Standing in front of an 11-foot-tall Christmas tree, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa laid out a vision for housing and redevelopment in California, surrounded by a living room crowd of mayors, city councilmembers, county supervisors, former politicians and Democratic heavyweights.
Villaraigosa, a leading candidate in the 2018 California governor’s race, came to Santa Cruz for a meet-and-greet at the home of former county treasurer Fred Keeley, a friend of Villaraigosa going back to their days in the state assembly together. Villaraigosa preached an “all-of-the-above strategy” to bring down housing costs.
“If you don’t have a strategy of ‘all of the above,’ we’re really not going to deal with this crisis,” Villaraigosa said in a brief interview, after speaking and answering questions from the crowd. “Everybody talks about homelessness, everybody talks about the housing crisis, and we’re not treating it like it is a crisis, like it’s an emergency.”
Villaraigosa is campaigning in advance of the June 5 primary election. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will go to a runoff in November.
Villaraigosa, 65, said he remembers buying his first home in a far different housing market at age 24, just by saving up—something he knows is impossible for most young people in 2017.
He has big ideas for how to make housing affordable once again. Some are hotly contested topics like increased housing density and building along major transit corridors.
He broke that plan into five bullet points:
• Put together a housing trust fund. Create a statewide revenue source to fund affordable projects.
• Bring back redevelopment in what Villaraigosa calls “Redevelopment 2.0.” Even though the original decision to ax redevelopment programs was a controversial one, Villaraigosa knows that bringing it back won’t be easy, because legislators have already gotten used to having the nearly $2 billion a year that comes from local property tax. Still, he hopes to restore those tax increments—some of which used to go to affordable housing—to local governments. If elected, Villaraigosa hopes to restore the program, with the support of mayors from around the state, while eliminating the excesses that Gov. Jerry Brown had criticized while unveiling a plan to gut redevelopment in 2011.
• Encourage cities to plan “smart growth” housing construction. Cities that want to access state money would need a plan for affordable housing. That would include building for a variety of lower incomes, adding density and building along major transportation corridors. “Every mayor here, every councilmember here knows part of why we have a crisis,” Villaraigosa said. “Because the more affluent communities, with single-family dwellings, constantly complain about the lack of housing, homelessness, and then push back every time you try to build. And the fact of the matter is you’ve gotta build.”
• Introduce regulatory reform. Require that local governments quicken permitting for proposed projects. Villaraigosa said the state also needs to look at reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, without weakening environmental requirements.
• Make everyone pitch in. Under his plan, Villaraigosa said he would not give a pass to the affluent communities that don’t want to build “smart growth” and affordable housing. Villaraigosa said they will “have to put money in a kitty for the region so they can build that housing.”
Just hours earlier that same day, the Los Angeles City Council approved a linkage fee for new development that will charge developers between $1 and $15 per square foot, depending on the type of project and location. Villaraigosa supports that approach and says these tools are important, even though they could get in the way of housing construction if they’re too cumbersome.
“You gotta find the balance,” he said. “Obviously, if it’s overly bureaucratic—that’s the argument that a lot of developers make. New York has inclusionary zoning. Probably a hundred cities in the state have inclusionary zoning. Let’s look at the best practices, let’s look at the places that are doing it well. I agree there is no question that some of these things could have the effect of delaying and raising the cost of housing. But in a crisis like this, we can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”
The idea of building may not go over well in all corners of the state, but Villaraigosa’s fellow candidate, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has also called for a housing boom. Newsom, who leads Villaraigosa in the polls, says California needs to nearly quadruple its housing construction.
The race also includes state treasurer John Chiang, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin, attorney John Cox, and Assemblymember Travis Allen.
Villaraigosa on the Issues
On support for the state’s public universities
“I’m a product of UCLA. I was going to UCLA when our tuition was $275 a quarter. Even with that, we had Cal Grants. I think we’re going to have to really figure that out.”
On pension reform
“If you talk to College Futures, and you ask, ‘What are some of the biggest driving costs for higher education?’ it’s pensions. When I was mayor, we were looking at a bankruptcy. At the time, I said, ‘Not on my watch.’ I was going to have to lay off 5,000 employees out of 37,000 folks. I worked with our unions, and I said, ‘Look I don’t want to lay off people, but we’re going to have to do something.’ Under our constitution, you can’t take away someone’s pension. It’s an earned right, so you have to give them something of like value. So what I gave them was early retirement, and they went from 6 percent to 11 percent. Not everyone’s going to agree with it, but the fact of the matter is a progressive is going also to have to balance budgets. And we’re going to have to acknowledge that she [pointing to a young woman] has a right to a decent pension [too].”
On high-speed rail
“I’m the guy who said, ‘We’ll build a subway.’ In the middle of the recession, we put a half-penny sales tax, generating $40 billion, built four light rails, lined one busway. We’re in construction on two more. I’m the infrastructure candidate. Having said that, we have to drive down the costs in value engineering. I think we have to look at a public-private partnership. . . . I do think we’re going to have to think out of the box in terms of cost.”
On the race
“When I go to faith leaders, and they say, ‘I want to pray for you to win,’ I say, ‘No, pray for wisdom.’ Pray for that. I’d love your vote, but you know what I want you to do? I want you to pay attention.”