's population is growing, but we're seeing this huge sorting that's happening as California's becoming somewhat less diverse and less accommodating to folks who are at the bottom end of the spectrum. You also see that within California. You see this huge trajectory of folks leaving the Bay Area and going to the Central Valley because they can't afford it. So you're losing that diversity that made California such an innovative and wonderful place to start businesses and raise families.
Q: How much more can the state do to change that?
A: Folks ask me this question a lot, and my general answer is it's really complicated to solve California's housing challenges. It's a thicket of different regulatory issues and all intertwined with the things the government doesn't really control that much, like the cost of materials and the shortage of construction labor. But the two reference points that I often go back to to give folks hope is that it wasn't always like this in California. If you go back a few decades, to the '50s and '60s or '70s, when our population was much smaller, we were building north of 200,000 homes a year, about double what we've been building the last couple of decades, so there is historic precedent for it. And if you look outside California to places like Austin or other prosperous metro areas, and even some coastal ones like Seattle, you see rates of construction that are close to double what we're building. So clearly you can do it. You need to figure out how to untangle some of the policy decisions that have been created over the decades that make it harder to build. We need to continue to invest in housing through subsidies, but we also need to make it easier to build.
Q: Newsom also called on California businesses, particularly in Silicon Valley, to help pay for workforce housing. Are you optimistic that this will begin to happen to a greater degree, and do you agree companies have some sort of moral or social obligation to do so?
A: Look, if nothing else, the business leadership in Silicon Valley has been recognizing that their need is to get human talent, and one of the biggest barriers to bringing in new human talent has been the cost of living and specifically the cost of housing. And so we've definitely seen over the last few years the involvement of certain folks within the tech industry who have written large checks on housing-related campaigns, both locally and statewide. We've seen the chambers of commerce and business councils getting much more active and rolling their sleeves up on policy work in a way I can't imagine them doing five, seven years ago. I see Gov. Newsom's challenge to those businesses as continuing to encourage them to go in that direction. I'm pleased to see the governor making those connections and trying to get the businesses to get more involved in all of this.
Q: In his exit interview with NPR last month, Gov. Brown was asked if he regretted not having done more to create affordable housing. He responded that housing prices were fueled by forces far more powerful than state government. It sounded like he was saying this problem is too big and too expensive for the state to make much of a difference. What was your reaction to this response, and does he have a point?
A: I think that we can do great work as a state, and we still have to have a bit of tempered expectations. There is a huge lag between when we change state law and when it manages to work its way through the system of implementation and construction and actual people finding homes. That lag is often a problem because housing markets can be cyclical, and so we can find ourselves making a bunch of changes and then hitting a recession and some of the affordability issues go away through that recession. I think we have to be honest with ourselves in terms of the impact we can have. But I will say strongly we can have an impact. Gov. Brown is nothing if not a pragmatic truth-teller, but at the same time, clearly this governor is willing to put his shoulder on the grindstone here and really push, and with that push we will see the trend line changing.
Q: What would it take for California to build 3.5 million new homes by 2025?
A: That analysis has not been done. But I think what (Newsom) has said is 3.5 million is the goal, and we are going to try and throw quite a bit at this problem from a lot of different angles. The budget proposal he put out Thursday is a good first step, and I think it signals to mayors to builders to capital investors that California is going to be looking to really do something different over the next few years. And so that power of the pulpit will be part of the solution as well.
Q: Last question: Will you be sticking around for the Newsom administration?
A: I have put my hat in the ring. I have said I believe deeply in the work we've been doing, and I'd be excited to have the opportunity to continue to see it forward. (Newsom) has now made a number of selections within the governor's office and at cabinet level, and I expect over the next few weeks we'll get to a place where he's able to make appointments at the department director level, so we will see.
Education: Bachelor's degree from Amherst College and a master's degree in public policy and urban planning from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Career: Metcalf was appointed director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development about three years ago. Before that, he worked in the Obama Administration at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and with BRIDGE Housing Corporation, a nonprofit developer based in San Francisco. He serves on numerous state housing boards and was founding chairman of California's Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council.
Family: Married to Melissa Garcia. They have two children, Lelia and Teo.
Five things about Ben Metcalf
1. He spent a year living and working in midtown Manhattan in permanent supportive housing for the formerly homeless.
2. He hasn't missed hiking by the light of the full moon in almost two decades.
3. He enjoys wintertime ascents of Sierra and Cascade mountains.
4. He is building a (very tiny) model of a tiny home.
5. He is still trying to get his parents and his kids to understand how affordable housing transactions are structured.
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