A couple of weeks ago, she participated in a Zoom call on housing with the leaders of the Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group, the East Bay Economic Development Alliance and the East Bay Leadership Council. She chairs the Assembly housing committee.
Wicks brings an interesting background to this role. In contrast to many Assembly members, she did not cut her teeth in local politics on a city council or board of supervisors. Instead, she worked on President Obama’s campaigns and in the White House. She won the Assembly seat in 2018 and lives in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland with her husband and their two young children.
That lack of local experience sets her up nicely to view the housing challenge from a statewide perspective—it’s daunting. Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his typical campaign bombast, set a goal of 500,000 new housing units per year. Like most of his bold goals, execution has fallen well short of his rhetoric.
In fairness, local jurisdictions control housing production, although state Legislation has created exemptions to some rules. That included small auxiliary dwelling units as well as zoning limitations that were removed so single family lots can be used for up to four units. There’s also density bonuses that are designed to remove authority from local agencies.
Wicks, as housing chair, is positioned to drive legislation. Her priorities including dealing with the estimated 163,000 homeless people. One approach to that is stable housing first before dealing with addictions and mental illness. Wicks also prioritizes more housing construction at all income levels.
She told listeners on the call that she and other committee members had traveled the state for a listening tour last fall. Wicks said that 20 years ago homeless people were concentrated in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, while now it’s an issue across much of the state. When Gov. Jerry Brown led the drive, in a time of budget crisis, to eliminate redevelopment agencies that had been badly misused in some cities, it also eliminated the one source of ongoing funding for affordable housing. Working on that issue is another focus.
One challenging point is the tension between the building trades that want to be guaranteed union jobs on housing projects with state funding and affordable housing developers who need to control costs. Prevailing wage adds 30% or more to labor costs—remember that a major developer walked away from millions already spent on the Concord Naval Weapons Station redevelopment because it could not reach an agreement with the building trades.
She also observed that the Assembly will be much different next year with 19 seats (almost 25%) open.
Wicks also called out the statewide effort led by Pleasanton Councilwoman Julie Testa to overturn some key housing legislation passed in Sacramento. She said that business organizations such as those sponsoring her discussion were going to be critical as legislators consider another round of housing legislation this year. She said stay tuned until this month when legislative direction would become clearer.