by Kimberly Rivers

krivers@timespublications.com

A report called “Housing Crisis 805” detailing the aspects of “the perfect storm of today’s housing crisis” has been released by the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

The report provides data and insight into how particular communities are impacted by the lack of affordable housing and offers three main directives that cities and the county could take to ensure all residents have access to adequate housing, with a focus on policies that don’t displace existing residents.

First, approve policies that allow more affordable housing in areas that have previously excluded that option, rather than promoting development in low-income areas. This approach helps avoid gentrification and displacement when residents are pushed out of their neighborhoods. Second, in areas currently zoned for single family homes, a variety of density level could be allowed, such as granny flats, duplexes and triplexes. And finally, the rezoning of industrial and commercial areas that are no longer being fully utilized would not displace residents nor contribute to sprawl and would utilize existing infrastructure. For example, big box stores that are shuttered or malls with empty spots can be remodeled for housing.

The report is based on in-person responses to surveys conducted by members of CAUSE in immigrant and working class communities in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties over the summer. In Ventura County, the survey was conducted in Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Paula. The data collected reveals how rising rents, stagnant wages and limited housing impact community members with particular vulnerabilities related to language, immigration status and skin color. The report also presents some solutions for decision makers and planners tackling the problem at the local level.

Root causes

According to the report, federal housing dollars dwindled in the 1970s, mostly replaced by the Section 8 voucher program. By focusing subsidies in this way, low income renters were now competing for market rate units with the middle class, reducing the drive to build low income housing while competition drove up rents.

In the 1980s, developers responded to the increased demand for large, single-family homes with vast subdivisions that generally were not affordable for low income families. At the same time, California’s Redevelopment Agencies, the channel for affordable housing funding, was scrapped by then Gov. Jerry Brown during the state budget cuts of the “Great Recession.”

Today, many landlords refuse to rent to those with Section 8 vouchers, making housing for those renters scarce and leaving those individuals vulnerable to intimidation and unsafe or unsanitary living conditions. A new law, SB 329, prohibits California landlords from refusing to rent to those with Section 8 vouchers, but those renters still have to speak up.

The working homeless

Those past policies and housing market influencers laid the groundwork for what we are seeing today. In addition, a recent trend is being reported nationally about foreign investors targeting “up and coming” neighborhoods, typically communities of color. Those companies buy up older housing stock, renovate and increase rents, thus creating highly desirable neighborhoods attractive to more affluent renters. As prices are driven up in these traditionally lower-rent areas, the ripple effects drive up rents across town.

From 2014 to 2019, rent has increased on the Central Coast 27 percent, while wages have only gone up 8 percent. Today the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Ventura is $1900. The combination of rising rents and stagnant wages leads to a new class of people — the working homeless.

According to CAUSE’s report, 38 percent of the population in Ventura County are renters, with renters making up 50 percent of the residents in Oxnard, 46 percent in Ventura and 45 percent in Santa Paula. Overall, 55 percent of renters are “cost burdened” by the rent they pay, meaning more than 30 percent of their income is spent on rent — making renters particularly vulnerable to losing their home if they lose a job, get sick or have some other emergency that reduces funds for rent. Survey respondents reported having to make the choice of buying less food, or foregoing healthcare in order to pay their rent.

Solutions

The answer seems simple: build more affordable housing. The CAUSE report also suggests that building high-end luxury homes could take the strain off existing mid-level housing stock by providing a place for those who can afford it to go, opening up lower-cost housing options to those with limited income.

But the problem is bigger than just building more homes. Creative approaches at the planning stage and stronger public-private connections are needed to set the stage for more flexibility and equitable approaches down the road.

CAUSE suggests things like a housing bond to fund new affordable housing, or revitalizing existing housing and offering subsidized loans to local residents. Those programs can be managed by local non-profit organizations (such as housing authorities) in partnership with local government. Other “no-cost options” offered in the report include streamlining permitting for affordable housing and relaxing certain prohibitive rules, such as the number of parking spaces required, to incentivize and lower the initial costs for building affordable units.  There are other alternative models, such as community land trusts and limited equity co-ops, that can be encouraged.

A thread throughout the report is that a core tenet of any policy to expand available housing is to not displace current homed residents.

The report is online at: https://causenow.org/article/housing-crisis-805-report