On housing, as with coronavirus and climate change, California must follow the evidence

April 29, 2020

California’s leaders are earning their place in history for strong leadership in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. By acting quickly on the scientific evidence, our state and local governments likely saved thousands of lives, “bent the curve” of infection rates, and protected many of our most vulnerable residents from harm.

While there’s a long road ahead to recovery, there are immediate lessons we can learn from our response. The most important lesson: When California’s leaders commit to evidence-based policymaking, we end up with a healthier, safer, more resilient state.

We’ve seen this kind of strong leadership on the pandemic. We’ve seen it on climate change. And we should demand the same commitment to evidence on addressing the housing crisis.

We know that our leaders have generally followed the evidence for our response to the climate crisis: Confronted by attacks from the fossil fuel and car industries, our state never wavered in its efforts to develop a clean economy. As a result, California leads the world on climate innovation.

The same should be true for our housing crisis. The pandemic is making the housing crisis worse – and vice versa; over 150,000 of our unhoused neighbors continue to face this crisis with no home to shelter in.

According to American Community Survey data, 27 percent of all Americans living in overcrowded conditions live in California. More than 1 million out of our 12 million households have more than one resident per bedroom. How can people practice “social distancing” while living in crowded or unsanitary conditions?

Cities across California see the consequences of the housing shortage. A growing population is one paycheck away from eviction. We live with crushing commutes that fill the air with pollution and gridlock our freeways.

To prevent an even worse outcome in future crises, our goal should be clear: We must make sure all Californians have secure, affordable housing. Many of our legislators are on board with the pro-housing agenda, with proposals that would allow more homes to be built where we need them most.

But, like fossil fuel lobbyists who deny climate change and Trump sympathizers who deny the risk of contagion, anti-housing opportunists are muddying the waters on housing. Some propose a moratorium on new housing legislation; others deny the existence of the housing shortage. These demagogues are no different than climate science deniers. They make bogus arguments about “the dangers of density and the COVID-19 pandemic,” despite no evidence to support their claims.

In fact, the primary factors keeping people safe from COVID-19 are not low-density land-use patterns, but good governance, sound leadership and a robust public health response.

We’ve seen the tragic consequences of irresponsible leadership that dismissed the advice of public health experts. The mayor of New York, the governor of Florida and even the president himself each made fruitless attempts to maintain “business as usual.” The human toll of their disregard for the evidence is staggering.

So when confronted by attacks from the organized opponents of housing, our leaders should show the same resolve they’ve shown standing up to the fossil fuel lobby on climate change, or to Trump on COVID-19: The evidence says we must act to provide abundant housing for all Californians.

We should treat housing as a form of preventative medicine – because the pandemic shows us that it is. We should urgently pass legislation that can rapidly expand the supply of affordable housing, and aggressively streamline city processes that drive up the cost of housing across our state.

There is always a risk that overheated rhetoric will cloud our judgment. That is why we must fight to keep the debate about housing policy – as with health and climate policy – focused on the evidence.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “If given the truth, the people can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” The facts are clear: When presented with sound evidence, our leaders know what to do. They should pass comprehensive housing reform, now.

Matthew Lewis is Director of Communications for California YIMBY. He has worked in housing, transportation, climate, and energy policy non-profits for 20 years.