News

Affordable housing crisis grips California

A view towards Palo Alto, Stanford and the cities of south San Francisco Bay, where housing is at a premium.(Photo: Sundry Photography)

California lawmakers are in midst of trying to solve a housing crisis that has spread throughout the state.

The crisis, which began largely in the  San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, is quickly becoming a top priority: An array of housing-related bills — 130 and counting — have been proposed in the Legislature since January.

“The crisis is impacting people at higher and higher income levels, so I think members of the state Legislature are hearing about it far more from people in their district.” — Anya Lawler

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development — an agency that works to expand access to affordable housing — says California has built an average of 80,000 homes a year for the past decade, which is less than half of the 180,000 new homes needed to keep up with the predicted population growth through 2025.

“In the Bay Area in recent years, we’ve had the highest home prices, the highest rents and the highest eviction rates in the country. But now … every pocket of California is experiencing this crisis,” Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) earlier told the Sacramento Bee.

The Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal adviser, the Legislative Analyst, said California has had higher rents and home prices than the rest of the nation for decades, but the gap is accelerating.

“Between 1970 and 1980, California home prices went from 30 percent above U.S. levels to more than 80 percent higher. This trend has continued. Today, an average California home costs $440,000, about two–and–a–half times the average national home price ($180,000). Also, California’s average monthly rent is about $1,240, 50 percent higher than the rest of the country ($840 per month),” the LAO reported in 2015, and the figures have risen since then.

The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $4,571, or $54,800 annually, nearly double the cost six years ago, according to Rent Jungle, which tracks rents in major cities across the country, including California. That’s more than double the cost in San Diego for a two-bedroom apartment, which is about $2,211 monthly, and far more than the $3,115 in San Jose and the $2,914 in Los Angeles. The San Francisco rent is about triple that of a two-bedroom in Riverside, where the average is $1,563 monthly.

The lowest average rent in the state is in Wasco, population about 25,000, at $678 monthly. The figures come from a comparison of cities of more than 15,000 population, according to the inman.com real estate site. 

According to a 2015 report by the California Housing Consortium, one in five San Francisco County residents and one in three Los Angeles County residents spend more than half their income on rent.

Anya Lawler, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said lawmakers may be paying more attention to the state’s housing issue because the middle class, and not just the state’s poorest citizens, are having more trouble finding affordable places to live.

“The crisis is impacting people at higher and higher income levels, so I think members of the state Legislature are hearing about it far more from people in their district,” Lawler said.

Many of California’s coastal cities have seen rising rents in recent years, causing citizens to choose between paying rent or buying basic necessities like groceries or school supplies.

According to a 2015 report by the California Housing Consortium, one in five San Francisco County residents and one in three Los Angeles County residents spend more than half their income on rent.

The study found that as the average rent of these cities become higher, many middle class workers, including high school teachers, healthcare workers and bus drivers,  are forced to commute from distant areas. In other cases, the former residents might choose to work in areas that are more affordable to live in.

“We were in some level of crisis for lower income folks even in 2006, but we’re now at sort of a catastrophe,” Lawler said.

The City Councils of both Madera and Fresno have tried to address such poor housing conditions this year, by passing ordinances that aim to hold landlords more accountable.

The crisis has also spread outside the coast and into the Central Valley, said Ashley Werner, a policy advocate for the San Joaquin Valley-based Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability.

She said that while Central Valley rents have gone up in recent years, earnings have not. That has forced many residents into finding cheaper homes.

“Each year we see there’s a lack of increase in commensurate earnings compared to how the cost of renting or owning a home is increasing,” she said.

The lack of affordable homes also has made substandard housing issues more prevalent in Central Valley communities, Werner said.

She said the substandard conditions vary across apartments, but can include cockroach infestations, failed plumbing systems and exposed electrical wiring. She added that broken air conditioning is another common problem in the Central Valley, and that when landlords fail to fix these units it can be life threatening for tenants living in areas where temperatures can rise above 110 degrees.

The City Councils of both Madera and Fresno have tried to address such poor housing conditions this year, by passing ordinances that aim to hold landlords more accountable for fostering unsafe living environments. The ordinances demand that all landlords carry out routine safety inspections on their apartments.

“The large volume of bills introduced is a step toward intervention in the crisis.” — Ray Pearl

“There was a big public push to get those ordinances adopted” Werner said. “I think it’s going to be really important to sustain that attention to make sure there’s real implementation.”

In Sacramento, state lawmakers are also trying by passing a series of bills aiming to make it easier to create more low-income housing units.

Assembly Bill 71 would create over $300 million for the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LITC) program by eliminating mortgage interest reductions on second homes. This LIHTC expansion would provide aid for some of the state’s poorest citizens by increasing the amount of tax credits set aside for farmworkers from $500,000 to $25 million.

Senate Bill 2 from Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), raises money for low income housing by imposing a $75 fee on non-residential real estate transaction documents.

Some of the legislation specifically aims to increase housing availability in cities.

Senate Bill 35 from Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) creates a streamlined approval process for affordable housing projects in cities. Assembly Bill 352 from Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), allows cities to permit units that are as small as 150 square feet.

Another Chiu-authored bill, AB 73, would provide local governments with incentive payments for building transit-oriented housing.

“The large volume of bills introduced is a step toward intervention in the crisis,” Ray Pearl, the executive director of the California Housing Consortium, wrote in an email. “Now we need (state legislators) to act on the key pieces of legislation, particularly the bills that secure funding for housing production.”

“The large volume of bills introduced is a step toward intervention in the crisis,” Ray Pearl, the executive director of the California Housing Consortium, wrote in an email. “Now we need (state legislators) to act on the key pieces of legislation, particularly the bills that secure funding for housing production.”


  • Danh

    Elementary economics says a restricted supply of housing due to restricted zoning and high school fees result in a housing shortage. End government construction fees and restrictive zoning. Housing boom like no one has see will result. Ask any building contractor and they don’t need a phd.

    • mheister

      Elementary economics says nothing about zoning. It’s supply and demand. You jumped to your ideas about increasing supply, and construction fees have eff all to do that. Zoning is an issue, and needs to be addressed smartly so as not to decimate property values by rezoning.

  • mheister

    All of the above-mentioned bills sound good.

    Perhaps cities like LA should be less afraid of tall apartment buildings. There is huge housing demand in LA, and limited real estate. There’s nothing inherently bad about tall apartment buildings.

    LA currently has a pretty low requirement for low-income units in new construction. That requirement should be increased, and home/condo purchasers and builders given incentives and breaks, as the bills mentioned in this piece would do.

Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: