By Nadine Ono.
Closing the affordability gap in housing has become a huge economic issue for many Californians just trying to live in certain communities, let alone being able to join the workforce there. Just ask Brent Smith.
“You’ve got to get housing first in order to do anything,” said Smith, who works as an advocate at Skid Row Housing Trust, a nonprofit that provides permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty in downtown Los Angeles. “You’ve got to have a place where you can go eat, you can go rest, you can go shower, so you can feel better about yourself. So by getting housing, it does motivate a person to do better.”
Smith is also a resident of St. George Hotel Apartments, one of the 25 properties run by Skid Row Trust, and has moved from being homeless to permanent supportive housing and working with others through the same process he experienced. He is one of the success stories living and working in a region where finding an affordable place to live is becoming a challenge.
Los Angeles County is an expensive place to live, which is bad news for the region’s low-income earners. According to a recent report issued by the California Housing Partnership Corporation (CHPC), when housing costs are considered, more than one quarter of Los Angeles County residents live in poverty.
In order for a household to afford the average asking rent of $2,016 per month, that household must earn four times the state minimum wage. The high cost has resulted in overcrowding.
“L.A. County is the home of the most overcrowding in the country,” according to Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing (SCAMPH), which partnered with CHPC to produce the report.
“What happens if you can’t afford to pay the rent, you get someone to move in with you and help share that burden,” said Greenlee. The side effects of overcrowding include health issues, lower student achievement, as kids have nowhere to study, and psychological issues such as stress, tension and anger.
The lack of affordable housing in the region is becoming a big problem. The CHPC report estimates that Los Angeles County needs an additional 527,722 affordable rental homes to accommodate extremely and very low-income renters. But affordable housing is under attack on several fronts, from the lax enforcement of rent stabilization ordinances to the actual loss of affordable units.
“The other thing that’s happening is that affordable units, either subsidized or not subsidized, are being torn down at a rate faster than we can build them,” said Greenlee. He added that most, if not all, are replaced with market rate units. Another issue is the expiration of deed restrictions and rent covenants, which also typically go to market rate when that happens.
“We want to get back into the business of building affordable housing in a significant way,” said Greenlee. “And the only way to do that is to bridge that gap of what it costs to build it and what people can afford to pay in rent and that gap has historically come from public dollars.”
But the loss of redevelopment funds and possibly federal funds has made affordable housing development difficult. Greenlee would like to see an affordable housing trust fund from the redevelopment dollars that are coming back to the County as well as the passage of AB 1335 (The Building Homes and Jobs Act) and AB35 (increasing the California Low Income Housing Tax Credit).
The report also recommends utilizing “upzoning” to build communities with more affordable housing. Rezoning land to more intensive use acts as an incentive to developers who want to increase the number of units zoned for a piece of property.
“What we can do right now is say, if you’re essentially asking us to increase the value of this land that you have, what we want is some public benefit with that, maybe you should include some affordable units in that too,” explained Greenlee.
Another recommendation from the report is to expand the supply of permanent supportive housing, which the Skid Row Housing Trust provides. One of its properties is the Star Apartments, which has 102 units housing formerly homeless and low-income tenants. The tenants receive much more than a permanent place to live; they also receive primary and mental health care, counseling, recovery support and other amenities such as yoga and gardening classes. The Skid Row Housing Trust is set to open two more buildings, both of which are designated for homeless veterans.
And according to Smith, living in permanent supportive housing helped him return to the working world: “I was broken. But when I got my housing, it made a big change. I got a job, so getting my housing made me feel better about myself. It got me to be a person that was contributing, not just taking.”
Smith’s story goes a long way toward proving adequate housing is a vital ingredient in strengthening the regional economy. That’s why a network of business and civic leaders will discuss the issue of affordable housing at the annual California Economic Summit in Ontario on November 12-13, co-presented by California Forward and the California Stewardship Network. One of the Summit’s goals is to figure out how one million affordable housing units can be built in the next decade for low- and middle-income Californians.