California’s Housing Crisis Looms Over the State’s GOP Convention

It was no surprise that presidential politics dominated the 2023 California Republican Party convention held this past weekend in Anaheim. It would have been hard for them not to, given the presence of four Republican presidential candidates all eager to make a dent in the party’s largest-in-the-nation primary to be held next March.

Yet away from the raucous, boozy party atmosphere at former President Donald Trump’s Friday lunchtime convention speech, or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ slightly more sedate dinner address later that evening, an arguably more consequential event for the Golden State was playing out.

In a small salon room off the main ballroom on the second day of the convention, the state’s Republican lawyers’ association was holding a continuing legal education event on “fighting for local control.”

While Republicans haven’t managed to win a statewide election in California since 2006, the GOP still controls many local governments.

But the value of those offices as a bulwark against Democratic dominance is being eroded, said Fred Whitaker, the chair of the Republican Party of Orange County, at the local control event, by an “administrative state” that was targeting “the freedom we used to have in our communities.”

The panel covered three issues over which the state’s Republicans were beefing the most with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom: elections, school boards, and housing.

There to talk about housing was Michael Gates, the elected city attorney of the Republican-leaning community of Huntington Beach. Since first winning office in 2014, Gates has fought repeated legal battles with the state government over laws requiring the city to plan and approve new housing.

At the state convention, he minced no words about the damage that new housing would do to his city.

“If we don’t stand up and fight, we’ll lose everything,” Gates said. “They’re literally coming and carpet bombing our city with these mandates.”

It’s an interesting fight for an elected Republican to pick.

California’s housing market is both one of the most regulated and (not coincidently) one of the most expensive in the nation. Yet Gates is using his office to fight a slew of recent state laws that remove local restrictions on things like duplexes, accessory dwelling units, and subsidized apartments.

It’s an effort that puts him on the other side of the work of Republican state legislators, whose votes were crucial to passing some of the housing laws Huntington Beach is now fighting in court.

With Democrats divided on housing, it’s one issue where the GOP can still influence policy at the state level.

For instance, pro-zoning reform “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) activists credit now U.S. Rep. Kevin Kiley (R–Calif.) with rallying crucial Republican support for S.B. 9 (a bill legalizing duplexes on single-family zoned properties) when he was in the state Legislature. Huntington Beach is now getting sued by the state of California for refusing to process S.B. 9 applications.

The local control panel Gates was speaking on was the only event where housing policy was part of the formal agenda. But California’s housing crisis couldn’t help but interject itself into other parts of the program.

Half the nation’s unsheltered homeless live in “communist California,” said Trump during his speech. The former president seemingly blamed the problem on lax law enforcement and rampant drug use. But the unaffordability of shelter likely plays a bigger role.

In his remarks, DeSantis made a lot of hay about the fact that California was losing population.

“Growing up in Florida, I don’t remember a single California license plate in my life. All of a sudden we see a sea of California license plates in Florida,” said DeSantis, all of which belonged to Republicans who’d fled their home state to somewhere that “respected their rights.”

But one of the top reasons people cite for leaving California is its high cost of living (of which housing is a huge portion). Of the 40 percent of Californians who say they’re considering leaving the state, 60 percent cite the cost of living. That’s twice the number that say bad policies and laws are the reason they’d leave.

Every Republican that leaves California obviously erodes the power of those that remain in the state. The high housing costs contributing to people’s decision to leave are making the state more and more liberal too.

Nevertheless, Huntington Beach’s fights against the Democratic state government got some love from the main stage at the convention.

Trump gave a shoutout during his remarks to Huntington Beach’s Republican Mayor Tony Strickland, who’s repeatedly sparred with Newsom over zoning reforms, as well as COVID-19 restrictions.

Opposition to state reforms of local zoning rules wasn’t universal at the convention.

“If someone wants to build, let them build. Why can’t we have freedom in our state? Let’s have a free market economy again,” Denice Gary-Pandol, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate running to fill the late Dianne Feinstein’s seat, told Reason when asked whether she supports state bills allowing duplexes and backyard cottages in more places.

The housing section of the draft party platform that convention delegates were considering doesn’t make a clear stand on the issue of state preemption or local control.

“We support policies that encourage private sector investment and market-driven solutions, reducing government red tape that often inhibits housing development,” it reads. “We believe in empowering local communities to shape their housing landscape while encouraging responsible growth and development.”

At the hotel across the street from the convention, striking workers with the UNITE HERE Local 11 hospitality union blew whistles, and vuvuzelas, and banged on pots with drumsticks. In addition to better pay and benefits, the union is demanding hotel owners support a Los Angeles city ballot initiative that would provide the homeless with nightly vouchers for hotel stays and require hotels to rent out to them.

Hotel owners are dead set against the initiative, which would guarantee no city services or support for the homeless they’d be forced to house. Even some hotel workers testified against the policy when it was being considered by the Los Angeles City Council.

The widespread speculation is that the ballot initiative is more of a negotiating tactic for the unions than a serious policy proposal: give us a better contract or else.

That’s some pretty cynical politics in service of an obviously unworkable policy. It’s the kind of thing organized labor can get away with when the one party in power also depends on its support, and people are desperate for something to be done about homelessness.

But all the craziness that California’s one-party Democratic rule produces hasn’t brought much benefit for the state’s Republicans.

Instead, an increasing number of Republicans are choosing exit—some leaving California entirely—instead of voice. Meanwhile, the local elected officials the party does have are trying to wall themselves off from state policy, including housing policies that might keep a few more Republicans around.

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