California Governor Jerry Brown is known for expressing ideas outside the standard political box. But in the case of California’s affordable housing crisis, Brown displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue. On February 12 at a housing forum at Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, Brown questioned whether state government even has a role in closing the housing affordability gap. Instead, to address the high rental costs in the San Francisco Bay Area, Brown actually suggested that those burdened with high housing costs could find relief by moving to the Central Valley. And how would they get to their jobs in the Bay Area? By taking high-speed rail, a project Brown has strongly backed. Brown likes to throw out previously unconsidered ideas to broaden the policy debate, but his recent record shows that California affordable housing activists have reason for concern about Brown’s commitment to this cause.

As I have repeatedly written, the chief cause of rising housing unaffordability and homelessness is the staggering reduction in federal and state housing affordable housing funding over the past four decades. California voters passed Prop 46, a $2.1 billion housing bond in 2002, but since then state money has dried up.

With California soon facing a decade of annual budget deficits in the billions of dollars, affordable housing advocates understood that the cupboard was bare for their cause. But Prop 30’s passage last November, coupled with a rising state economy, created hope that the state would see the wisdom of investing in a housing industry that serves the public’s needs and is a leading job creator.

But Governor Brown apparently does not see it that way.

Ignoring the Housing Crisis

For many, the public sector’s responsibility for ensuring decent, safe and affordable housing for all Americans---codified in the federal 1949 Housing Act---is beyond dispute. Whether this occurs through direct government funding or by encouraging private sector development through low-income housing tax credits, housing advocates all agree that the mismatch between rental housing costs and worker’s incomes must be addressed through the public sector.

Many also believe that private developers should be required to provide affordable housing as a condition of development. That’s why San Francisco and other cities have passed inclusionary housing laws, mandating that a percentage (now 12%) of private units built be affordable.

When Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, and was promoting a downtown and waterfront building boom, he had before him legislation to enact such an inclusionary housing requirement. Perhaps foreshadowing his recent questioning of the very existence of an affordable housing crisis, Brown vetoed the measure.

Brown’s remarks last week noted that the state has other critical priorities that compete with affordable housing, and particularly mentioned schools. But the governor is apparently unaware of longstanding studies showing that kids’ ability to succeed in schools is undermined when forced to move from school to school due to the lack of affordable housing.

“Move to Nebraska”

Brown’s argument that the affordable housing crisis is actually one of distribution rather than supply---- there is a shortage in the Bay Area and other places where jobs exist but there are plenty of vacant affordable rental units in the high-unemployment Central Valley---is not unique.

In 2000, I was among a small group of housing advocates who met with a high official at the Office of Management and Budget, then-headed by newly appointed Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. We were there to argue for a National Housing Trust Fund whose money would come from FHA surpluses.

To our collective surprise, the official disputed our claim that more money to build affordable housing was needed. He said there were plenty of vacant affordable rental units in Nebraska, and those unable to obtain housing in high-priced urban areas should move there. We all attend so many meetings over the years that most are forgotten, but his comments left an indelible impression on me: we had finally reached a top official capable of moving our Housing Trust Fund plan forward and yet he denied the very existence of the problem.

We explained to the official that Nebraska had vacancies because there were not a lot of jobs there. We also pointed to smaller cities that also had an affordable housing crisis due to lack of supply. But it was clear that some officials are so disconnected from the daily challenges tens of millions of renters face in the United States that they can actually blame the victims for their geographical choices rather than government for failing to address the crisis.

Brown’s vision of current Bay Area residents moving to the Central Valley and commuting to their jobs by high-speed rail reflects such a disconnection. As does his 2006 veto of Oakland’s inclusionary housing bill, and his 2011 veto of AB 1216, a critical affordable housing preservation bill.

Housing advocates have work to do in educating Brown on the affordable housing crisis, which negatively impacts millions and continues to set back California’s economic growth.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century