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Tim Coyle

Why Not “Warp Speed” for Housing?

God bless President Trump for launching the Warp Speed program – accelerating the government’s approval of COVID-19 vaccinations. By all accounts, it was a major success. Some even described it as a medical miracle.

To do it, Trump and his team had to ride herd on federal workers, overcoming the one thing the bureaucracy uses to continuously stifle progress: time. Normally, it takes at least five years for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to okay – or not – a vaccine intended for use by the public. This one took less than 10 months. Think of the lives Trump saved – at least four years’ worth.

Even President-Elect Joe Biden lauded the accomplishment. “I credit this Administration with creating this success,” said Biden. He was right to say so. The onset of COVID-19 is a national catastrophe and deserves the leadership and emergency action like that of Trump’s.

And congratulations also go to the private companies that responded to the President’s appeal. Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, Merck, Astra-Zeneca and newcomer Moderna are businesses that will all have permitted vaccines by around the first of the year, shattering the normal approval process.

I got to thinking, why can’t Governor Newsom do for housing in California what President Trump did for the health of the nation? If excessive time is the main enemy of successful housing projects – and it is – why doesn’t Newsom simply declare a state emergency and use the extraordinary powers that such an order provides to urge locals to put new housing approvals on a fast track?

To accomplish the task, the Governor would have to at least waive the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – the most serious and constant roadblock to orderly confirmations of housing proposals. Doing so – at a minimum – Newsom would have to surmount the powerful and far-reaching political opposition of the state’s environmental community.

Newsom would also have to abide by local zoning – not a significant challenge in larger places with lots of land and higher vacancies. In addition, he’d also have to curb the popular practice of local governments charging sky-high fees. And, stop asking housing to do more: max affordability while demanding vegetable gardens, clotheslines, better energy and water efficiency and then some.

Plus, the state government can help the locals by restoring some form of tax-increment funding (redevelopment) for needed infrastructure, including housing.

But, his most serious trespass – offending all California communities – would be how his initiative would upset the notion of local control. This would be a major offense and would serve to unify the state’s 540 cities and counties in opposing the Governor’s action. Jurisdictions hate the state telling them what to do.

The act would be seen by pundits and other “expert” observers as political suicide for Newsom and would probably argue it’s simply one more sins to add to the stockpile being amassed by sponsors of the current recall campaign. The effort might even turn environmentalists – who don’t like people – and localities against Governor Newsom. It may be fatal, for instance, if they simply sit out the recall.

The Governor did promise three million units added to the state’s housing stock by 2025. After two years we’ve barely started 200,000. At the current COVID-19-driven rate of permits issued, we’ll be lucky if we get to three million by 2040. Oh well. Just forget about it, he’d insist.

Bottom line: the Governor won’t do a housing Warp Speed. He’ll see it as too risky. Too much political heat. And, let’s face it, the support he’d earn – from affordable housing advocates, apartment owners, homebuilders and other housing providers – doesn’t come from currently very popular and compelling constituencies.

Three million new homes is just another fake promise by Newsom. Meanwhile, the state still suffers from a pervasive crisis. Too bad. California needs real leadership on housing but where to look to get it?