Public golf courses into housing? Contentious bill slicing through state legislature

Cities in SoCal seen as most likely candidates to take grants in exchange for affordable units, open space

Los Angeles /
Apr.April 29, 2022 08:30 AM
Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (Cristina4Congress, iStock)
Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (Cristina4Congress, iStock/Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)

While inventory-strapped California grapples with an escalating battle over the new signature zoning law SB 9, a very different, contentious bill aimed at boosting the supply of residential housing is advancing through the state legislature.

Assembly Bill 1910, which was introduced in February by Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, would give California cities financial incentives to build affordable housing on public golf courses. The bill passed through the State Assembly’s local government committee on Wednesday in a five to two vote; its next step would be a vote before the assembly’s appropriations committee.

Garcia, a Democrat whose district is based in the southeastern L.A. County city of Downey, has characterized her initiative as another tool to help cities around California meet demand for housing. The effort comes amid record prices that have been pushed in large part by limited supply, with the median price of a home now around $800,000 statewide and over $1 million in Orange County, among other markets.

“Dense urban communities like mine have very few feasible spaces left to build,” she said in a press release earlier this year. “[The] state and local governments need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to building affordable housing units.”

A representative for Garcia did not respond to an interview request.

The bill, which has the support of affordable housing advocates, doesn’t mandate cities––or golf courses––do anything. It aims to increase the state’s housing supply by establishing a program to offer grants to municipalities that decide to convert their public courses into housing. The bill also includes stipulations that at least 25 percent of the new units go to lower income households and that 15 percent of the land remains open space.

It’s unclear how many cities could end up taking such an offer, but the development potential is significant. There are roughly 250 publicly owned golf courses in California, according to numbers cited in the legislature’s bill analysis, and they often occupy 100 acres or more. Assuming at least a typical density of four-story multifamily projects — 40 or more units per acre — the conversions of even a small number of courses could produce tens of thousands of housing units across California.

The most likely candidates for conversion would be underused, money-losing municipal courses in highly populated areas where land is scarce, such as Southern California and the Bay Area. Garcia, who has said she came up with the idea after walking by unused courses around her hometown of Bell Gardens — a largely working-class community where housing that’s seen its share of price hikes in the red-hot housing market of recent years — argues the proposal is a way to start a new conversation around public land use in California’s cities.

“I’m not saying convert them all,” the lawmaker previously told Golf.com. “But can we rethink some of these spaces in a community like mine? Is there a different use that fits our community better?”

Garcia’s office, citing the National Golf Foundation, also claims the sport’s popularity has been declining for years, and emphasizes that some municipalities are already subsidizing struggling public courses, “which means that residents are subsidizing a space that’s underutilized and that they can only use if they know how to and can afford to golf.”

The state’s golf industry is framing the proposal as a kind of existential threat. The Southern California Golf Association, while rallying its members to act, called an earlier version of Garcia’s bill “the most damaging piece of legislation [regarding] golf to be filed in a generation.” Golf advocates have taken to branding the legislation as the “Public Golf Endangerment Act”; a representative for a statewide industry group, the California Alliance for Golf, also told a legislative committee that the bill would “excommunicate golf from the park and recreation family,” the website The Center Square previously reported.

(A representative of the Southern California Golf Association did not respond to an interview request.)

The bill could yet face sand traps: Garcia previously introduced a version last year that died in committee, and another iteration, AB 672, also died in January when the appropriations committee declined to take a vote, prompting her to promptly re-introduce the current bill.

Most state lawmakers haven’t yet weighed in, although one assemblymember, Kelly Seyarto, a Riverside County Republican, voted against it in committee on the argument that closing public courses in cities such as Los Angeles could eliminate opportunities for youth who can’t access other courses.

In any case, more housing ideas will come: Even since last year’s passage of SB 9 and a suite of other housing laws, California lawmakers have introduced a variety of bills aimed at boosting supply. The latest came on Tuesday, when State sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from the Central Valley, introduced legislation that wants to accelerate affordable development on surplus state land.





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