By Russell Nichols | Special to The OBSERVER

Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs
Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs

Former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs has been an advocate for overcoming adversity since he was in high school, when he addressed the issue in a winning essay for a contest sponsored by famed author Alice Walker. No surprise, then, that California’s housing shortage and broader poverty crisis have been a primary focus of his political career.

Tubbs in 2016 was elected mayor of Stockton – the city’s first Black mayor and, at 26, its youngest. With Tubbs leading California’s 11th largest city, the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration program, or SEED, provided a no-strings, $500 basic income to 125 randomly selected residents for 24 months. Similar initiatives to provide a universal basic income are advancing in other cities, and the establishment of SEED led to the founding of Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a network of mayors advocating for a basic income.

This year Tubbs, who serves as an economic adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom, announced his new nonprofit, End Poverty In California (EPIC). We spoke with Tubbs about the aims of his nonprofit, problematic statewide policies and faulty narratives around affordable housing.

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Q: How does your work address California’s housing crisis and the need for more affordable housing in the Sacramento region?

A: After my term as mayor of Stockton, the governor appointed me his special advisor on social mobility and inequality. It became very apparent to me that what was needed was an organization of people who are singularly dedicated to the issue of poverty in California. So that’s where End Poverty in California comes from.

Essentially, the organization focuses on lifting up the lived experiences of people living in poverty in California and doing that by going to the communities where they are, bringing the press with us, listening to people tell their stories, connecting those stories to policy issues, and then finding a way to unblock those policy failures by connecting with advocates and others on their robust policy agenda that will make California the Golden State for all. 

They’re doing the unsexy stuff like looking at benefits access and how do we deliver benefits in the state and how do you make sure that folks get the benefits they need. And then also helping with the implementation. Once you get a law passed – whether it’s baby bonds or childhood savings accounts – how do you make sure that those most impacted understand how to get it? We know that, in California, so much of the poverty is driven by the cost of living, which is a function of housing. We just don’t have enough housing for folks in the state.

Q: What do you see as the major factors driving the housing crisis in the Sacramento region?

A: Wages haven’t caught up with the cost of living. Scarcity; it’s difficult to build affordable housing because of some regulatory issues and how expensive affordable housing is. I think NIMBYisms and resistance to affordable housing. Supply issues, zoning issues, vouchers and the difference between how much it costs to live and how much help you receive if you get it also make housing cost-prohibitive.

Q: What do you see as the most critical solutions to lack of affordable housing?

A: [Senate Bill 9] is exciting because now you can build multifamily housing. There’s an article in the state constitution – Article 34 – that makes it hard for the government to build housing, since the public can oppose government housing. But Scott Wiener [D-San Francisco] and Ben Allen [D-Santa Monica] are putting together a ballot measure to change that. So that makes me excited as well.

Q: What can you tell us about these responses and why they offer the most potential to solve the problem of housing affordability?

A: I’m a nerd, so these responses offer the most potential because they help remove some of the blocks to why government can’t build housing, for example, in California the way we need government to. Or why neighborhood opposition makes it impossible to do multifamily [developments]. It removes some of those blocks so that if someone has the financing, they’re able to build.

Q: What evidence exists to show the effectiveness of these solutions?

A: By definition, single-family zoning makes it so you’re unable to build multifamily. And multifamily, by definition, is usually cheaper and more affordable than single-family. Getting rid of single-family zoning and creating much more opportunities and communities to build multifamily housing, that’s just intuitive. And same thing with Article 34. And there’s a bunch of research that talks about how [Article 34 has] blocked affordable housing for decades while creating costly hurdles for developers. Local officials want to build homes for low-income residents. So changing that will reverse that, which is very exciting.

Q: What limitations around these approaches exist?

A: A big limitation in regards to anything as it pertains to poverty or equity, even in the progressive state of California, are the legacies of classism and racism. And despite research, people truly do think that affordable housing means that their property values are going to go down, that affordable housing means that their neighborhoods will become less safe, that affordable housing means that their neighborhoods will become less desirable. 

So even with all the regulatory and policy tools, I think elected officials will be afraid to use them because they don’t want the backlash of angry property owners voting them out because they were championing affordable housing, because they wanted multifamily in their neighborhood. So I think until we deal with that narrative issue, we’ll continue running into some roadblocks. I still think the policy framework is important to change because that’s something you can control more so than people’s feelings.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. In 2023, we are focusing on finding solutions to the lack of affordable housing in the Sacramento region. Solving Sacramento is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.