By Russell Nichols
Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs has been an advocate for overcoming adversity since he was a child. No surprise, then, that California’s housing shortage — and broader poverty crisis — has been a major focal point throughout his political career.
In 2016, Tubbs was elected as mayor of Stockton, the city’s first Black mayor and the youngest, at age 26, to hold that office. This year, Tubbs, who serves as an economic adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom, announced his new nonprofit called End Poverty In California (EPIC).
We spoke with Tubbs about the aims of his nonprofit, problematic statewide policies and faulty narratives around affordable housing.
Tell me about your work and how it relates to California’s housing crisis and the need for more affordable housing in the Sacramento region.
So after my term as mayor [of Stockton], I accepted appointment from the governor to be his special advisor on social mobility and inequality. And in that work, it became very apparent to me that what was needed was an organization or people who are singularly dedicated to the issue of poverty in California. So that’s where End Poverty in California comes from.
Essentially, the organization focuses on lifting up the lived experiences of people living in poverty in California and doing that by going to the communities where they are, bringing press with us, listening to people tell their stories, connecting those stories to policy issues, and then finding a way to unblock those policy failures by connecting with advocates and others on their robust policy agenda that will make California the Golden State for all.
They’re doing the unsexy stuff like looking at benefits access and how do we deliver benefits in the state and how do you make sure that folks get the benefits they need. And then also helping with the implementation. Once you get a law passed — whether it’s baby bonds or childhood savings accounts — how do you make sure that those most impacted understand how to get it? And then as it pertains to housing, we know that, in California, so much of the poverty is driven by the cost of living, which is a function of housing. We just don’t have enough housing for folks in the state.
What do you see as the major factors driving the housing crisis in the Sacramento region?
I think wages haven’t caught up with the cost of living, so low wages. I think scarcity. I think there is difficulty in building affordable housing because of some regulatory issues and how expensive affordable housing is. I think NIMBYisms and resistance to affordable housing. And I think supply issues. Zoning issues. And also vouchers and the delta between how much it costs to live and how much help you receive if you get it also makes housing cost prohibitive.
What do you see as the most critical solutions to lack of affordable housing?
[Senate Bill 9] is exciting because now you can build multi-family [housing]. There’s an article in the state constitution — Article 34 — that makes it hard for the government to build housing, like the public can oppose government housing. But Scott Wiener [D-San Francisco] and Ben Allen [D-Santa Monica] are putting together a ballot measure to change that. So that makes me excited as well.
What can you tell us about these responses and why they offer the most potential to solve the problem of housing affordability?
I’m a nerd, so these responses offer the most potential because they help remove some of the blocks to why government can’t build housing, for example, in California the way we need government to. Or why neighborhood opposition makes it impossible to do multi-family. It removes some of those blocks so that if someone has the financing, they’re able to build.
What evidence exists to show the effectiveness of these solutions?
By definition, single-family zoning makes it so you’re unable to build multi-family. And multi-family, by definition, is usually cheaper and more affordable than single-family. Getting rid of single-family zoning and creating much more opportunities and communities to build multi-family housing, that’s just intuitive. And same thing with Article 34. And there’s a bunch of research that talks about how it’s blocked affordable housing for decades while creating costly hurdles for developers. Local officials want to build homes for low-income residents. So changing that will reverse that, which is very exciting.
What limitations around these approaches exist?
A big limitation in regards to anything as it pertains to poverty or equity, even in the progressive state of California, are legacies of classism and racism. And despite research, people truly do think that affordable housing means that their property values are going to go down, that affordable housing means that their neighborhoods will become less safe, that affordable housing means that their neighborhoods will become less desirable.
So even with all the regulatory and policy tools, I think particularly elected officials will be afraid to use them because they don’t want the backlash of angry property owners voting them out because they were championing affordable housing, because they wanted multi-family in their neighborhood. So I think until we deal with that narrative issue, we’ll continue running into some roadblocks. Although I still think the policy framework is important to change because that’s something you can control more so than people’s feelings.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. In 2023, we are focusing on finding solutions to the lack of affordable housing in the Sacramento region. Solving Sacramento is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.