Battle for Soul of California Democrats

    — Published by The San Diego Union-Tribune, June 10, 2016. Republished by Lilac Hills Ranch, June 13, 2016.


San Diego’s elected Democrats have been living on cloud nine since winning passage Tuesday of Proposition I, which raises the minimum wage in the city at a rate that’s initially faster than an increase recently approved by the state Legislature.

This amounts to an experiment that may or may not comeback to haunt San Diego and California.

Sure, the pay hike will help some people make ends meet and will help relieve their poverty. But will it also create poverty by destroying lower-paying jobs, especially as automation and robotics become cheaper and more adaptable to tasks now handled by humans?

We’re going to find out in coming years. A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll shows Californians understand this, with a majority of those surveyed supporting the incremental move to a $15 minimum wage even as they worry about its effects on the economy.

But if the Democrats who hold most of the state’s political clout want to do something that is far more certain to end up broadly helping Californians, they need to address the extreme cost of housing, which in many parts of the Golden State consumes half or more of the income of low- and middle-income households. Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s highest ranking Democrat, has figured this out. With the backing of former Govs. George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, he’s pushing hard for housing reforms, starting with legislation from Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, that would amend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to speed approval of high-density projects and projects in which a portion of housing units can be considered “affordable.”

Bloom’s most important bill — AB 2501 — passed the Assembly on a 50-11 vote. But it will face a much rougher ride in the state Senate because of opposition from two major wings of the California Democratic coalition: environmentalists and unions.

These groups have long employed CEQA as a tool to demand concessions and don’t want it weakened; environmentalists use it to block projects they don’t like and unions use it as a bargaining chip to impose project labor agreements.

So Brown’s housing push amounts to a battle for the soul of the California Democratic Party. Do elected Democrats want to help the roughly 9 million, often-young Californians who live in poverty— and the millions more who live on the margins of poverty — by increasing housing stock and bringing down the cost of rent and mortgages? Or do they heed the Democrats — including lucky ones with well-paying jobs and mortgages from before the housing bubble — who lead environmental groups or unions?

If they choose the latter, then housing costs will remain excessive, and life will never stop being a paycheck-to-paycheck grind for so many state residents — even with a $15 minimum wage, which translates into $2,600 a month before deductions. In the San Diego area, the average monthly rent for an apartment was $1,618 in March. According to Zillow, the median cost of a home in San Diego is $535,500.

Here’s what those numbers add up to: an urgent need for more housing. How California Democrats respond to this challenge is this state’s most important question. Live on cloud nine or live in reality?

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