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Why his Arizona housing bill failed, and why he thinks this year's will be successful

Former Arizona lawmaker Steve Kaiser's failed legislation led to much of what's being discussed today in the Legislature. 

Kaiser devoted his time to addressing our state’s housing crisis — and his efforts failed in a big way. 

SB 1117 was an ambitious package of legislation: a bipartisan effort to deregulate zoning and boost our state’s inadequate housing supply. But, even after striking a deal with the powerful lobby behind the League of Arizona Cities and Towns to slim down his proposals, the package failed to get enough support on either side of the aisle. 

Shortly after, Kaiser resigned from the Legislature. But he hasn’t stopped working on housing.

The Show spoke with him about his past and current efforts — and why he says he might be able to accomplish more meaningful change from outside the Legislature.

Full interview

STEVE KAISER: Well, I'm, I'm from Illinois, but I grew up in north Phoenix since I was 5. I remember growing up, and this was before school choice. So, hearing from my mom, you know, like we had to stretch to get in this nice neighborhood so you have a nice school and I always thought that was wrong. And so I've always kind of been keyed in on house pricing.

Went to Georgia for in the Army with my wife, and homes were very cheap there. Came back to Phoenix in 2008. And right in the middle of all the, the housing when it was kind of ramping up, we were very nervous back then about being able to afford a home.

Fast forward to 2020 when I ran for office. And I understood that your home price is your biggest expense, rent or mortgage, biggest expense. If you can keep that within that 30% range, everything else you can do, you can be prosperous, you can have disposable income. And that's the best way to build wealth, too. And so I had all these things in my mind as I, I'm running and what I wanted to do was make Arizona more prosperous, more affordable. And housing was always at the forefront because it's your biggest expense, but it's also the best way to build wealth.

So you, as you said, had kind of traveled the state to study this. You'd met with a ton of people, you worked with Democrats, you worked with Republicans, and in the end, you even struck a deal with the League of Arizona Cities and Towns to try to, you know, compromise on this. And this big effort still didn't pass, mainly because in the end of Republican opposition, right. I wonder, take us back to that. Like, what was your reaction?

KAISER: Oh, man. So it's a little bit like reliving a stressful situation. So we were working very hard to, come to agreements on this bill. It was an aggressive bill when it dropped. That's fine. That's how you start. And then we were constantly negotiating. So we were negotiating with some Republicans that wanted certain things and every time they came back to us and said, we'd like to change it to say this, we would say perfect, yes, we'll do it. Do we have your support? And they would say, well, let me go back to our group and talk to them, and they'd always come back and say we want something else and we want something else.

So this was going on for weeks. At the same time, we were also negotiating with the league, and the league was saying this needs to be changed, this need to be changed. We'd push back. And so we were negotiating with the league also at the same time. And so, ultimately the session was running out of time and we had a deal with the league before we had to deal with the other group.

So it does come down to sort of timelines and political jockeying, right? I mean, were you, were you upset? Were you disappointed?

KAISER: Very upset, very disappointed, you know, it's, and I knew this was always a possibility because the year before, we didn't even get out of committee, it was so, it was too aggressive, but we turned into the study committee. And I know that incrementalism is the name of the game down to the Legislature. But it's hard to accept that sometimes when, you know, like this could solve problems and this could help your fellow citizens. And so you want to push for something that is more substantial, but the risk is always there. It was definitely a high risk for failure, but it still hurts when it does fail.

For sure. I want to talk to you about the politics of this also. But do you think there was also just sort of like a loss for the state for your constituents?

KAISER: I mean, it would have been amazing for the state and constituents to get something passed. But what happened, even though it was a technical failure in that the bill didn't pass this session, there are so many members running housing bills right now. Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, progressives, it doesn't matter. It's amazing to see that. And I would almost rather have that because what we did wrong was have it in one person's name as a huge bill. It should have been multiple members each running a piece of it, and that's what they're doing now, which I love so.

But you're not, not involved in this, we should say. So you announced not long after that bill failed that you would leave the Legislature. Now you're running a nonprofit called Arizona Prosperity Project. You're focused on electing more center-right Republicans focused on some of those issues in the center-right. I want to talk to you about your role in what's happening now. But first, just tell us, you know why you left when you did, like did this have to do with that failure of the housing bill?

KAISER: Yeah, it didn't have to do with the failure of the housing bill. I was still very happy with a lot of other amazing bills I was able to, you know, get across the finish line last year. I, I really left because I was recognizing that the Legislature was changing me in a way that I didn't like. I was putting the Legislature before my family and I would come home and just be pissed off and angry all the time because I'd be thinking about legislative things and it just consumed my whole life and my family was not the beneficiary of that. And so I knew I didn't want to run again, but I also didn't want my primary, whoever replaced me to be a total mess and it'd be, oh, you know, because we're in a 50-50 district.

I'm still a Republican, I believe in the Republican Party and values and ideals. So I wanted to protect my seat also. And by resigning, I knew that they would have to appoint a Republican in my place that the PCs would pick with the county supervisor and they would be able to then be an incumbent and run and hopefully not have a primary. And so that's generally what happened. So I'm, I'm happy about that. I hated leaving midterm, but I, I did it because I did it for my family number one and for my party number two.

So let's talk about what your role is now sort of working on issues including housing issues, which are so big. And as you said, like prominent already at the Legislature this session, from the outside. How does that sort of change your view of, of what's happening, first of all?

KAISER: Well, I love working on policy. And what's nice is you can focus as a, as a legislator. You are pulled a million different ways by a million different interests and you have to discuss a million different topics. And that's the exciting part. But also when you lose focus, it's also the frustrating part.

So tell us about issues you're working on this time around from your new vantage point here coming from the outside.

KAISER: So housing is still something I'm really trying to support from the outside and what I'm trying to do with this raft of housing bills. I'm not allowed to lobby members about bills. So I can't say, you know, vote yes or no on this bill or why these bills are positive or negative. But what I can do is work with groups and businesses and community organizations that want zoning reform, so they can build more housing for people and bring down the cost of housing. And so what I'm doing is working in the background, coordinating those groups and and helping the overall push down at the Legislature. But from an adjacent point of view.

"And I know that incrementalism is the name of the game down to the Legislature. But it's hard to accept that sometimes when, you know, like this could solve problems and this could help your fellow citizens." — Steve Kaiser

So you talked about basically supply and demand there, right? Like one of the big sticking points in housing here is that we just do not have enough of it. But the other side of that gets very tough, too, when you start to mess with zoning as you know, like people get defensive. There's a lot of not in my backyard kind of stuff, especially when it comes to affordable housing, which we need so much of. Where do you see the compromise coming there? Where do you think the rubber is going to have to hit the road because we have to make some changes?

KAISER: So zoning is about 90% of what city governments do, right? This is a huge part of what they do. And so this is why I think it was so scary for them, what we were contemplating initially in some of these bills because it was pretty aggressive. There are other cities in the nation that have very light zoning and not surprisingly, they have very affordable housing naturally, right? That's what we're going for, we're just looking for naturally affordable. We don't want to do subsidies and all these extra little things, gimmicky things. We can create naturally affordable by allowing less government interference.

But you also have to respect the will of the community and some input from the community. And so I think the balance is not taking away everything from the city control wise but still allowing more freedom, having maybe shot clocks on how, how long it takes to get things back and forth. There are lots of areas of compromise and that's where we got to with the league last year. Things like a ADUs. That was an agreed upon thing.

Accessory dwelling units.

KAISER: Yeah. Thank you. The casitas in the backyard.

The casitas in the backyard. Yeah.

KAISER: You know, the single room occupancies for seniors was an an option, the housing needs assessment. So there's no data out there as far as what cities are building.

What do you think it says about the state of politics I guess that, or the state of the Legislature that a lot of what happened in the end? Like the, the reason you didn't get a lot of these reforms passed was because of the opposition within your own party.

KAISER: I think it says that you know, politics is all local, but in that phrase, what I mean is when you're down to the Legislature, friendships and personalities matter, too. You know, some people just didn't like the policy. Some people don't like the person. Sometimes it's a mix of both. Some people don't like when you make deals with other groups before them. And so they want to kill your stuff because of that. And that's the kind of gamesmanship that is irritating and also fascinating at the same time.

So I think what's really exciting this year is how many different people are running housing bills.

From all sides of the aisle.

KAISER: From all sides. I mean, you've got Freedom Caucus members running things. You've got super progressive people running things, and you've got everything in between that's gonna be the recipe for success.

So I wonder, like looking at this from the outside in now what you're doing and still working on these same issues, but in a different way, I mean, do you think, do you feel like you're able to almost get more done now from the outside than you were as an elected official?

KAISER: You know, I ran for office because I wanted to make my community better. I wanted to make my state better because I love Arizona and I still feel like I can make Arizona better be being on the outside as an advocate. And I feel like I can be more helpful and more productive because again, about the focus, gosh, it's just, it just wears you out, you're just getting pulled a million ways. But now on the outside, I can say, you know what I'm going to focus on these two or three topics. It's going to be much more impactful and it's, it, that's the fulfillment and rewarding part that I was looking for when I first ran.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.