Assemblyman Alex Lee’s New ‘Social Housing’ Bill Would Put State in Development Business

Housing and homelessness is the mainstay issue for California politicians, though every year the state falls further behind on its goals to move the proverbial needle on the issue.

Now one political newcomer is looking beyond the country’s borders for ideas.

California District 25 Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose) last week introduced AB 387, also known as the Social Housing Act of 2021.

The bill, meant to provide affordable housing for Californians across the income spectrum, would put the state in the development business. The ideal result, according to Lee, would be a slew of mixed-income rentals and even some for-sale homes, perhaps in mixed-use developments with retail, jobs or other amenities.

In America today, the closest thing to social housing is what is known as public housing, or the “housing of last resort,” often in old, crumbling buildings filled only with low-income residents. But in Europe, South America, Asia and elsewhere, the term “social housing” is commonly used to describe state-built homes, generally on publicly owned land, for people of all incomes.

Such developments abroad are typically well-maintained, sometimes overseen by the government, a private company or by the residents themselves. Unlike many affordable housing developments in the U.S. and California, the rents or mortgages aren’t allowed to one day become only market rate.

The aim of AB 387, Lee said, is to address the severe shortage of affordable homes for both low- and moderate-income households.

“There have been similar bills in certain regards to this issue in the past, but nothing like this on this scale,” Lee told San Jose Inside. “I do not believe there has been a social housing effort in California before. That’s what we’re aspiring to be.”

AB 387 is still in its infant stages. It doesn’t yet have a funding mechanism, but Lee expects that and other details to be hammered out by the time it arrives at the Assembly Rules Committee, likely in April. Even so, Mathew Reed, policy manager for affordable housing advocacy group SV@Home, said he’s excited about the proposal.

“The South Bay has always been the leader on housing issues at the state level, and it’s great to see new energy and a new Assembly member taking on that mantle,” he said. “Right now things aren’t working. We don’t have the resources to meet the needs for affordable housing, and we’re really looking forward to being engaged in the process because we need to be looking for solutions.”

Lee said he wants housing programs in Austria and Singapore to be California’s model.

California has set ambitious housing goals of building 200,000 new units a year, yet has been unsuccessful in meeting those goals. In 2018, for instance, 117,000 units were built, but the net gain was just 78,000 homes because of losses to old age, fires and other causes, according to CalMatters.

Even so, Lee said he envisions California leading a national paradigm shift by funding and building social housing.

“Families are increasingly being priced out of the communities they’ve built and are leaving California for more affordable housing markets,” Lee said. “We have an opportunity to reshape how we view housing: not as a commodity, but as a fundamental human right. Social housing is how we provide housing as a human right.”

According to a 2015 California Housing Budget and Policy Center study, more than four in 10 households faced unaffordable housing costs, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage. More than one in five households statewide spend more than half of their income on housing expenses.

Things haven’t improved since. California ranked 49th among the United States when it comes to housing units per resident as of 2018.

Meanwhile, in Vienna and Singapore, 62 percent and 87 percent of its citizens, respectively, reside in public social housing.

Mortgages offered by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board come with such low monthly payments the homeownership rate is 91 percent across the city-state, despite severe land constraints, and catering to a lower-to-upper-middle-income population.

“Singapore, like California in many ways, is super diverse, super rich, very capitalistic, and they have embraced this program and see a strong need for it,” Lee said.

In Vienna, more than 60 percent of residents live in 440,000 social homes, about half owned directly by the municipal government and the rest by state-subsidized, not-for-profit cooperatives. The city spends nearly one-fifth of its annual budget on social welfare, including subsidized housing.

“A safe and affordable place to live should be a right, not a privilege–and that certainly hasn’t been the case in California,” Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) said in a statement. “We need every tool in our toolbox to meet our affordable housing goals, especially as our state begins to recover from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Despite the hurdles, Lee is confident social housing can work in California.

“We have the benefit of learning from the successes of other countries and learning from our mistakes,” he said. “In this country housing programs have been riddled with racist and anti-poor sentiment. That’s a legacy that’s left a reckoning on this country in a lot of ways. This bill is an avenue to being a housing producer and to fill the gaps so more people have access to a greater number of affordable homes.”


  1. Mr. Lee’s piece nicely complements Gil Rodan’s opinion piece of 2 December 2020 ( The shortage of housing and, for that matter, all human necessities, is mainly a function of the institution of private property. The only urban places in the world where human housing needs have been adequately addressed are where public authorities have taken ownership or control of land and/or where worker and renter movements have successfully organized popular will to force strict renter protections.

    Rodan provided a link to the case of Vienna, also referenced by Alex Lee, among the most beautiful cities in the world, that houses its residents comfortably and affordably in generally high quality housing ( To this can be added Helsinki, the Finnish capital and the European city with the lowest incidence of homelessness (

    Like San Jose, the Helsinki municipality has a monopoly on zoning but unlike San Jose, the Helsinki municipality owns 70% of the land within the city limits. It also owns 60,000 housing units in a metropolitan area of 1.3 million people (somewhat bigger than San Jose’s 1 million or so). One in seven Helsinki residents live in city-owned housing. In addition, the city owns and operates its own construction company and has a current target of 7,000 new housing units every year (including units sold to private owners). In other words, the publicly-owned construction company competes with private builders to keep housing costs low (which keeps real estate developer profits low). The city builds and provides housing more or less at cost since the city owns the land underneath the housing and continues to own it in perpetuity.

    In newly developed districts, the city requires city-owned housing to be 25% of all units; subsidized-purchase housing to be 30% of all units and private housing to be 45% of all units. Thus, the rich, the poor and the middle classes all live in the same district and with all those groups able to apply for city-owned or city-subsidized ownership units, i.e. in true universal fashion, even the wealthy can qualify for city-owned property or city-subsidized ownership units. This is consistent with Alex Lee is proposing.

    In 2019, it was estimated that in a country of 5.5 million people, there were about 5,500 officially “homeless” people in Finland, more than 70% of whom were living with family or friends on a temporary basis while they wait for publicly-provided or subsidized housing. That is, one-tenth of one percent of the population were regarded as homeless, even though more than 70% of these were actually living with roofs over their heads. By inference, this means there were about 1,700 people living on the streets in Finland, 3/100 of 1 percent of the population.

    By contrast, with upwards of 10,000 people living on the streets, about 1 full percentage point of San Jose’s population had no roof over its head in 2019, with an unknown number of people sharing living quarters with family and friends but who are effectively homeless. In relative terms, San Jose’s homeless incidence was 300 times greater than Finland’s.

    Let’s dispense with the free market fairly tales pushed by the libertarian caucus who waste time and space in San Jose Inside commentaries obfuscating the issues. Markets, free or otherwise, are not the solution to the housing crisis; private property and markets are the problem itself.

    If we want to break the power of big landowners and landlords–and the municipal, county and state governments that they own–we have to decisively and politically organize popular will to confront and challenge that power. The Austrian and Finnish working classes–and other working classes–have done and are doing just that. Let’s learn from them and put progressive taxation of wealth and public resources to work building the homes and lives we need and deserve. It will take such a movement from below to insure the success of the type of path-breaking legislation being proposed by Alex Lee.

    (Full disclosure: Econoclast was an early supporter and contributor to the successful electoral campaign of Alex Lee in 2020).

  2. Geez Louise! It scares me whenever Government gets into business. Look at the High Speed Rail system. It’s estimated that when built out, it will cost 80 billion dollars! Or what about Santa Clara County Light Rail… for each dollar of expense, riders pay less than 15 cents and the rest is paid by that sunken hole, the taxpayers. Can you imagine our Government running a public housing system with any kind of efficiency?!

  3. A boondoggle for consultants, CEQA lawyers, developers and landlords…

    Thanks Assemblyman Lee!

    I think you should put a huge ad out in all major newspapers across North and South America saying California is now going to house you for free! Rent will double in 5 years after you’re still half way to “shovel ready.”

    The state can’t even give away free money competently, what are you going to do when you actually have to do something?

  4. This was discussed in the companion piece already published in the Spotlight.

    The typically shallow and greatly ignorant, starry-eyed fans of this stuff, imagining “Vienna by the Bay” and in the other crowded areas of the state, instead of cheaper places, at least haven’t thought loudly of having the state engage in eminent domain if “necessary” [sic] to acquire housing sites.

    We also don’t see even a brief mention of example locations for this housing. Wouldn’t it be most appropriate to use existing government property, and replace transit agencies engaging in land development and speculation with the new big housing blocks, with city or county government public housing, where this could be attempted?

    Who gets to live there? Who will become favored by the government, middle-class, included, like government workers, to get homes there? (Maybe at reduced or zero rents as a perk for government workers?) Will favored clientele get exclusive portions or sites for their housing, nicer housing facilities, too?

    What happens when even more hordes flock to the Bay Area and the big Southern California cities if this is attempted? (That’s where it will be attempted, primarily.) How much in rent would the homeless or the unemployed pay, as well as those on Social Security or SSI alone? Illegal immigrants or “asylees”?

    How would this be paid for, by the way, something very important? That’s not just for building it, but for utilities, maintaining it, policing it later.

    Will there be enough parking at these places? No parking at these places?

    Our so-called “government” or “leaders” continue to decline, and pander to a declining electorate, or declining portions of it. Ugh.

  5. See the high-speed rail project, a classic liberal as well as state government concept and related boondoggle, and the flagship or crown jewel currently.

    Now down to a single track (and last year, Diesels to go only 79 mph on it)

    Imagine them “doing” housing, with developers replacing the likes of Tutor Perini.

    (Would they then advocate such projects in other Blue cities and states?)

    Never mind the rail system we could have if done right, even public housing.

  6. Government enterprises offer excellent services at lower costs and with greater equity than private ones. In addition to being accountable to the public and/or to elected leaders, publicly-financed entities provide scales of service that make them cost efficient, not least because profits are removed from the equation.

    Example 1: The City of Santa Clara’s publicly-owned electric utility–Silicon Valley Power–not only provides the lowest electric rates in California, but also low-cost fiber optic connectivity for businesses and a free city-wide outdoor wifi service for everyone. These services earn high levels of user satisfaction (;;; Silicon Valley Power’s chief executive officer is the mayor. The enterprise employs about 150 city employees, providing them with solid incomes (, while generating surplus revenues that are spent in part to improve Santa Clara’s other infrastructure and city services.

    Example 2: The socialized segment of the U.S. health care system consists of the a) Military Health System (TRICARE) that serves 9.5 million active duty and career retirees and their family members worldwide ( They also provide free care to U.S. presidents, Supreme Court judges, and congress members when they are in the DC area (; b) the Veterans Administration system that serves about 9 million non-career veterans nationwide (; c) the Indian Health Service that serves about 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (; d) numerous state, county and municipal hospitals, clinics and health centers as well as those in or on public universities, college and school campuses all over the country. The Military Health System and the Veterans Administration earn the highest levels of user satisfaction, above private health insurance plans, even a bit above Medicare (;

    Socialized means the physical facilities are owned by government entities and all employees are directly or indirectly employed by government entities. (No one employed in or by these facilities goes home with a dividend, just a salary.)

    Example 3: Speaking of Medicare, its administrative costs are barely 2% of total expenditures (no profits here) as compared to about 9% for private insurance plans (including profits). Furthermore, with no need to worry about profits, Medicare keeps costs down through its buying power on behalf of 61 million plus recipients (whose numbers increase by about 1.5 million each year). What it pays for services for its beneficiaries is significantly below what private insurance plans pay for theirs (; while maintaining user satisfaction above that of private plans (see above).

    Example 4: Graduates of socialized UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, San Jose State, Cal State San Luis Obispo are just as knowledgeable about their respective fields of study, just as prepared for the job market and just as prepared to tackle life as are graduates of Stanford, USC, Pamona, Claremont McKenna and Pepperdine. Studies speak of the differences between public and private universities but almost none definitively say the graduates of one are qualitatively better (or worse) than the other. By the same token, the 5 million who attend the private K-12 schools are not, on the whole, better educated than the 50 million who attend socialized schools (

    Example 5: Cheese. The Green Bay Packers–a publicly-owned professional football team–are not any less entertaining or endearing to their fans ( ,_Inc.) than are the San Francisco 49ers, a team owned by a billionaire who actively engaged in a hostile takeover of the Santa Clara City Council, the entity that hosts his for-profit business in their public facility (

    Did I mention the vast public infrastructure of roads, bridges, airports and seaports or NASA, the USPS, the National Institutes of Health, or public libraries? With such a solid record, an expanded and well-run public housing system–such as proposed by Alex Lee–is easily and completely within the realm of the possible.

  7. Don’t forget the temptation will be there to reach beyond Sacramento to Washington, DC. HUD and other federal housing and other direct city aid have always been questionable at its very best, and is far below that in practice and in its reputation. But of course as with bailouts, so it will go for new undertakings.

    “Downtown West” will likely see more housing than currently planned, so they have the chance for city or county public housing to be built there, with some middle-class types snuck in, as the advocates’ first opportunity and attempt.

  8. It might just work IF we also adopted Singapore’s criminal justice system to deal with all the lowlifes that we’d attract, with no juries, just hardass judges doling out caning and hanging sentences to all the vandals, drug users, and unemployment cheats.

  9. What we really need here is not a Singapore-style system of justice, but a Singaporean system of public hygiene to clean up after the Trumpist libertarians (e.g. Galt, Kulak, Bubble, Better Before, HOAPRES, Phu Tan Elli, WORK90, HB, Vacancy Vaquero, etc.) who regularly litter the comments section with their trash. Remember, maintaining public hygiene helps limit infestations of lies, the viral transmission of disinformation and, of course, the spread of diseases like sociopathology.

    I recommend we store the trolls in these very nice pods provided by the Singapore authorities ( It would certainly make the comments section a brighter, tidier and more inviting place to hang out.

  10. It’s hard for me to summon the least bit of sympathy for those who are so afraid to hear ideas that are contrary to their socially sanctioned dogma. The ideas expressed here by me and other libertarians have zero direct effect on the lives of these spoiled, self insulating whiners. It’s these people, naively and obediently buying into the words of Hollywood celebrities, social activists, the mainstream press, and career politicians that set the agenda for our government.
    Believe me, watching our tax dollars perpetually flushed down the toilet in a futile effort to “solve” an endless stream of left proclaimed “crises” is infinitely more aggravating than poor Facendo Guaio having his serenity disturbed because there’s still a few non believers left among the million San Joseans.

  11. Steve,
    You wrote that what bothers you most is that some of us use an alias because we know that it would hurt our businesses if we used our real names..
    You are correct. But I don’t understand why you hold that against us. Isn’t that more of an indictment of our community than of us? We have 3 options:
    1) Speak our minds using our real names and get our property vandalized and our businesses boycotted.
    2) Shut up.
    3) Express our opinions while protecting our identity.
    I’ve chosen option #3.
    I happen to believe, and I think you do too, that we should take to heart the 1st Amendment at a personal level and not just think of freedom of speech as only a legal protection but in the true spirit of respect for other people and a real eagerness to know what they believe.
    That’s why I read and contribute to this liberal website.

  12. Mr Trouble,

    History is littered with rhetoric such as you have written here, and that history is not good, like body bags as far as the eye can see not good. Call me a libertarian all you want, which I hardly qualify as one, liberterians have a well founded distrust of utopian dreams that are implemented by a government bureaucracy and populated by saints and vulcanesque technocrats. That distrust is a solid defense against body bags by government order.

    Even this Austrian perfect world of all possible worlds could exist, which it can’t, it wouldnt be long before a Stalin or Hitler would twist your utopia toward a bloodly dystopia. The best chance you have is to construct and then obey an all knowing singularity AI that has eliminated human nature. Assuming human nature will allow such a thing to be constructed. I would not put my money on Google, Huawei, or Amazon knowingly designing out human nature.

    Look around, America is not capable of such an Austrian Utopia and it shouldnt. If it did it would have to be fascist to manage the budget. Instead it is essentially open borders all the way with little safety net, to the good of latinos, asians, and europeans alike.

    But keep dreaming in your rhetorical florish, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

  13. “[…] Bad comparison.”

    This was also over your head. There’s no need to struggle with details with high-speed rail or what “preliminary” service entails, which I could correct where appropriate what you said as well as provide additional information you miss. The main point obviously is that the state and many local governments we have would screw up “social housing,” too, including from bad politics, as the state has done from the start with political wrecking along with ineptitude with the state high-speed rail project. We’re robbed of a good train system in the process, just as public housing, the logical solution in theory to provide housing that doesn’t pay developers to build, is lost as something useful given what we have with government and often troubled to overtly diseased liberal state and local politics.

  14. HB –

    I found this really interesting wiki page on housing projects in the United States. It’s like a Chaosium Call of Cthulu supplement on government mismanagement of “social housing.”

    It’s a fantastically entertaining read… some tidbits, starting in California, particularly Los Angles:

    Avalon, Jordan, Imperial, Estrada, Gonzaque, or the source material for this article:

    Even some of the more nondescript ones with a pretty picture on their wiki page do get some press:

    Then there’s Oakland, Acorn, Cypress, 6-5 Vill…

    It is interesting to note there are few links from SF projects, as I think a link represents notoriety of the criminal kind. Perhaps they are doing something up there that works, they have gentrified them, or the editors just summarily block articles about them, I don’t know.

    Then there’s NYHAC:

    “As New York City’s public housing stock aged, federal support fell precipitously, leading to dangerous conditions and sub-par housing for nearly half a million city residents. More than three-quarters of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residential buildings are more than 40 years old, yet federal capital funding to NYCHA continuously declined from 2001 through 2013, resulting in a cumulative funding loss of more than $1 billion. As support fell, NYCHA’s unmet capital needs for its 2,371 residential buildings ballooned to more than $40 billion, including faulty boilers and ventilation systems, broken elevators, and leaking roofs. This need will only grow with time. If it remains unaddressed, it is estimated to rise to nearly $68 billion in the next decade.

    NYCHA residents routinely suffer through the heat and hot water outages and wait months for basic repairs.

    In January 2019, NYCHA agreed with HUD to address these significant health and safety issues, such as lead paint, mold, response times for heat and elevator outages, and pest control. As part of the agreement, the City committed to investing at least $2.2 billion in NYCHA.

    While federal capital support has increased in recent years, reaching $582 million in FY 2020, federal commitments remain far too low for NYCHA to meet its immediate and pressing needs. It is time for the federal government to meet its capital obligations to public housing and fully fund the outstanding capital needs as part of a new infrastructure bill. ”

    Some more tidbits: Support shrunk under both Obama and Bush, not surprisingly, and it’s funny that somehow this is the Federal Government’s fault, NY State and the City control these properties as vote farms. And them dropping the ball for a year, I get it, but at some point, you must step up and solve the problem, not construct excuses. Even so, Ben Carson, under Trump, recommitted support to these projects. They are $40B behind now and $68B behind in the future is conservative. That’s 17M and 28M per building. And at $68B behind, that’s $136,000 per tenant in REPAIRS, not management, not services, not new construction, not social services, not common utilities. $136,000 PER TENANT in deferred maintenance.

    With New York State facing an $8.7 billion shortfall next year, there won’t be dollars to stem this tide. And the saying is true in property ownership, a stitch in time, saves nine, or in this case, 69 billion.

    On the good side, I think in some states, housing authorities do work, like Nebraska.

    Renamed after this guy, (wow he woke long before woke was hip):

    Note the continuous re-investment:

    Built by this guy:

    Can you believe the gall of these White Supremacist Republicans! Making housing projects work and naming a good one after the 50-year thorn in their side? I say we round up all these Neb GOP WWII style and go medieval!

    Of course, private ownership of low-income housing works, programs such as LIHTC, right up to the point the owner gets to switch the property to market rate, then the activists squeal. They are even calling to cancel that switch somehow, talk about counterproductive takings. It’s that future switch to market-rate that incentivizes the capital reinvestment that NYC and NY State, the so-called progressive co-fountainheads of American with California, refused to do in good times and bad.

    This is going to be fun to watch!

  15. HB –

    A little more on LIHTC:

    “HUD’s LIHTC database contains information on 48,672 projects and 3.23 million housing units placed in service between 1987 and 2018.”

    1986 is when the legislation passed (under the Reagan Tax Cuts) and it takes years to get one of these online, so lets round that up to 1990, so to be fair the program is 28 years old, that’s about 115,000 units a year.

    Contrast that with NYC Five Boroughs, which are $40B of capital deferment in the rears and quickly turning into the future Superfund Champion of America, soon to over take the Berkeley Pit of Butte Montana:

    Staten Island has 10 developments with 4,499 apartments
    Queens has 22 developments with 17,126 apartments
    The Bronx has 100 developments with 44,500 apartments
    Brooklyn has 98 developments with 58,669 apartments
    Manhattan has 102 developments with 53,890 apartments

    What is that, 175,000 units or about in operation. So the LIHTC program over a typical 18 month period has developed about the same number of units as NYC has over it 87-year existence. I have looked for a gang that has named itself after a LIHTC on the GOOGLE, but I can’t find one. And as someone who almost bought one, I can attest, there are massive incentives and to keeping the place up, massive. As well as disincentives from the State Authority.

    If you can, buy one of these properties. I have seen them for a million or two, and leverage is pretty easy to get as everyone knows there is a fat tail on them. But there is strict oversight, and the Authority will weed out the non-compilers up front. I was out of state and they said they would drag their feet (over the phone) if I tried to buy one, so I opted out. Any way, no regrets, someone is going to do well on it. Good for them.

  16. HB –

    This topic is so ripe with fruit, I am getting fat just grazing it…

    More goodies from various articles:

    Leadership and Productivity

    As of April 13, 2017: 14 developments are at least 70 years old; a total of 60 developments are 60 to 69 years old; there are 75 developments 50 to 59 years old; another 89 developments are 40 to 49 years old, and 52 developments are 30 to 39 years old.

    Breaking that out:

    70 years or older, or built before 1947: 14/326 (4.3%)
    60-69, or built before 1957: 60/326 (18.4%)
    50-59, or built before 1967: 75/326 (23.0%)
    40-49, or built before 1977: 89/326 (27.3%)
    30-39, or built before 1987: 52/326 (16.0%)
    Less than 30 years, built after 1987: 36 (11.0%)

    If you look at the Chairmanship of the Housing Board, you see a dramatic shift away from makers to bureaucrats in the late sixties, which maps nicely to the drop off in production of units up until 1977, by then ~74% of the total current units in NYCHA were built. 74% of the units are 44 years old or older!

    Leaders lead, just not always to the promised land. As an aside, I like this statement too, talk about lipstick:

    “The Authority is the largest public housing authority (PHA) in North America. In spite of many problems, it is still considered by experts to be the most successful big-city public housing authority in the country. Whereas most large public housing authorities in the United States (Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, etc.) have demolished their high-rise projects and in most cases replaced them with lower scale housing, New York’s continue to be fully occupied.”

    Yeah we pack ’em in with the lead and the mold and the broken elevators and the 50 year old boilers and they don’t make no trouble in the streets and the votes, oh the votes are golden!

    Redlining 2.0

    The combined demographics of all public housing developments in New York City is about 46% Black, 44% Hispanic, 4% White, 5% Asian, and 1% other.

    And, even by the statements of the Authority, these units are $40B+ deficient in deferred maintenance, lead and mold, elevators and boilers broken down. Yet, LIHTC tenant data shows a bit more proportional racial breakdown of tenants living in quality, maintained, newly constructed low income housing, as opposed to rounding up poor minorities into prison block towers no one will fix.

    whites: 38.4% vs 4% in the projects
    blacks: 27.5% vs 46% in the projects
    asian: 2.9% vs 5% in the projects
    indigenous: 2.2%
    pac islander: 0.8%
    latino : 10.8% vs 44% in the projects

    In 30 years, the New Intersectionalist Church will topple the statues of the proponents of this Redlining 2.0 that is public housing and rent control and erase their names from the history books! All Praise bell hooks!

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