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Q&A with Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, a Long-time Champion of Affordable Housing

August 30, 2022

A long-time champion of affordable housing, Buffy Wicks is wielding her influence as Chair of the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee to oversee several pieces of legislature designed to address the housing crisis. Notably, her bill AB 2011, The Affordable Housing and High Road Jobs Act, just passed the State Legislature and is on its way to the Governor’s desk, with the aim to open new sites to affordable housing and support a thriving, well-paid construction workforce. The Housing Opportunities for Everyone (HOPE) Act is a constitutional amendment that will establish a long-term funding stream dedicated to solving California’s housing and homelessness.

We recently chatted with Buffy about these bills and other efforts that have been a hallmark of her legislative career.

Q. What led you to pursue a career in public service?

In 2003, I was organizing in the anti-war movement when I got a call from my roommate and dear friend. He had just tested positive for HIV and wanted me to pick him up from the clinic. I sat down with him and the nurse and learned about T-cell counts and viral loads. Then, when he got into my car, he turned to me and said “I don’t have any health insurance.”

This was the week we started the war in Iraq. Our nation’s leaders could find the resources to fund an unjust foreign war – but not to fund basic health care for people like my friend. I couldn’t sit idly by in the face of such lopsided policy priorities. If we were going to change things in this country, and help people get the healthcare they deserve, I knew I had to roll up my sleeves and get to work.

Q. Why is affordable housing so important to you and your district—and what made you want to chair the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development? 

Safe and affordable housing should be a human right, and our state is really struggling with this. We need an additional 1.2 million new affordable housing units to meet the needs of lower income families – many who are paying more than 50% of their income toward housing costs, making it harder to pay for the other necessities of life like food and clothing. Plus, the lack of affordable housing near job centers means people are spending more time in their cars and less time with their families. This is problematic for our climate change goals, and problematic for Californians’ quality of life.

As Housing Committee Chair, I get the chance to shape the state’s policy response to all of these issues. Through this work, we can make meaningful progress toward ending our homelessness epidemic, and reduce housing costs by increasing the supply for housing  – especially for lower income families and those who face the greatest housing challenges.

Q. Major housing policy proposals have been stuck in political gridlock in Sacramento for the last few years, at the same time affordable housing and homelessness issues have been rising as two of Californians’ highest priorities. Why do you think that is?

One of the challenges state and local electeds face is convincing our constituents that the path to addressing these issues is to build more housing in every community. Although people are frustrated by housing costs and homelessness, they fear change, and tend to resist new housing in their communities. But the fact of the matter is, there is a direct tie to the homelessness crisis we face and the lack of affordable housing being built.

Housing has become a top issue in the legislature for this reason, and we can see that in the many bills trying to push forward more housing production. The state has really stepped in to hold local governments responsible to plan for and approve housing.  We are also spending more than ever before to build more affordable housing and invest more in the local response to homelessness.

Q. In your first year as chair of the Assembly Housing Committee, you’ve introduced major legislation (AB 2011 and other bills) that would dramatically expand affordable housing development and create new “high road” job standards for construction workers. What has the reception been in the Legislature to these ideas? Do you think your bill will pass — and can it help make a dent in the state’s housing affordability issues? 

AB 2011 will make quite the dent – it, along with other production bills like SB 6, will change the trajectory of California’s housing crisis.

Our analysis suggests that AB 2011 could produce an additional 2 million housing units. The impact will be historic – no longer will lack of land be an issue for housing production. No longer will there be a lack of incentive for workers to join the construction workforce. And, no longer will red tape and bureaucracy prohibit us from building housing in the right locations to address our climate crisis.

I have been very pleased with the response from my colleagues in both the Senate and Assembly to AB 2011, and am confident it will end up on the Governor’s desk. There is a real desire among my colleagues to see progress toward reduced housing costs and an increase in the supply of affordable housing.

Q.  What has been your proudest accomplishment so far in the Legislature? 

Housing has been my top priority as a Legislator, and I am proud of the work that my colleagues and I have done in this space over the past few years. We formed an Assembly Housing Working Group last year and went on a statewide housing tour to hear about the range of housing issues that exist in different regions of California. The tour highlighted key policy categories that became the focus of legislation that we are tackling, including prioritizing production, housing those experiencing homelessness, and helping tenants stay housed to prevent these individuals from becoming homeless. 

California is 2.5 million homes shy of where we need to be, so we must do everything possible to end this crisis. This will require building a lot of housing so that there’s more of a natural supply at all income levels, in addition to building as much affordable housing as we can. It will also require helping tenants stay housed by bringing down the cost of renting, and increasing homeownership through new production. 

Q.  You worked in the Obama Administration and have now spent several years in the legislative trenches in Sacramento. Has your experience changed your sense of what’s possible in politics?  

After the experience with my friend testing positive for HIV when he didn’t have health coverage, while America was unjustly going to war with Iraq in that same week, I became even more politically active. I joined Governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, then joined the Labor movement fighting for better health care for Walmart workers. After this, I became one of the early hires on President Obama’s campaign in early 2007.

After helping to develop his community organizing model that propelled him into the White House, he took me with him. I worked on a number of policy priorities, but primarily worked on the Affordable Care Act. I’ll never forget sitting in the Roosevelt Room with the President of the United States, on a Sunday night in March 2010, watching those votes coming in.

When that last vote came in, and we passed the Affordable Care Act, the whole room erupted into applause. I realized two things: one, my friend would no longer be considered a pre-existing condition and would get the health care that is his right; and two, that we actually have the ability to pass progressive public policy that helps people. That is why I ran for office. I am deeply shaped by these experiences that define my values and my priorities as a state legislator.

Q. What do you hope to do next in Sacramento—and how do you hope to get it done? 

One thing that I hope to do next is to focus on securing more funding for affordable housing. One takeaway from our Assembly Housing Working Group’s statewide tour was that there is a desperate need for an ongoing, long-term affordable housing funding source. Having dedicated housing funding will allow our state to help produce more affordable units, and increase investments in infrastructure that supports affordable housing development. Securing that ongoing funding will be a game changer for production and reducing homelessness, so it’s at the top of my list to get done in the near future.