Talking Heads Tia Boatman Patterson Senior Advisor on Housing, Office of California Governor Gavin Newsom

10 min read

How You Can Influence Housing Policy in Your State 

Gavin Newsom was elected California’s 40th governor last November, in part based on the promise that he would fix the state’s critical shortage of affordable housing. Four weeks after being sworn in, Governor Newsom appointed Tia Boatman Patterson, executive director of the California Housing Finance Agency (CalFA), as his senior housing advisor.

Few people are better qualified to implement the governor’s affordable housing initiatives. Over the past 25 years, Boatman Patterson served as a housing consultant in the California legislature, general counsel for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and as an affordable housing lawyer in the private sector, before taking the leading role at CalHFA, the state’s affordable housing lender, in 2014.

She is also the current chair of the Board of Directors of the National Council of State Housing Agencies (NCSHA)—the national trade group for state housing finance agencies—which gives her a national perspective on affordable housing policies and trends.

In her keynote address at the National Housing & Rehabilitation Association’s Spring Developers conference in Los Angeles, Boatman Patterson urged developers to be more proactive in helping shape state housing policy. In the following interview, she explains why and how you can engage with local and state government.

Tax Credit Advisor: If developers are to make a difference, what should their roles be in the policymaking process?

Tia Boatman Patterson: Policymakers can be disconnected from the people who develop and finance affordable housing. They often work from anecdotal information or they only hear from lobbyists or advocacy groups. They need to better understand how deals come together, how the financing is structured and what the cost drivers are from the practitioners who are on the ground making it happen. Policymakers need that education.

TCA: On what affordable housing issues in California, for example, does the administration need developer feedback?

TBP: We constantly hear about barriers to development that increase costs. Well, what are those barriers? People use code phrases as a proxy for everything that prevents development. For example, you’ll always hear that CEQA is a problem and that it needs reform. It stands for California Environmental Quality Act. When a local government takes any type of discretionary action to approve a development, CEQA triggers an analysis of the environmental impact. When you dig a little deeper the problem is not necessarily CEQA, but how it is being implemented. What should be a shield to protect the environment has been turned into a sword to keep developments from happening. NIMBY’s use CEQA very effectively to block developments. Unless you come and tell those stories, policymakers operate in a vacuum on how to fix things that sometimes may not be helpful.

TCA: How do developers get involved in the legislative process? Who should developers be contacting? State housing finance agencies? The governor directly? Who within these offices should initial contact be made with? Do most governors have someone like you acting as the point person on housing issues?

TBP: I can’t speak to other states, but I imagine there is housing policy staff in the governor’s office who you can start with. More importantly, developers should know the local officials in the communities they serve who are approving affordable housing deals. If something is going on in your community that prevents you from developing affordable housing, then having those relationships and making them aware of the barriers is critical. I don’t think developers think about doing this. But having a relationship and a dialogue with the people who approve projects, or who make the policies that are supposedly reducing barriers, being able to educate them about what’s going on at ground-level would be very helpful.

TCA: Just to be clear, you’re referring to both county politicians and state lawmakers?

TBP: Absolutely. Knowing people in the local government is very important. When speaking to the legislatures be sure to bring data. How long did it take you to get a permit through a particular jurisdiction? What were the roadblocks that you encountered? Were those roadblocks at the local or state level? Hearing that is very important for policymakers.

TCA: What’s the best way to initiate a conversation? Email? Phone call? Letter?

TBP: All the above. I also like to host roundtable ‘listening’ sessions. Following my speech at the NH&RA Spring Developers Meeting, I invited some developers to meet with us and discuss a proposal on which I wanted their input on the pros and cons. Communication needs to go both ways, meaning policymakers need to be reaching out to developers as well.

TCA: What should the initial communication look like? Would it be more useful to organize an in-person meeting and develop a rapport with housing policy officials, or does email/phone work just as well? 

TBP: You don’t always need to meet with the policymaker themselves. Sometimes staff is much more accessible and just as important. Either way, in terms of an introductory message, it can be as simple as, ‘Hi, I develop affordable housing in your community. I’d like to talk with you about developments that are occurring there.’ If you’re doing something important in that policymaker’s community, they want to hear about it. The conversation doesn’t always need to focus on the challenges. The message can be, ‘I am doing great things in your community. Would you like to come and see my development? Let me tell you how it was financed. Let me tell you the good. Let me tell you the bad. Let me tell you moving forward some things that would be helpful. If this (variable) had been different, I could have done this many more units in your district.’

TCA: As president of NCSHA, you work with housing agencies throughout the country. Are other states as open to developer participation as California?  Can you offer some examples?

TBP: I would say yes, especially when you’re talking about tax credits and the allocations of tax credits. One of the reasons why I think the housing tax credit has been so successful is because of the strong public participation process that the states go through when they are developing their QAPs (Qualified Allocation Plans). We hear back nationally from developers on those QAPs and from other stakeholders. It’s a robust engagement process. All states have opportunities through their housing credit community to participate in that process.

TCA: What types of data do government officials find most useful when assessing the impact of housing policies? 

TBP: Here in California one of the things that we hear about are cost drivers and things that increase cost. People speak anecdotally and don’t provide data that shows it’s a regulation that has increased development costs. Show us what caused that increase. What will happen is that the building industry will show up and say, ‘Our developers are complaining that these regs have increased costs to the development.’ And then the policymakers will say, ‘Okay, where’s the data that supports this?’ If you have data that shows something is a barrier to development, that is extremely powerful to those policymakers. Some developers whom I work with on a regular basis have data and don’t mind sharing it. Caleb Roope of The Pacific Companies comes to mind. He’s fantastic about going to conferences and sharing data about things that he has done to reduce costs. Having that two-way dialogue is very important. People all too often use shorthand and anecdotes to convey a message, but you can’t argue with someone who has actual data.

TCA: What you seem to be saying is that developers should not rely solely on a trade group to speak on their behalf, that instead it may be more useful to share personal data and experiences with policymakers?

TBP: Absolutely. NH&RA is good about getting useful information to its members. If you’re reading Tax Credit Advisor and see something that hits home, that ties in with a project you are currently working on, you should take the information that your trade association has provided and have a conversation with local or state officials.

TCA: What advice can you give to someone who may be intimidated to meet with a government official, like yourself?

TBP: With the housing crisis as it is, it’s going to take an “all of the above” approach. Right now, it’s a great time to establish relationships and build relationships because everybody wants to talk about housing. The doors are open. If a developer showed up and wanted to speak with local government, a state lawmaker or a Tax Credit Allocation Committee member and said, ‘I’d like to talk about development and some good ideas for how we can build more housing,’ they will be all ears. We want to hear from them.

TCA:  As Governor Newsom’s housing policy advisor, what are your primary objectives for the balance of 2019? What other housing news from California would you like to share with our readers?

TBP: There’s so much going on. The governor has said the affordability crisis is the biggest economic challenge facing families in our state. He’s very committed to rolling up his sleeves and working on it. He’s looking especially at underutilized federal resources—like four percent Low Income Housing Tax Credits, Private Activity Bonds—and he’s pushing policies that would add state resources as an additional leverage. In 2017, there was a huge housing package that included regulatory reforms, ideas for better planning and streamlining and funding. On top of that, Governor Newsom has proposed an expansion of state tax credits and a one-time $500 million allocation to support a mixed-income housing program that CalHFA recently launched.

TCA: Does any of this need legislative approval?

TBP: Yes, the governor’s proposed budget included $1.8 billion to support a variety of housing initiatives, including the changes I just described and funding for homelessness programs. We need to pass a budget by June 15, so by the time you read this, we’ll know which of these proposals were approved.

TCA: I also read that the governor has initiated a proposal to allow state-owned land to be used for building more affordable housing. What can you tell me about that?

TBP: That was an executive order he signed in January. It’s very exciting. For 40 years, the priority for surplus land in California was supposed to be affordable housing, but no policies and procedures were ever written on how to transfer the land into the hands of developers. The executive order directed the Department of General Services to create an inventory of all state-owned lands that may be available for potential development no later than April 30, 2019. Two weeks before that deadline, DGS developed an initial inventory of state-owned parcels, utilizing county assessor data. The Department of Housing and Community Development and DGS then created a screening tool to further evaluate these state properties. They will work with other state agencies and local governments in the coming months to determine viability of specific parcels for affordable housing development. It’s very exciting that this is moving so quickly.

Story Contact:
Chris Saur
California Housing Finance Agency
(916) 326-8604

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.