Make no bones about it: 2020 has been rough.
From the horrible spread of coronavirus to wildfires blackening the sky and scorching the earth, we have all felt the impacts of this year in some tragic and personal way. If you woke up tomorrow to a meteor crashing, a plague of locusts swarming above or dinosaurs rising out of the deep blue sea, would it really be a surprise at this point?
For all of the unexpected events of the past nine months, though, we also didn’t get what was promised at the beginning either. For California, it was supposed to be a good year for the future of housing. Across the board, our elected leaders had come together on a package of important laws: legislation that pledged to figure out how to get all of the hurdles out of the way so we could finally build the homes that are so desperately needed by so many in the Golden State.
But, by midnight on August 31 – the final day of California’s legislative session – all we were left with were half-finished measures, watered down interventions and assurances that 2021 will be a better year. If it’s not, we’re in a lot of trouble, folks.
Keep in mind: 2020 didn’t look bad at the start for us housers. There was a host of great new bills: streamlining to speed up housing approvals, by-right approvals to build more homes on different types of land, increased densities on properties near transit and incentives to create more opportunities to build. Our state legislators seemed poised to act in a meaningful way that could finally have put us on a road that leads to a home, not homelessness.
But that never came to be. Instead of moving forward new laws, there was bickering, infighting, nitpicking, and every other gerund that doesn’t include acting. Special interest groups battled against each other, wealthy communities had “different” needs than more urban areas, homeowners defended the character of their neighborhoods and folks just decided not to die on any particular hill this time around.
It would be easy to blame COVID-19, or the crashing economy, or any other major event that crossed our paths in this living nightmare of a year, but in the end there just wasn’t the will to get the hardest stuff done when it came to addressing our housing crisis.
Even right here in San Jose, it was a struggle.
For example, Opportunity Housing, a zoning tool to allow more homes to be built in more parts of the city, took a herculean effort just to get a little forward motion. After hours of contentious, heated debate, an advisory task force was able to pass a recommendation to the City Council to consider studying the concept at some undefined point in the future. Hundreds of angry residents, online debates and video calls ending in tears, and lots of spilled ink to get to a point where we might think about adding a few more homes much, much later.
This can’t be the way forward. With a dark post-pandemic economic reality on the horizon, it will be hard enough to find the resources needed to build any affordable housing. If we have to continue to fight endlessly on every piece of dirt for just a few more places for our poorest neighbors to live, we’re not going to make it.
And if you’re in the camp that people should just leave if they can’t afford to live here, that’s your privilege speaking and it’s not happening either.
These are our neighbors with jobs, families and history here. They shouldn’t have to abandon their lives because we arbitrarily decide that creating more housing might slightly impact the absurd luxuries we currently enjoy. Keep fighting for the current status quo and our default future right now is more and more people on our streets, while our communities continue to suffer.
If nothing else, maybe 2020 will go down as the year of catastrophes of our own making.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.