California is forcing city governments to build more housing. The state also needs to be more aggressive in building housing on its own properties.

A cyclist rides by a building known as “the Ziggurat,” which houses state government offices in Sacramento. 


A cyclist rides by a building known as “the Ziggurat,” which houses state government offices in Sacramento. (H. Lorren Au Jr./Orange County Register 2002)

Faced with a statewide housing crisis, California has increasingly moved to muscle NIMBY local governments into building against their will. The state announced Monday that it’s suing the Sacramento County city of Elk Grove for denying a proposed 66-unit affordable housing complex. And it recently strong-armed San Francisco into approving three contentious projects, including a notorious 495-unit tower on a Nordstrom valet parking lot.

But when it comes to building desperately needed housing, California’s government isn’t just the arbiter of state laws — it’s also a vast landholder. The state owns about 7.6 million acres of real estate across California, including nearly 58 million square feet of office space, according to the state Department of General Services.

Nevertheless, by sitting on so much underutilized space, California is holding up the development of housing, businesses and entertainment venues that could help revitalize downtowns struggling to adapt to remote work. And it’s failing to model the very approach it’s directed cities to pursue: developing climate-smart, infill housing and abolishing parking requirements near transit.

Nowhere is this more evident than Sacramento, where state buildings and parking lots define much of the city’s urban core and sprawl into nearby residential neighborhoods. Of the 17.3 million square feet of office space California leased as of May 1, state data shows nearly 50% was located in Sacramento County.

Yet many of these buildings are ugly, empty or underutilized.