Can Californians Afford California? -Part 2

The first half of this commentary ran yesterday. To read part one of the commentary, visit


California’s infamous housing crisis lies at the center of much of the state’s ills, from our high poverty rate to intractable homelessness and flight of middle-class workers and jobs. Lack of affordable housing remains one of the largest threats to California’s otherwise booming economy.

California renters pay 40% more in median rent than the rest of the United States, and median home listings are double the U.S. average. California has the lowest housing vacancy rate in the nation, and a third of young adults, aged 25–29, are living at home with their parents.

California cannot maintain its economic growth and broaden opportunities for citizens of all skill and income levels without committing to a rapid increase in the supply of housing and growing jobs near affordable market rate housing.

Solutions: Elected leaders can moderate the supply-induced affordability squeeze by capping local housing fees, reinstating tax increment financing for targeted economic development to help pay for local infrastructure and housing, reshaping state-local tax sharing to reduce disincentives to approve new housing, quashing further attempts at rent control, reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to remove litigation cost premiums on new housing, and improving highway and transit capacity for new housing to ease the commute for homeowners unable to afford expensive coastal or urban housing.

High Cost of Utilities

Californians are paying the highest and fastest-rising residential electricity costs in the nation. Our residential electricity costs are 42% higher than the national average, and since 2011 have increased more than twice as fast as the rest of the nation. Costs to residents in other western states tend to be below the national average and have increased only slightly since 2011.

California is also an outlier for electricity costs for commercial customers: 47% higher than the national average, increasing more than four times faster than costs nationally.

Solutions: Elected leaders can moderate rapid growth in Californians’ energy costs by throttling back the sprint toward costly CO2 reductions whose costs have landed on ratepayers and motorists, but whose benefits have been difficult to measure, and by permitting development of in-state energy sources that are clean and price-competitive, or that would simply be replaced by dirtier or less secure offshore sources.

Long Commutes

Owning, operating and spending time in a car is a major expense for California workers. Even after decades of investment in alternative options, more than eight out of 10 California workers drive to work alone in a private automobile. About 75% of commuters drive alone, 10% use an automobile to carpool, while about 5% each regularly use public transit, use other nonautomobile options, or work from home.

Commute modes vary substantially depending on where the commuter lives and works. Commute times are much longer in California than elsewhere. Drivers spend about 25% more time to get to work in California, than the average of other western states. Four of the 10 longest commutes in the country are in California— notably driving to and from outlying regions to the Bay Area or Southern California job centers.

Long commutes by automobile mean substantial fuel consumption. Californians continue to lead the nation in purchasing and using cars that use alternative fuels—for good reason. The cost of gasoline in California persistently tops the nation, no matter when on the oil price cycle.

For the last nine years for all grades of gasoline, California’s price per gallon averaged 12% higher than other West Coast states, and 25% higher than Rocky Mountain states.

Tax Rates

Californians pay among the highest rates for many general taxes, including the steepest and most progressive personal income tax, very high state and local sales taxes, high gasoline and diesel taxes, and steep local business and utility taxes.

Taken together, these tax rates propel per capita state and local collections in California far above national averages and our neighboring states. Although the income tax falls mostly on high-income earners, all other state and local taxes do not discriminate on the basis of income and wealth. The consequence of the proliferation and growth of state and local taxes is to burden working Californians with more costs simply to live, drive, work and consume in the state.

Solutions: State leaders must maintain fiscal discipline, especially in anticipation of an eventual economic downturn. They also should secure the long-held doctrine that local special taxes be approved by a two-thirds majority, in light of pressure by special interests to undermine this taxpayer protection in the courts, ensure that non ad-valorem property taxes apply uniformly to all classes of taxpayers and not discriminate based on the use of the property, and oppose other discriminatory or targeted taxes, including a split roll property tax, and targeted taxes on consumer products, industrial practices or high wealth.

Modify Policies

Sadly—but fortunately—many of the challenges California faces are self-inflicted. By summoning their collective will and overcoming entrenched interests, the Governor and Legislature can modify the policies that have burdened their voters and families with high and rising costs.


Loren Kaye
Loren Kaye was appointed president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education in January 2006. He has devoted his career to developing, analyzing and implementing public policy issues in California, with a special emphasis on improving the state's business and economic climate. He also was a gubernatorial appointee to the state's Little Hoover Commission, charged with evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of state agencies and programs. Kaye served in senior policy positions for Governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, including Cabinet Secretary to the Governor and Undersecretary of the California Trade and Commerce Agency. See full bio.