March 13, 2015

Affordable housing has been a lifelong passion for Toni Atkins. As Assembly speaker, she is pursuing legislation that would fund affordable housing for years to come. Her spouse is a housing advocate, but the legislative counsel’s office says there is no conflict.

Those cockroaches have stayed with Toni Atkins.

Even though she grew up in a house that lacked running water or a gas stove, the Assembly speaker was shocked at the squalor she encountered as a college student working on housing issues in rural Virginia. In an elderly woman’s trailer, she said, the cockroaches were so plentiful that they “crawled in the day, not just at night.”

Cockroaches also scuttled through the units Atkins toured in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego as affordable housing issues became one of her passions. She delved in as a political aide and, later, as a City Council member, she aggressively pushed for more inexpensive housing.

“The urban substandard housing that I was able to see there was just as bad as the rural substandard housing and poverty,” Atkins said.

With her tenure as leader of Assembly Democrats expiring at the end of this legislative term, Atkins now is determined to secure statewide support for affordable housing that will endure after her time in the Legislature has ended.

“I can’t change the lives of my parents,” Atkins said. “But people like them who live in rural southwest Virginia, and people like them who live in City Heights in San Diego, I can impact that. I can impact that because I care about people having decent housing and affordable housing.”

Her upbringing is not Atkins’ only personal connection to affordable housing: Her spouse, Jennifer LeSar, is also deeply involved in the issue, having sought to broaden San Diego’s housing base while serving on a civic development agency. She later launched a firm that advises local governments and private agencies on affordable housing.

“Our passions cross,” Atkins said.

California’s shortage of affordable housing has become a crisis, elected officials and housing experts say. Median housing costs in California sit well above the national average, both for renters and for owners. The state is home to four of the six least affordable housing markets in the country, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California report.

“It’s a very great need,” said Wendy Saunders, executive director of the Sacramento-based Capitol Area Development Authority.

“Just about half of the housing needs are going to be for people who make moderate income or less” in Sacramento over the next five years, Saunders noted. Without help from the state, she said, “the construction costs alone make housing out of reach for basically half the population in Sacramento.”

Public support for affordable housing used to flow from redevelopment agencies, which allowed local cities and counties to devote more tax revenue to development. But Gov. Jerry Brown pushed legislators in 2011 to nix the agencies amid a yawning budget shortfall. Atkins was among those voting in favor.

As a result, with a resource that had provided over a billion dollars a year no longer available, developers say financing affordable housing projects has become far more difficult. Building affordable housing typically requires cobbling together different sources of public financing, including tax credits or bond money.

“There were definitely valid concerns about some redevelopment agencies and the way they used their funds,” said Shamus Roller, executive director of Housing California. “That being said, the outright elimination was a huge blow to people who were trying to make ends meet and couldn’t find a place to live.”

Like a person recounting how they learned of a disaster, Atkins remembers where she was when the news flashed across her screen: redevelopment was dead. A court decision backed the legislation dissolving redevelopment agencies but struck down a companion bill allowing redevelopment agencies to continue if they contributed more money to schools and other services. It was, Atkins said, an “accidental death.”

“I didn’t know the first year I was here I would kill redevelopment – that wasn’t my intention at all – and now I’m having to make up for it, because we took that money away,” Atkins said. “That money is critically needed for poor communities to build affordable housing.”

In an attempt to reassert the state’s backing for low-income housing, Atkins is championing a package of bills that would expand a low-income housing tax credit by $300 million, help California use federal funds becoming available and direct savings from Proposition 47 to housing support for people emerging from incarceration.

Then there is Atkins’ Assembly Bill 1335, which would create a perpetual source of affordable housing funding by levying a $75 fee on real estate transaction documents. A similar bill perished last year with the state’s Realtors association opposed. While the California Association of Realtors has not taken a position on AB 1335, representatives say a transaction fee imposes an unfairly narrow burden.

“Shelter, which is critically important, is a statewide societal concern,” said California Association of Realtors lobbyist Alexander Creel. “It’s not just a concern that should be on the backs of property owners that record documents. If anything, the revenue should be raised across the board.”

Because the bill requires a two-thirds vote, Atkins will need to win Republican support, which she acknowledged will be a “heavy lift.” Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, agreed that California faces a housing shortfall but said the solution should be pruning permitting requirements that can comprise nearly half the cost of new units.

“We want to unlock the regulatory environment and streamline it,” Olsen said.

During her time on the San Diego City Council, Atkins took on and won tough housing fights, securing an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring new developments to set aside units for lower-income residents. She carried a bill last year that would have cleared local governments to enact similar policies, but the governor vetoed it, citing legal uncertainty and warning the measure would discourage development.

“Thousands and thousands of affordable housing units exist in San Diego because I pushed inclusionary housing. I pushed to get money,” Atkins said.

It was also in San Diego that Atkins met her spouse, LeSar. Now the head of a consulting firm that advises clients on needs like locating financing for affordable development, LeSar formerly served on the board of San Diego’s downtown development agency. Developers in San Diego described her as a forceful advocate for housing low-income and homeless residents.

“She was probably the strongest advocate for affordable, workforce housing that we ever had at this city’s redevelopment agency,” said Sherman Harmer, president of the San Diego firm Urban Housing Partners.

In the beginning, Atkins said, LeSar – with a background in nonprofit and corporate housing – helped Atkins understand the financial component of housing policies. As Atkins’ political career has ascended, the relationship has attracted more scrutiny. Atkins said she regularly consults with legal counsel to avoid any ethical breaches and noted that she once asked LeSar to turn down a state contract. In an opinion released this week, the Office of Legislative Counsel cleared the new housing package.

“I don’t think people understand the lengths we have to go to to make sure we’re not in conflict,” Atkins said. “It is a dilemma for us that we both have a passion for this issue, but we both want to be effective at the thing we care the most about.”

“I could avoid perception all the way around by not doing something I care a great deal about,” Atkins added, “but it’s important to me. This is one of the biggest reasons I ran for office to come to Sacramento.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.