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May 2020, Volume 26, Number 2

California: Housing, Water

Salinas has severely overcrowded housing, especially in the three-square-mile Alisal district of eastern Salinas that was annexed in 1963. Some of the high-density affordable condo housing that was built to reduce overcrowding was turned into rental units that house two or three people to a room. Code enforcement officers are reluctant to enforce laws that limit garage conversions and sheds in backyards for fear of increasing homelessness.

Cities in the San Joaquin Valley have the lowest rents in the state. Rents in most San Joaquin Valley cities including Bakersfield and Fresno, average $1,100 a month in complexes with more than 50 units. In this dataset, San Francisco had the state’s most expensive rents at $3,700 a month.

Some 45 percent of Fresno Unified School District students participate in career and technical training programs, learning about jobs in medical services, manufacturing and truck repair. Technical skills aim to help minority students obtain well-paid jobs, but some fear that many of the skills learned by high-school graduates in career training programs could be made obsolete by automation.

Housing. California has too few houses for its 40 million people. The median price of a home was $556,000 in 2019, when 100,000 more units were built. California has over 150,000 homeless people, including two-thirds who live in tent encampments on sidewalks and other public property.

Housing is expensive to build in part because of high government fees. Land is expensive, and a quarter of the cost of building affordable housing is government fees. Environmental laws allow those who oppose new housing to sue and delay projects, and requirements that new market rate housing include some units of affordable housing act as a tax on new construction and create a lottery for those seeking cheaper housing.

SB 50, which would have overridden the power of local governments to block high density housing near transit hubs, failed in the Legislature for the third time in January 2020. Local governments resisted the loss of their authority over zoning. Some advocates for the poor opposed SB 50, fearing that gentrification near transit hubs would displace tenants.

In the San Joaquin Valley, 40 percent of renters devote more than 30 percent of their household income to rent. One study found that Bakersfield, Fresno and Stockton were among the worst cities in the US to raise families due to poor air quality and poor schools, long commuting times, and high poverty levels.

Bus ridership is falling despite more poor people moving to the suburbs in search of cheaper housing. Analysts attribute fewer bus riders to many factors, including ride-hailing apps, driver’s licenses for unauthorized foreigners, shared bikes and scooters, and more people teleworking. Declining bus ridership reduces frequencies, making it more difficult for those who must take the bus to get to jobs.

The city of Berkeley in July 2019 banned natural gas hookups in new construction in a bid to reduce the use of fossil fuels; some other cities are pushing developers away from gas and oil in residential construction. The “electrify everything” movement argues that the cost of producing electricity from renewables is declining, and that local housing policies can accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to solar and wind.

There are 70 million structures in the US, and most rely on oil and gas for heating. Most cities that want to reduce fossil fuel use are encouraging electric rather than banning gas hookups.

Water. Northern California received no rain in February 2020, and the Sierra snowpack dropped from almost 100 percent of normal in January 2020 to 53 percent of normal in April 2020. The melting Sierra snowpack provides a third of California’s water.

Between 2010 and 2020, California had three of the largest and smallest Sierra snowpacks on record. Ample snowfall in 2018-19 filled many of the state‘s reservoirs.

The water level in Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the Western US, topped 1,100 feet in March 2020, the highest since 2014, due to more snow in the Colorado mountains and water conservation in the seven states that share Lake Mead’s water. Lake Mead peaked at over 1,200 feet of water in 2000.

President Trump in February 2020 signed an executive order relaxing environmental protections so that more water can be pumped through the Delta and into the San Joaquin Valley before it flows into the San Francisco Bay and the ocean. The state of California immediately sued the US Department of Interior to block increased pumping, citing the threat to Delta smelt and other fish.

California’s Department of Water Resources in January 2020 made preparations for an environmental impact study of a 30-mile, 35-foot diameter tunnel to move Sacramento River water 150 feet below the Delta to pumps near Tracy that move the water south via canals. Transporting water under the Delta could reduce the pressure on endangered fish, and allow more water to be sent southward.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a package of three laws enacted in 2014, requires local groundwater sustainability agencies to measure the level of groundwater and ensure that annual pumping does not drain underground aquifers. Local sustainability agencies must file sustainability plans for 43 high-priority basins, and 84 medium-priority basins, that include plans to measure how much water is being pumped from the aquifer by 2020 or 2022. Agencies must ensure the sustainability of the aquifers in their basin by 2042.

Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a $103-billion budget for 2020-21. Two-thirds of general fund revenues are expected to come from the state’s income tax; half of California’s income taxes are paid by the top one percent of taxpayers, about 150,000 households. Some worry that high-income Californians will move out of state, depriving the state of income-tax revenue.

Medi-Cal (Medicaid in California) spends $100 billion a year to provide health care to 13 million poor residents of California, about $8,000 per covered person. A relative handful of Medi-Cal enrollees account for a large share of spending, prompting Governor Newsom to propose a package of social services for Medi-Cal recipients, from housing to education, in a bid to lower the costs of so-called superusers.