How the Virus Has Made the State’s Housing Crisis Worse

Members of the Los Angeles Tenants Union protest against evictions.

Good morning.

A year ago, during his State of the State speech, Gov. Gavin Newsom eschewed his usual practice of listing a host of ambitious proposals and instead focused on one thing: homelessness. Since then the state and governor’s office have been upended by the pandemic and its devastating effect on the economy. But while priorities naturally shifted, the housing problem was always there — and the coronavirus has only made it worse.

With the virus still spreading and the job market on shaky ground, Mr. Newsom signed a bill last month that extended the state’s eviction moratorium, which was scheduled to lapse this month, into the summer. The bill also allocated $2.6 billion in federal money to clear back rent, in hopes of allowing tenants who qualify to emerge with less debt.

But while those triage measures will ease some of the short-term pain, the decades old housing crisis is still very much with us. Even with rents falling in many cities, California continues to have one of the worst rental burdens in the country, with about a third of tenants paying half their pretax income on housing, compared with a quarter nationwide. It also still has the nation’s worst problem with homelessness.

So, as has become a ritual for the past several years, the State Legislature has introduced a blizzard of new housing bills intended to make housing more plentiful and affordable. Toni Atkins, the State Senate president pro tem, listed bills to increase housing production among her top goals for this year’s legislative session, and legislators have once again introduced various new bills to increase density along with funding for homeless services and subsidized housing. Sacramento, in the meantime, recently became the first city in the state to allow apartments in single-family home neighborhoods, after the City Council voted to adopt a plan that would allow developers to build fourplexes on any residential lot.

It’s hard to imagine now, but 2020 was supposed to be “the year of housing production.” And while 2021 will be the Legislature’s attempt at a do-over, the past year is a reminder that the housing crisis is always with us, no matter what comes along to overshadow it.

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