By: Abelardo de la Peña, Jr.
Housing – single-family homes, apartments, condos, and townhouses – is where individuals and families spend the most of their time. Yet, for many, the challenge of acquiring, maintaining and keeping a home of their own is becoming more and more precarious. While home ownership is not a constitutional right, it is an economic, social and cultural imperative that is fast becoming unaffordable, and hence, inaccessible, to too many Southern California residents.
The causes of this fast-growing predicament are many, but can be summed up in a slogan made famous by NYC mayoral candidate Jimmy McMillan: “The rent is too damn high!” Additional factors include:
- The lack of housing inventory – both rentals and for sale, due in no small part to the 2008 recession and high rate of foreclosures
- Tighter financing for home purchasing
- Wages insufficient to pay for adequate housing
- Gentrification driving up rents and home prices
What happens when housing is not longer affordable?
In Southern California, we are seeing families being displaced from their traditional neighborhoods; multigenerational families living in the same household; a dramatic increase in families moving out of state, or at least away from this region; and worst, increased homelessness. Businesses, too, are leaving because the lack of affordable housing has affected their employees. That leads to a loss of revenue for city coffers which then impacts their ability to provide services for the residents that remain. The housing crisis hurts almost everyone.
Alan Greenlee, executive director for Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCANPH) is on the front lines of the housing affordability crisis. SCANPH regularly conducts surveys, calculating the average rent of specific counties, along with the income needed to afford the monthly payment, based on the presumption that a household should pay no more that 30% of their household income on housing.
“The average rent in the city of Los Angeles is $2,100 a month. A household needs to make $86,000 a year to afford that. Everybody that makes less than that is living unaffordably.” – Alan Greenlee
“Half million households in Los Angeles County,” says Greenlee, “are making less than that, greater than every man, woman and child in San Francisco.”
Other areas in the state are being impacted, as well. In San Bernardino County for example, where the cost of living is only slightly lower than LA County, one minimum wage worker supporting a family would have to work 96 hours per week to afford the average 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom rent, according to SCANPH. Less income is left for food, transportation, health expenses, and other needs.
“Your rent eats first,” proclaims Shamus Roller, executive director of Housing California, a nonprofit organization representing a coalition of advocates for affordable housing and homeless issues. “With more people paying more than half their income on rent, it’s not a good outlook.”
Adding to the affordable housing woes is the simple fact that there is not enough housing to meet the needs of growing communities.
Long-time realtor, housing advocate and former Cudahy Council Member Josué Barrios states that to maintain an adequate housing market, 100,000 new dwellings must be built annually. “Here in California, we are only building half of that,” he says. “That alone drives up the price of property.”
“To me, affordable housing and the state of housing in California is one of our top social problems.” – Vanessa Delgado
Delgado, a councilmember for the City of Montebello and a commercial developer, says “how can we create affordable housing if we don’t have the resources? The solution is not clear-cut.”
Indeed, the 2012 dismantling of redevelopment agencies, a powerful resource which local governments used to leverage property tax money to partner with developers to encourage development, was a major blow to municipalities big and small.
Of late, lawmakers have been making major moves to impact affordable housing and the issues surrounding it:
- At the state level, Governor Jerry Brown set-aside $400 million for affordable homes (the By-Right housing proposal), which is contingent on state legislators reaching a deal on fixing the building approval process.
- The state budget also authorized No Place Like Home, a $2 billion bond to construct permanent supportive housing for people who are chronically homeless and have a mental illness.
- LA’s city council recently voted to add an ordinance — the Build Better LA initiative — to the November 2016 ballot that would increase the number of affordable units in future housing development projects.
But what can local municipalities that don’t have the resources the City of LA has do to help their residents deal with this crisis?
SCANPH’s Greenlee says one way city policymakers can generate more affordable housing is to create more space for housing.
“There are ways for local jurisdictions to create sensible land use policies, such as creating affordable housing near transit.” He also advocates for developers and lawmakers to work together. “Ask for zoning change, for example, to build more apartments, make land more valuable,” he says.
Roller, of Housing California, insists that policy makers at the local level have lots of tools to make it easier to build housing that is affordable in their community, such as waiving or lowering local construction fees and creating housing trust funds.
Higher wages for employees also makes housing more affordable, says Roller. “Lots of business groups are realizing that the housing situation is starting to be bad for business. They are paying higher wages, so that they could afford housing.”
Realtor Barrios, who does a robust business in Southeast Los Angeles, explains that municipal bureaucracies often keep people from getting into housing. “Lawmakers need to consider relaxing presale and height restrictions. Most cities have a two-story limit (on new or remodeling construction). I’m an advocate for building up. But it has to be a win-win, for residents, homeowners and developers.”
For lawmakers like Delgado, dealing with reduced budgets and immediate needs, local situations demand multi-pronged solutions. In Montebello, two properties purchased long ago by the city’s transit system, but no longer needed, are being turned into housing. Habitat for Humanity is also building affordable housing in Montebello through a partnership with the city.
Council Member and developer Vanessa Delgado says the key to combating the housing crisis is “creativity and collaboration.”
“In my experiences as a developer, there are lots of funding options, including public-private partnerships. As important, I encourage electeds to utilize the resources of organizations like Southern California Association of Governments, (SCAG), Gateway Cities Council of Governments, and of course, the Southern California Latino Policy Center.
Talk to other electeds and come up with solutions. If one city can do it, another city could do it for their constituents, too.”
Abelardo de la Peña is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He recently wrote “The Children of Prop 187” for the Latino Policy Connection.