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Union Conflict Threatens Housing Legislation

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A bill in the state Senate encapsulates the difficulties that drive California’s chronic housing shortage. (CalMatters/Pablo Unzueta)
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State Sen. Scott Wiener has been the Legislature’s foremost advocate of loosening land use and design restrictions that inhibit the construction of much-needed new housing, particularly for low- and moderate-income families.

As the Legislature convened this month for a new biennial session, Wiener reintroduced a new version of legislation that had stalled in past sessions – making it much easier for churches and colleges to build housing for non-affluent renters on their own land.

However, that worthy goal is complicated by the renewal of a squabble between two construction union organizations over language governing pay and other factors for workers who would build the envisioned projects. No matter how that conflict is resolved – if it is resolved – it will add costs that could make such projects financially infeasible.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Wiener’s Senate Bill 4, therefore, encapsulates the difficulties that make California’s chronic housing shortage – and therefore its homelessness crisis – very tough nuts to crack.

As written, SB 4 would require contractors on projects generated by the legislation to pay “prevailing wages,” similar to what’s required on state and local government construction. That alone furthers the recent notion that privately financed construction of projects made possible by state law should be treated as public works with all their attendant costs.

The language satisfies the California Conference of Carpenters, but draws opposition from the state Building and Construction Trades Council, which wants tighter language that, in essence, would allow only unionized contractors to work on the projects by specifying that projects must have apprenticeship and training programs.

Andrew Meredith, president of the trades council, said, “We should not have to sacrifice the training and protection of construction workers to provide incentives to developers to build affordable housing. We need to ensure that California workers are employed on projects being built in California.”

The two union groups clashed earlier this year over two other bills aimed at making it easier to build housing on unused or underused shopping center sites. That conflict was resolved by enacting two similar bills with slightly different labor language, giving developers and contractors a choice of which to employ.

SB 4 is the third attempt by Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, to free up church and college land for housing. He lost a 2020 version due to squabbling over labor requirements. Would-be sponsors of projects on church and college property complained that requiring them to pay high union wages would raise costs and make some projects infeasible.

Wiener acknowledges the conflict that could doom SB 4 but says he hopes to “thread the needle” with compromise language that would allow the legislation to pass.

“SB 4 will unlock an enormous, and I’m not exaggerating, an enormous amount of land for 100% affordable housing,” Wiener told a news conference announcing the proposal. He cited a 2020 study by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation that found nearly 40,000 acres currently used for religious purposes could be developed.

Such land, the study found, is largely concentrated in a few urban counties where the need for affordable housing is particularly acute and jobs and transit access are most likely available.

“As faith-based organizations grapple with the best uses for underutilized land, interventions at the state and local levels in the form of regulatory reform and new financial tools can provide important support,” the study concluded.

So there it is – an old California syndrome of making it easier to build vital new housing on one hand and saddling projects with higher costs on the other. It goes to the core of the state’s housing crisis.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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