Eden Updates

Assemblymember David Alvarez Focuses on Affordable Housing

May 7, 2024

Assemblymember David Alvarez has dedicated his career to serving the people of California with a focus on education, affordable housing and economic opportunity. Elected to the State Assembly in 2022, representing the 80th Assembly District, which includes parts of San Diego, Chula Vista and National City, Assemblymember Alvarez brings a wealth of experience and a deep commitment to his work.

Assemblymember Alvarez is a small business owner and has served for fifteen years in government, including eight years as a San Diego City Councilmember. A proud advocate of the underserved in San Diego, his previous successes included building parks, libraries and fire stations in neighborhoods that did not have them.

Assemblymember Alvarez is Chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee and serves on the following legislative committees: Aging and Long-Term Care; Business and Professions; Military and Veterans Affairs; Rules; Joint Legislative Audit Subcommittee on the Selection of the State Auditor; and the Select Committee on California-Mexico Bi-National Affairs. Assemblymember Alvarez is also a member of the CSG West Border Legislative Conference and the Colorado River Forum.

In this Q&A, he shares why affordable housing is important to him, the road to success for AB 1287 and AB 1449 and San Diego’s innovative approach to develop more affordable housing.

In your first term in the Legislature, you have already authored several bills signed into law by the Governor that take on some of California’s most hot-button housing issues—from strengthening CEQA exemptions for affordable housing projects to making it easier to build high-density housing. What has made you take up housing as a top priority?

Back to my days on the City Council, I have been passionate about housing policy and the meaningful role it can play in improving people’s lives. This passion has only increased as I have been elected to the state assembly and we have seen the housing crisis has grown worse.

One of my goals in this space is to shift the conversation and the policy we work on here to focus more on middle-income earners and opportunities for homeownership while continuing to build on affordable housing policy that already works. I am encouraged and proud of many of the efforts that I and my colleagues have spearheaded that focus on increasing housing supply for very low- and low-income earners. However, middle-income earners are often absent from these conversations, and given the troubling data that shows many leaving the state due to housing costs, they really shouldn’t be. This concern led me to introduce AB 1287 last year, which added a stackable density bonus to the existing state density bonus law to incentivize the creation of units deed-restricted for middle-income earners. I am currently building upon that bill this year by requiring that this density bonus also be implemented within the Coastal Zone.

As long as my constituents are being negatively impacted by the housing crisis, housing will remain a top priority for me.

One of your housing bills last year, AB 1287, aims to boost production of housing for middle-income families, while another, AB 1449, allows streamlined approvals for affordable projects that follow the state’s new “high road jobs” hiring standards. In both cases, you had to shepherd these ideas through some of the most complex politics in California. How did you successfully get these bills across the finish line—and what do you think was the key to success?

It is true that AB 1287 and AB 1449 were big policies. Establishing a CEQA exemption for 100% affordable housing projects and building onto Density Bonus Law by creating an additional incentive for middle-income earners required many conversations with colleagues, stakeholders and advocates that resulted in give and take from everybody. However, it was these conversations that were key to successfully getting these two bills signed into law. By being clear in our intentions with each bill, arguing with conviction, and listening to concerns or thoughts and incorporating those where we could, it resulted in buy-in from various actors and, frankly, stronger bills that we are now seeing the impact from. Although we don’t have the aggregate data yet, we are encouraged by the many anecdotes from developers who are using these two tools to build more housing. We fully expect these bills to play a meaningful role in tackling the housing crisis. Overall, the primary lesson I learned from working on these two bills is that collaboration and communication are key to successful legislation.

This year, you have taken on another major housing issue: The so-called “builder’s remedy,” a 1990 law that limits the ability of local governments to restrict new affordable housing projects when their housing plans are not in compliance with state law. You and Asm. Buffy Wicks (D-Richmond) have both introduced bills that seek to clarify when and how these provisions can be used. What do you hope to accomplish with this legislation?

The primary goal of our bill, AB 1886, isn’t to create anything new, but to fix an established tool that the legislature established decades ago. Despite being a powerful incentive for cities to play their part in tackling the housing crisis, it wasn’t until recently that we have seen “builder’s remedy” projects be proposed. Unfortunately, due to a lack of clarity in the code as to who determines compliance, the “builder’s remedy” projects aren’t being processed as cities hide behind “self-certification” arguments. Currently, nearly 40% of cities have failed to adopt a compliant housing element, meaning 40% of cities aren’t zoning for enough housing to ensure our housing stock meets the needs of Californians. This is unacceptable. Therefore, the goal of AB 1886 is to ensure the “builder’s remedy” can be utilized as the incentive it was intended to be. It simply too critical of a tool for tackling the housing crisis to let it flounder.

While the state legislature certainly has an important role to play in promoting the development of the affordable housing Californians need, leadership from local government is just as essential. San Diego has made a name for itself in recent years for adopting comprehensive plans for building housing closer to where people live and work. As a former San Diego city councilmember, how do you view progress on housing in San Diego—and what do you think needs to be done next to get more affordable housing built?

San Diego has earned a reputation as a city pushing big, innovative housing reforms with various local organizations doing great work in pushing the envelope along with the City Council, going back to the time when I served. From accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and single-room occupancies (SROs) to adding flexibility to minimum parking requirements and incentivizing residential and mixed-use developments in commercial spaces, the city has been at the forefront of housing innovation at the local level. I am proud to say I was involved in some of these initiatives at the local level while also finding the city and local housing organizations as important partners in my housing work at the state level. However, as your question alludes, much more work needs to be done. San Diego is still unaffordable to so many and is pricing out San Diegans who have lived there their entire lives. However, I am encouraged by the reforms taken and look forward to seeing their impact.

We must also continue to work on preservation and prevention of displacement. A bill I introduced, Assembly Bill 2945, would allow cities and counties to create a community and affordable housing reinvestment agency to fund economic development through tax increment financing.

Redevelopment (RDAs) has been an important tool for economic development and affordable housing construction. In my own community while I was on City Council, I saw firsthand the effects an RDA can have on disadvantaged communities. Unfortunately, previous RDAs’ lack of state oversight and financial protections resulted in inefficiencies and eventually led to their dissolution as a cost-saving measure following the 2008 recession.

AB 2945 recognizes the importance of RDAs and addresses their previous flaws by reestablishing them with stronger oversight provisions for the Controller, including penalties for noncompliance, opportunities for public input and a requirement that 30% of funds be dedicated to building low- and moderate-income housing.

This bill also requires RDAs to be located near a freeway with a Reconnecting Communities project, as defined, thereby limiting the implementation to certain locations. Freeway lids provide a cost-efficient way to reconnect communities healthily and efficiently and provide an opportunity to create more space for the construction of parks, community centers, water storage and housing while reducing both air and noise pollution.