Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: Life, liberty and the pursuit of some decent housing

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins talks with reporters after speaking at the California Women's Policy Summit in January, when she recalled her childhood in Appalachia. She’s pushing a package of bills to build more affordable housing.
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins talks with reporters after speaking at the California Women's Policy Summit in January, when she recalled her childhood in Appalachia. She’s pushing a package of bills to build more affordable housing. Associated Press

If any doubt remained, a new study shows that the lack of affordable housing is a full-blown crisis, particularly for the poorest among us.

Using census and federal housing data, Urban Institute researchers found that only 28 percent of extremely low-income households nationwide were able to find affordable housing to rent in 2013. That’s a significant drop from 37 percent in 2000 – the result of increasing poverty and fewer housing units.

While it’s a national problem, the shortage has particularly worsened in Nevada and parts of the Midwest and South. In California, the numbers vary widely.

In San Francisco, 36 percent of very poor families (making no more than 30 percent of their area’s median income) could find affordable rental housing in 2013.

San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties had among the state’s lowest availability at 14 percent. Sacramento and Placer counties did only slightly better – 17 percent, well below the national norm.

Since only 5 percent of very poor families could afford housing without federal assistance, the situation could get even worse if Congress cuts funding, the researchers say. So it’s up to state and local governments to step up to preserve and produce affordable housing.

That would be your cue, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.

She has made a big deal of her life experiences – growing up poor in Appalachia in a home without running water and being shocked at the squalor she found as a college student working in rural Virginia – stoking her passion for affordable housing.

Now, the San Diego Democrat is championing a package of bills, which are all alive in the Legislature, though some have a stronger pulse than others.

Assembly Bill 35, which would expand the state’s low-income housing tax credit by $300 million a year, has passed the Assembly and is in the Senate. The more controversial AB 1335, which would create a $75 fee on certain real estate documents to generate $300 million to $500 million annually, is still on the Assembly floor.

Her office says the bills are a top priority. Other legislators and the governor should back her up.

This could be the legacy project for Atkins. While she and other Democrats are bragging about the new state budget – which includes a new state earned-income tax credit, more child care slots and other help for working families – none of those advances will work as well without a foundation of adequate housing.

The California Housing Partnership Corporation says the state has a shortage of 1.5 million affordable rental units. In March, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office warned that California’s housing shortage, especially along the coast, is threatening the state’s economic future.

Government can’t do this alone. Private developers should pitch in; if they don’t, local governments can require them to sell some units at below-market rates or contribute to a housing fund as a condition of building permits, the state Supreme Court ruled last month.

The experts tell us that we’re going to pay for the affordable housing crisis one way or another – by putting tax dollars into building more units, or by facing higher costs later on as families go without health care or become homeless.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to pay a little on the front end and help families have a decent place to live.

By the numbers

The proportion of very low-income households able to find affordable rental housing in 2013 in selected California counties:

  • San Francisco 36 percent
  • El Dorado 28 percent
  • Yolo 23 percent
  • Sutter 22 percent
  • Yuba 22 percent
  • Merced 20 percent
  • Fresno 18 percent
  • Los Angeles 18 percent
  • Sacramento 17 percent
  • Placer 17 percent
  • Orange 17 percent
  • San Diego 17 percent
  • San Joaquin 14 percent
  • Stanislaus 14 percent

Source: Urban Institute

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