The County Voice

Home Is Where the Heart Is (And the Policy)

The word “home” can mean different things to different people. One’s home can be a stationary building, such as a house or an apartment. Or, increasingly so, it can be on wheels. The “tiny home” movement promises flexibility to move your home from one place to another. One can choose to live alone in a home or with family or friends. And for some, they don’t have much of a choice at all about where they call “home” and having one is something they dream of and work tirelessly towards. For me personally, especially as a new mother, the word has taken on new and deeper meaning.

Home is where my husband and I live. Now it is also where we are raising our child. I am writing this blog partially to acknowledge how grateful I am that my family has a safe, secure place to call home, but also because I work on housing issues for CSAC. With California in a “housing crisis,” with homelessness an ever-present part of the landscape, and perhaps because I feel luckier than ever to be able to afford a home in the same community in which I work and play, I wanted to try to clarify what’s happening on the state and local level to address affordable housing issues.

I first want to try to capsulate the economic and policy issues that contribute to the housing crisis. The economic recovery California has enjoyed for the past several years has not applied equally to all parts of the state. Some geographic areas and some socio-economic groups are still struggling to earn enough money. In tandem with a lack of affordable housing, even people working full time at above-minimum wage can’t afford an average place to live. Let’s do the math.

If you work 40 hours a week at $13 an hour, (current minimum wage in California is $10.50 an hour) you earn about $27,000 a year, or $2,250 a month—before taxes. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment varies a lot in California—about $850 a month in Bakersfield, $1,250 in Sacramento, and more than $4,700 in San Francisco. Even in Bakersfield, your rent consumes about half of your take-home pay. That doesn’t leave much left over for food, clothing, transportation, and utilities. If you have a child to feed and clothe, and if you need daycare so you can work, there isn’t enough to make it work.

The Legislature has already acted on one side of this equation and the minimum wage will be rising to $15 an hour over the next few years. Now they are working on the “supply” side, trying to make sure more housing is available—at all levels, but especially low-income housing. About 130 bills dealing with housing were introduced in the Legislature this year. Some of those that are still moving through the process would impose taxes or borrow to fund low-income housing. Some are aimed at giving local agencies tools to require affordable units in new construction, but several others would only add further complexity and reporting requirements on local government plans to accommodate housing at all income levels.

The supply side solution will likely be as complex as the crisis itself. The lack of affordable housing in California is a result of many and varied factors – the high cost of land in the state, the regulatory environment at the federal, state and local levels, and the lack of infrastructure to serve housing, especially infill housing in existing urban cores, just to name a few.

Counties certainly have a role to play to help facilitate affordable housing in their communities – and CSAC is focusing our efforts internally to build capacity at the county level with data, information, and best practices – but the solution in not just a local one. The federal and state government must also provide funding, such as tax-credits and subsidies, to make affordable housing pencil out. No amount of streamlining, eliminating environmental reviews, or eliminating design review will make housing affordable at all income levels without funding.

This is a complex issue and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. What I hope for, however, is that the Legislature will see the housing crisis as a big picture, as a continuum that needs to be addressed on many levels. The solution may start as individual pieces of legislation, but there needs to be a common focus and direction that provide the right incentives to developers, local governments, and other stakeholders.

As I said in the beginning, I am grateful to have a safe, affordable place to live for myself and my family. I am also grateful for the opportunity to help shape some of the policies that will hopefully lead to all Californians having that same opportunity.

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