California Currents

Poll: To tackle housing crisis, most Californians would limit local control

The poll found a lack of support for loosening the California Environmental Quality Act, the environmental law that applies to the construction of new buildings and infrastructure, as a way to address the housing shortage. (Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland)

A majority of California voters want state lawmakers to aggressively address an ever-worsening housing crisis, even if that means strong-arming uncooperative local governments, according to a new poll.

But given the Legislature’s recent track record, they’re probably in for a disappointment.

A new survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 57 percent of likely voters (and 62 percent of all adults) favor a policy that would force local governments to allow denser development “near mass transit and job centers.” That includes half of all the homeowners surveyed, a powerful constituency in the Capitol who are often presumed to oppose zoning reform.

But the odds of the Legislature meeting that demand this year are virtually nonexistent. A bill by to do so by San Francisco’s Sen. Scott Weiner was quietly shelved in the Assembly appropriations committee last month.

The poll found similar-sized majorities of Californians want the state to get even tougher: They favor withholding from cities and counties new state transportation dollars raised from a gas tax increase, unless those local governments approve a certain amount of new housing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom included that idea in his budget proposal, but so far it’s received a chilly reception from other state lawmakers as well as local governments.

“Housing is viewed as a crisis by the public, and they’re looking for bold action,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the institute. “And from the Legislature, so far, they’re getting inaction more than action.”

He added that he didn’t “think it’s necessarily a coincidence” that disapproval of the Legislature among likely voters came in at 53 percent among likely voters, up 10 percentage points from the institute’s January poll.

Decisions about how many homes are built, where and under what conditions have traditionally been made by local governments in California. But for decades, the state has failed to produce enough housing to meet demand, which many blame on local obstructionism. As housing costs reach crisis levels, that guiding principle of “local control” seems to be falling out of favor.

The League of California Cities, which argues that locally elected officials are still best positioned to make land use decisions for their communities, doesn’t seem worried about the poll result.

“Voters overwhelmingly trust and want local elected officials making important decisions about the type and location of housing in their communities,” said Carolyn Coleman, the League’s executive director, in a statement. “Furthermore, voters have told us they want transportation funds dedicated to cities to fixing local roads.”

Groups that want the state to take a stronger hand to boost building saw today’s poll as proof that voters are on their side.

Californians “understand that there is a housing shortage, and they understand that the solution to a housing shortage is to build more homes,” said Matthew Lewis, a spokesperson for California YIMBY (the pro-development “Yes In My Backyard” group). “At some point, someone is going to have to (ask) the question: Is it our political leaders who are wrong about the housing crisis or is it the majority of Californians?”

One telling data point in the poll may help explain the disconnect. Asked the question “Does the cost of your housing place a financial strain on you and your family today,” 52 percent of adults said yes. But when the institute included only likely voters, that number dropped to 45 percent.

The poll found a lack of support for loosening the California Environmental Quality Act, the environmental law that applies to the construction of new buildings and infrastructure, as a way to address the housing shortage. Though every major candidate for governor in 2018 supported at least tinkering with the law, only 39 percent of likely voters and 47 percent of adults are on board.

In non-housing related news, the survey reported that two-thirds of Democrats in California believe Congress should begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. That’s on par with how Democrats across the country feel (60 percent told a Harvard CAPS / Harris poll that not only should proceedings begin, but that Trump should be removed from office). But it does put them at odds with other California voters. Impeachment proceedings have the backing of just 35 percent of voters without party affiliation, and a mere 9 percent of state Republicans.

That places Democratic candidates, hoping to appeal both to the party faithful in the newly relevant California primary and the broader electorate, in a tough position, said Baldassare.

“It speaks to the challenges of the candidates in this election in trying in some ways to both be Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the same time,” he said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.