California had a chance to modernize affordable housing. It blew it.

In a state with a $100 billion surplus, concerns over cost and technical lift tanked a bill that would have brought affordable housing into the digital age.

California had a chance to modernize affordable housing. It blew it.

California could have created an affordable housing database — but it didn't.

Photo: Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Sheela Gunn-Cushman has been dreaming of something like a Zillow for affordable housing since at least 2014, when she began her own search for a place to live in California that she could afford. For Gunn-Cushman, who is blind and living with cerebral palsy, the arcane process was particularly grueling.

It started with having to take public transit — which, of course, costs money — to every housing complex she wanted to apply to. Once she navigated her way to a complex, usually in an unfamiliar neighborhood, she’d often be met with a paper application, which is required by law but which, as a blind person, she couldn’t read. Sometimes landlords would agree to email the application to her, only to send a picture of the document, preventing her screen reader from parsing the characters on the page.

Once she managed to submit an application, it was more than a year before a unit would become available. Luckily for Gunn-Cushman, her contact information and employment status stayed the same throughout that year of searching; otherwise, she would’ve had to repeat the process just to update her application.“You’re just throwing enough stuff at the wall to see if it sticks,” Gunn-Cushman said. “You put yourself in front of a zillion wait lists and wait.”

This year, California had a chance to change all that.

A new bill, AB 1961, sought to bring the state’s affordable housing application process into the digital age by requiring California’s Department of Housing and Community Development to build an online database that would list available affordable housing units throughout the state and let people apply for them online. The bill sailed handily through the state assembly; not a single member voted against it. It received a similarly unanimous response in the Senate Committee on Housing.

But despite bipartisan support, neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor the legislature included funding for the database in their budgets. The concern, according to people who worked on the bill, was that the cost — about $19.4 million upfront, plus $20 million a year to maintain — would be too high and the technical lift too challenging. And so — in a state with a $100 billion budget surplus, a glut of tech talent, a dire housing crisis and the nation’s biggest homeless population — AB 1961 quietly died in August.

The California State Capital building stands in Sacramento, California, U.S., on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Some of the nation's most powerful governors, including California's Gavin Newsom, said they would form regional alliances to coordinate reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus outbreak subsides, setting up a potential clash with the president, who says that he alone has that authority. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images AB 1961 died quietly in August. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For housing advocates and the bill’s sponsor, Democratic assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, the outcome constitutes a major missed opportunity for the tech capital of the world to invest in technology that meaningfully improves people’s lives. “It’s so obvious the system is broken and not working,” Gabriel told Protocol. “It’s such a simple way to leverage the power of technology to make government more efficient.”

Gabriel first heard about the need for a portal like the one proposed in AB 1961 from the Residents United Network, a grassroots group of people who have experienced homelessness and housing insecurity. The group, which is affiliated with the nonprofit Housing California, holds an annual brainstorming session called There Ought to Be a Law, and last fall, the idea for an affordable housing database rose to the top.

Such databases already exist or are in development at a local level. San Francisco has its DAHLIA database, which Google’s design team helped develop. The Bay Area Housing Finance Authority is working on a portal called Doorway, which will include listings from the nine Bay Area counties. But given the deficit of affordable housing in the state, people searching for units often have to travel beyond any one city’s or region’s borders. Gunn-Cushman, who eventually landed in Oakland, said her housing hunt took her as far as El Dorado County, nearly three hours away.

You put yourself in front of a zillion wait lists and wait.

“It was given to me as an idea: What can we do to make it easier to apply for affordable housing?” said Amber-Lee Leslie, a legislative advocate on land use and finance at Housing California. “I thought the most expansive path would be to try to find a legislative champion to pursue this as a bill.”

Gabriel introduced the bill in February and says he found widespread support among colleagues. His office worked closely with the Department of Housing and Community Development, soliciting its feedback as the government body that would have to implement the law if it passed. But while department leaders understood the need for such a tool, according to one legislative aide, there were concerns from the start about the technical feasibility of maintaining such a database and keeping it up to date.

Department spokesperson Nur Kausar said HCD doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

The concerns weren’t just coming from the Newsom administration. Leaders of other regional housing authorities were also hesitant about the state taking on such a massive project before more local approaches had proved successful. “It is a very complex endeavor, and it might make more sense to allow the local and regional efforts to figure out the kinks,” said Rebecca Long, director of legislation and public affairs at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which runs the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority. “It could be the opposite of economies of scale. There could be real inefficiencies in having a statewide and regional system.”

Los Angeles, CA - August 24 Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, is flanked by LA mayoral candidate Karen Bass, right, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, as he visit a Homekey site on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) Neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor the legislature included funding for the housing database in their budgets. Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Long also worried about the costs of running the portal, which the Senate Appropriations Committee’s analysis suggested could cost $20 million a year to operate.

Long, apparently, wasn’t alone in her concerns. As the governor and the legislature were finalizing their budgets this year, neither included funding for the database. It was little surprise, then, when the bill ultimately died in the state Senate Appropriations Committee.

Leslie of Housing California said she understands the “sticker shock” but believes the estimates put forward by the legislature were high, in part because so much of the predicted cost was dedicated to spreading the word about the portal’s existence. Those costs, she said, would taper off in time. And if anywhere can afford this kind of investment, it’s California, she argued. “In our view, that’s a drop in the bucket when you think of the impact that could really revolutionize the way people access housing,” Leslie said.

Gabriel agreed. “Is that a significant amount of money? Of course, but when you put it in context of our budget in the state of California and put it in context of the need and benefit … I think it was well worth the cost,” he said.

Even though the bill ultimately failed, both Leslie and Gabriel said they’re encouraged by how far it got on its first pass through the legislature. And that may not be its last. Housing California plans to push for the bill to be brought back up in the next legislative session, and Gabriel said it’s “something we’re going to keep working on.”

Of course, the portal itself wouldn’t solve the problems with California’s affordable housing market, which is estimated to be about 160,000 homes short.

In 2020, the state passed a law that eases some of the impediments to affordable housing development, and two more recently passed the legislature. That legislation could help alleviate the shortage of affordable housing, Leslie said, but it won’t make it any easier for Gunn-Cushman and others to actually access it. “We’re working on policies to make it easier to develop housing, to build new housing,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a no-brainer that we should have a platform to make it easier for folks to find and apply to the housing that is available.”

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