By Brian Schrader
Right before the winter holidays came into full swing, I spoke with California Assembly member Chris Ward about his first year in the State Assembly. We spoke about the various issues facing California and what steps the legislature took to address these problems.
Housing and homelessness
California is facing an extreme shortage of housing; consequently housing prices and rents have risen dramatically as more and more people vie for the same limited resource. Experts call this phenomenon a twin crises of housing availability and affordability. Together these crises are major drivers of homelessness in the state. Building more housing would therefore both help lower the cost of housing and lift individuals out of homelessness.
When asked about this problem, Assemblyman Ward replied, “We need more low-income and extremely low-income housing to help people stabilize so that they don’t fall into homelessness.” He added, “the resources that we allocated [in 2021] are actively coming down to cities and counties in order to build that low-income housing: that’s happening.”
Ward also explained that the state is substantially increasing the amount of direct subsidies it funds to construct affordable housing throughout the state. He estimates that these two solutions will have a long term effect on California’s housing situation. “Our [housing] deficit will decline, nowhere close to the full amount necessary, but it will head in a better direction,” he said. Ward explained that while progress is being made at the state-level, “you don’t see that ship turn around right away.”
When asked about other actions the Assembly took to address the housing needs of Californians, Ward pointed to AB 491 which was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Newsom last year. The bill ensures that the owners of mixed-income apartments and condos provide residents, “the same access to common entrances, areas, and amenities,” regardless of income status.
Ward further explained, “We were finding a small but growing occurrence of larger housing developments that were clustering affordable units into one part of the development such that they may not have access to amenities like the pool, the rooftop deck, or the community room. I thought that was unacceptable. You need to make sure that all of the necessities are available to everyone.”
Urbanization and climate change
California has been leading the nation in cutting emissions to address climate change, but according to the most recent estimates, the state is not on track to meet its 2030 goal. Additionally, a recent analysis found that the transportation sector accounts for roughly 50% of emissions in California. Therefore, one of the most effective ways to curb emissions is to both increase the share of electric vehicles on the road and to increase urban density so that more people can forgo driving entirely and rely on public transit or other forms of alternative transportation. Last year Governor Newsom signed an executive order that requires all new vehicles sold in California be electric by 2035. That leaves the questions of how to increase the value of public transportation and how to increase urban density left on the table.
“You have to plan smartly, and make sure you’re pairing those transit and infrastructure investments with a lot of that upcoming community development, and we want to see that in transit-priority areas,” Ward explained. He further explained that both San Diego and California at-large stand to gain a lot from President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda if the bill is eventually passed by the Senate.
San Diego is a very vehicle-centric city, and while that’s not going to change in the near future, both the City Council and the California Legislature see improving public transportation as key steps in mitigating vehicle emissions. Ward explained that building up transit-priority areas is key to this plan. Additionally, transit needs to be viable for everyday Californians. “People are not going to use an alternative system if it takes two to three times as long to get from A to B as a private vehicle.” That said, there is still a lot to be done to improve public transportation in the state.
The California legislature is back in session and change is in the air. During our conversation, Ward expressed optimism about the 2022 session. “We are moving forward with what looks to be a very positive outlook for the future, and I’m excited to get back to Sacramento and be a part of that.”
— Brian Schrader is a software developer and writer. He lives in Normal Heights.