December 15, 2018

California Reform Jews succeed in push to fund housing

In 2011, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law abolishing California’s community redevelopment agencies, he eliminated the primary sources of funding that had helped build affordable housing across the state. The 2014-15 state budget Brown signed on June 20 now establishes a new stream of steady funding for affordable housing development — and Reform Jews from across the state were part of the push to get it passed. 

The funds — at least $65 million in the current fiscal year — are to be collected as part of California’s cap-and-trade law, which limits the overall amount of climate change-producing gases that may be emitted by companies statewide and auctions off a steadily shrinking number of permits to those companies. Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, co-director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations initiative and lead organizer of Reform CA, the coalition that spearheaded the movement’s effort, said the decision would help preserve “the soul of California.” 

“This is about people thriving, feeling that they can actually survive and succeed here — they and their families,” Kolin told the Journal on June 29. 

The 2006 law that created California’s cap-and-trade system mandates that all funds collected by the state be used to further reduce carbon emissions. Brown pushed to allocate 33 percent of the $850 million collected so far to the high-speed rail project that will connect Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Assembly suggested that all programs seeking funding should have to compete with one another for the funds. 

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who is a member of the Reform congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, pushed for 35 percent of the pot of funds to go to build affordable housing near public transit, on the grounds that when working-class families can find affordable homes located near transit, they will give up their cars entirely. 

Reform CA, which was launched just 2 1/2 years ago, organized in support of Steinberg’s proposal. Working with a coalition that included representatives and communities from other faith groups, as well as from one local Conservative synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Reform CA members sent 700 letters to Assembly members and state senators; 55 California rabbis and cantors signed a petition addressed to Brown, Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins; and many Reform rabbis preached about this issue from their pulpits. 

The final deal allocates 25 percent of cap-and-trade funding to high-speed rail and mandates that at least 10 percent of the funds each year go to building affordable housing. 

The deal marks the second successful organizing effort for Reform CA in recent years; in 2013, the group campaigned for passage of the TRUST Act, which now protects illegal immigrants arrested in connection with nonviolent crimes from being held for the purposes of detention.

In nearly 30 meetings with lawmakers and their legislative staffers, the Reform rabbis and lay leaders occasionally had to clarify that no, they weren’t homebuilders by trade, and that they didn’t have a financial or political interest in the outcome of this decision. 

“We have those interests, too, in terms of an economically viable and just California, but we also come in with interests that are moral,” Kolin said. “So when we come in with the faith voice, we’re inspired to know that that gets heard.”