Interview: Wicks talks amendment spending $100B for affordable housing, homelessness

(The Center Square) – As California faces an ongoing homelessness and housing crisis, lawmakers are set to consider a measure this week that would allocate billions of dollars annually in consistent funding to address housing issues.

More than 161,000 individuals experience homelessness on any given day in California – more than any other state in the country. Additionally, the state is facing an affordable housing crisis with more than 1 in 4 renter households paying at least 50% of their income toward rent, according to a report from the California Budget & Policy Center.

To address this, a new constitutional amendment proposed by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, would instate a 10-year funding commitment in the California Constitution starting in the 2024-2025 fiscal year. Every year, 5% of the state’s estimated General Fund revenue would be spent on the issue, which Wicks estimates would be about $10 billion a year.

Wicks estimated 75% of the funds going toward housing production and 25% going toward rental assistance. The specifics on what organizations and agencies would be eligible for the funding and how they would receive it is still under discussion. The bill would have the Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency develop a 10-year investment strategy that includes these details and accountability metrics.

The measure is conditionally opposed by the California Association of Realtors, who ask the amendment be changed to ban certain rentals in single-family parcels and want a portion of the funds directed to down payment assistance programs.

In order to amend the California Constitution, two-thirds of members in both chambers of the Legislature must approve, the measure must be approved by state voters on the ballot.

Wicks talked with The Center Square about this proposal in a phone interview last week. The bill is scheduled to be heard in the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development Wednesday. The interview has been edited for brevity.

TCS: Let’s start by talking about where this money would go and what it would do.

Wicks: Let me back up and do a little context as well… Legislators did a housing tour last fall, and we went all over the state...trying to get a good sense of the housing crisis and what exists. And one thing that came up over and over and over again was the fact that we have no ongoing funding for affordable housing in this state…

We came up with the idea of doing a 10-year fund that would really jumpstart a significant amount of production of housing as well as provide services – rental assistance in particular – that we think could really jumpstart and address swiftly and quickly and aggressively and seismically the issue of homelessness in California. Because our projections are it would be about $10 billion a year, which would be about $100 billion.

One hundred billion dollars over 10 years. Is that the biggest investment in homelessness the state would ever have?

It's a big investment, but I think the crisis warrants it. That's where we're at in terms of the problem, so we need to match that with the appropriate amount of resources.

The bill right now says it would take 5% from the general fund starting in the 2024-25 fiscal year for this allocation. What made you settle on 5%? Where did that value come from?

We basically went to homelessness advocates and providers and affordable housing folks who specialized in this space and said ‘what do you think we need to solve the problem?...Working backwards from there in terms of what we need to solve the problem – that's where we came up with that percent using the budget numbers that we have now.

The governor signed a $12 billion funding package last year to address homelessness. How would you defend your proposal for an ongoing investment to individuals who may be skeptical of putting more taxpayer money into addressing homelessness?

This is a decades and decades long problem that we have basically just started to confront recently…So you have decades of us not addressing the problem, and you also have decades of us as a state really making it difficult to build housing. And so I think we are in a perfect storm of problem, where the sort of neglect of the issue combined with the challenges we've had to actually build more housing has led to the problem that we're in. So while those recent investments feel great, it's the tip of the iceberg.

We need to continue to invest in this problem as a society if we want to see it fixed. That's just the reality of where we're at with the problem, and I view it as a moral imperative that we, as a state, take action.

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