Eden Updates

Senator Josh Becker: A Champion for Affordable Housing and Public Policy Innovation

May 7, 2024

Senator Josh Becker is known throughout California for his innovative approach to public policy at the intersection of community activism, technology and social justice. Since his election to the State Senate in November 2020, Senator Becker has been a strong voice for the residents of California’s 13th Senate District, which covers most of San Mateo County and the northern part of Santa Clara County.

With a keen focus on advancing California’s transition to 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions, Senator Becker has authored several impactful bills aimed at voter access, justice reforms, and leveraging technology for economic empowerment. His progressive vision extends to his role as the chair of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection and Energy, where he plays a pivotal role in shaping policies to combat climate change and protect our natural resources.

Senator Becker is also deeply committed to addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis. His advocacy for housing policies reflects a deep understanding of the challenges faced by Californians, particularly those in underserved communities. Through his participation in various Senate committees, including the Senate Budget & Fiscal Review Committee; the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee; the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee; the Senate Transportation Committee; and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, Senator Becker continues to champion policies that promote equity, inclusivity and economic opportunity for all Californians.

We had the privilege of learning more about Senator Becker’s thoughts about affordable housing, BAHFA, the rising costs of insurance and his priorities.

As the representative of a Peninsula district with some of the most expensive housing in the country—including cities like Atherton, Hillsborough and Menlo Park—you have made affordable housing a top priority during your first term in the Senate. How much do you hear about housing costs from people in your district; and from your perspective, are there solutions a significant majority of the people you represent would agree on?

Every day, I have several conversations about affordable housing—it is one of the most crucial issues throughout the Bay Area. My neighbors, local elected officials and community groups are all incredibly invested in how we provide adequate housing for everyone in our community.

I do believe there are solutions many people agree on. Namely, there are over 46,000 affordable homes that are shovel-ready, but just need funding to get built. While we have done a great job streamlining construction so what would have taken years to be approved now takes months, we are still woefully behind the investment needs of our communities. We must also continue to fund affordable housing, which is why I am a coauthor of AB 1657, Wicks’ bill to put a $10 billion affordable housing bond on the ballot.

You have introduced bills in the last few years that have made important technical changes to housing law—making it easier for affordable housing providers to access a new statewide pool of reserve funds for emergencies and promoting affordable development in communities that have not earned a state “pro-housing” designation. Funding issues are once again at the forefront this year with a budget shortfall and a potential state housing bond moving toward the ballot. Are you confident the state can continue to maintain the investments in affordable housing that lower-income households are counting on?

No, which is why we need the aforementioned affordable housing bond to continue our investment in these projects.

The next big opportunity to fund affordable housing in the Bay Area may come through the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority (BAHFA), which is preparing to put a regional bond on the ballot that could generate $10 billion to $20 billion in resources to build affordable housing. How involved are you in the BAHFA bond effort, and what do you think would be needed for Bay Area voters to support a measure of that size?

As the Chair of the Bay Area Caucus, I know that we desperately need more affordable housing investments. I’m supportive of the bond and think that Bay Area voters need to know how many units will be built in their communities with this funding. In San Mateo County alone, there are over 1,000 projects just waiting for that final set of funding to break ground. I think we must also recognize our responsibility to invest in one another. For every affordable housing dollar we invest, there are five federal and private dollars matched; and for every affordable home we develop, there is one more opportunity for a family to succeed. This will be a big moment for the Bay Area, and I’m hopeful we’ll pass the bond come November.

One of the biggest emerging challenges for non-profits like Eden is the rising cost of insurance—an issue that is growing even more acute as insurance providers drop policies or leave the state. You are carrying legislation this year, SB 1060, that would change the way insurers evaluate the risk of wildfires—one of many bill ideas for supporting homeowners and affordable housing providers. What do you believe is the most critical action the state can take this year to slow the rising cost of insurance, and do you think the Legislature and Insurance Commissioner can respond in time?

Commissioner Lara’s Sustainable Insurance Strategy is the most important near-term priority. We have to stabilize the market, which means finding a compromise with insurers to allow them to analyze risk based on the new realities of climate change that yields more frequent and severe droughts and increased wildfire risk. Basing rates on historical losses is no longer a good predictor of future risk, and the insurers risk becoming insolvent if they aren’t allowed to price insurance based on a forward-looking assessment of risk, which is why so many are refusing to renew policies and, in some cases, leaving the state entirely.  At the same time, if we give the insurers what they need on the rating side, then they need to make insurance more available.

Commissioner Lara proposes requiring that insurers cover at least 85% of their statewide market share in high-hazard areas, which would be a big step toward moving people out of the FAIR Plan (the state’s insurance plan of last resort) and back into the private market. We also need insurers to take into account the steps that the state, local communities and individual property owners are taking to reduce wildfire risk through forest treatments and hazardous fuel reduction; creation of defensible space; and home hardening. The state has appropriated $3.7B for landscape-scale forest treatments since 2017, and local governments and property owners have spent millions of dollars more to reduce risk. Commissioner Lara is taking steps to require insurers to factor these risk mitigations into their rates, but that will only help if policies are offered in the first place.

That’s where SB 1060 fits in. My bill will require insurers to account for those risk mitigation steps in their underwriting models, which are the tools insurers use to evaluate the relative risk of different properties and decide whether they meet the insurers’ criteria for offering or renewing a policy. The Insurance Commission has no authority over these underwriting models today, so only the Legislature can take action to require this change. With this change, combined with the critical actions in the Sustainable Insurance Strategy, communities who are taking action to reduce wildfire risk should see their efforts reflected in lower risk scores and more widely available insurance coverage.

You spent your career before entering politics pushing businesses to create social good—from starting a biotech company to research cancer cures to founding a venture capital firm committed to both profit and “social benefits.” When you look across the landscape of entrepreneurs and startups, are there specific companies or initiatives you’re tracking in the Bay Area that you think could help bring down housing costs and produce more of the affordable housing people need?

There are some startups that are trying to bring new technologies and building methods to bring down the cost of housing and increase the supply of affordable housing. But more needs to be done to expand our supply of affordable housing, and the affordable housing bond, of which I am a co-author, is an initiative that would significantly move California towards our housing goals.