Tenants and landlords are hurting, homelessness is skyrocketing and the housing market is out of control. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only reason for that, but it’s making California’s longstanding housing crisis even worse.
In 2021, nine out of ten Californians consider housing affordability a problem, and nearly one in three Californians are considering leaving the state because of it, according to a March survey by the Public Policy Institute of California.
So how did things get so bad? Here’s what you need to know about California’s housing costs.
Hard. Really hard. Both compared to how difficult it is in other states, and how challenging it was for previous generations of Californians.
In the late 1960s, the average California home cost about three times the average household’s income. Today, it costs more than seven times what the average household makes.
While it’s always been more expensive to be a homeowner in California, the gap with the rest of the country has grown into a chasm. The median California home is priced nearly 2.5 times higher than the median national home, according to 2019 Census data.
The pandemic hasn’t cooled the housing market, either. Demand has long exceeded supply of homes for sale in California, and that’s especially true now. But while many families are suffering the economic impacts of COVID-19, wealthier households with money to spend and capitalizing on low interest rates have driven up prices even more. In September 2020, California’s median home price reached $712,430 — a historic high.
Despite relatively low mortgage rates, however, exploding housing prices have caused California’s overall homeownership rate to dip significantly. Just more than half of the state’s households own their homes — the third lowest rate in the country and the lowest rate within the state since World War II.
And those homeowners skew significantly white. White Californians are twice as likely as Black Californians to own their home, according to 2019 Census data. The racial gap in homeownership has widened over the years, which also means Black Californians are less likely to build wealth over time, said Carolina Reid, associate professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.
But racial disparities are true in all dimensions of housing. “Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be cost burdened, more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, more at risk of eviction, and displacement,” she said.
Rents are among the highest in the country in California, home to seven of the ten most expensive cities for tenants. The pandemic has changed things up — driving down rents in some of the most expensive cities and hiking rents in some more affordable ones. But affordability overall has only worsened with COVID-19.
San Francisco remains the most expensive city to rent in the United States, with the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment at $3,500 a month, according to Zillow. That’s even after a 23% drop from last year. Fresno, at one point considered on the more affordable end of California housing, has seen a 39% hike in average rent since 2017, including a 12% increase during the pandemic.
The drop in homeownership plays a role here. As it has become more difficult to buy a home, wealthier people have remained stuck in the rental market — and driven up rent prices.
Median earnings for Californians are higher than the national average, and are significantly higher in certain regions like the Bay Area. But on average, income over the past two decades has not kept pace with escalating rents.
Before the pandemic, about half of California renters were rent burdened, which means that more than 30% of their income went toward rent, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Nearly a third of Californians were severely rent-burdened, which means that more than half of their income went toward rent.
The numbers are worse for families of color. A California Housing Partnership analysis found that in 2019, Black renter households were about twice as likely as white renter households to be severely cost burdened.
The pandemic only worsened these numbers. As unemployment skyrocketed and families lost wages, roughly one of every six tenants fell behind on rent payments, according to a study by the Little Hoover Commission.
The extremes of California’s housing crisis are concentrated in the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles, but the challenge is statewide. While San Diego, San Francisco and L.A. top the list of toughest rental markets in the country, cities including Sacramento and Fresno recently have experienced the largest year-over-year rent increases.
In most Central Valley cities, the majority of very low-income families are spending more than 30% of their paycheck on rent.
The number of people experiencing homelessness is notoriously hard to track, but estimates are getting more accurate — and show that the problem is big, and worsening.
Newly released state numbers show that throughout 2020, nearly a quarter of a million people accessed homeless services through local agencies. About 160,000 were single adults, and nearly 85,000 in families with kids. Los Angeles County has the highest number of people experiencing homelessness, with about 90,000 people who accessed services in 2020.
That data — submitted by 42 of the 44 local agencies that manage homeless dollars and services across the state — was not previously compiled or made public. That number is dynamic, because someone may have been homeless at the start of the year, but housed by the end — or vice versa.
The data also fails to count some individuals who never interacted with homeless providers and survivors of domestic violence who are omitted for safety purposes, according to Ali Sutton, the state deputy secretary for homelessness.
According to the state, nearly 40% of those people, or 91,626 individuals, moved into permanent housing last year — which could mean anything from moving back in with a family member to getting their own place. This overlaps with an unprecedented amount of funding going to fix the issue — $13 billion over the last three years.
Previous estimates of people experiencing homelessness were much lower. Every two years, the federal government mandates a tally of the number of people on the streets on a single night in January. Advocates and experts have long clamored that the count is not accurate.
The point-in-time count was last taken in January 2020 — before COVID-19 ravaged the economy — and showed 161,548 people experienced homelessness in California. The January 2021 count was postponed due to COVID-19.
Sen. Scott Wiener takes a photo of the vote tally as the eviction bill passes in the senate.
But that doesn’t stop lawmakers from trying, and trying again.
2020 was supposed to be a big year for housing legislation. Lawmakers proposed a slew of housing bills, including a measure that would have forced cities to allow more mid-rise apartment buildings, convert big-box retail property into housing, and limit the restraints of environmental law on housing projects.
None of those bills passed. Democratic squabbling and the global pandemic, among other factors, were to blame.
Key legislators are back at it this year. The bills are mostly designed at easing zoning and environmental restrictions to allow for more dense housing, funneling more money into affordable housing production and trying to force local governments to comply with state goals.
Here are a just a few of the bills we’re watching this year:
AB 215, by Assembly member David Chiu, would essentially give teeth to the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, a law designed to increase housing production but that has done little to mandate it. Cities would need to check in with the state halfway through their eight-year housing approval process. If they’re behind on their goals, the state would force them to approve more pro-housing policies.
SB 9, by Senate leader Toni Atkins of San Diego, bears some resemblance to last year’s SB 50. The bill would allow homeowners to put a duplex on single-family lots or split them without requiring a hearing or approval from the local government. Affordable housing and rental properties would be exempt from the changes.
SB 10, by Sen. Scott Wiener, would allow cities to rezone transit centers and job hubs to allow as many as 10 units per parcel. Proximity to public transit would theoretically lead to fewer cars on the road, bringing the state closer to its goals to reduce climate change.
SB 478, also by Wiener, takes aim at local ordinances that limit the construction of housing based on lot size, which effectively erases any chance of building small apartment buildings on land that is already zoned for multi-family housing.
Senate Bill 50, proposed last year by Sen. Scott Wiener, would have forced cities to allow more mid-rise apartment buildings around public transit and next to some single-family homes. Proponents believe this is the best and quickest way to come close to meeting the state’s housing needs.
A host of political interests supported the bill — developers, landlords, environmental groups, big city mayors and even Facebook wanted to see it pass. But the bill failed to get enough votes in the Legislature to survive in 2020 before time ran out. Among the opponents were Los Angeles Democrats, spurred by low-income tenant advocacy groups.
That wasn’t the first time the legislation failed.
Similar versions of the bill had been blocked twice before, with strong opposition from suburban homeowners, local governments and community groups who contended the proposal would destroy neighborhood character and gentrify lower-income communities.
“As disappointing as it was not to pass (Senate Bill 50), it left me quite optimistic about what we will be able to do in the future,” Wiener told CalMatters. “The fact that a bill four or five years before (SB 50) would probably not have even gotten a hearing in a single committee, but then we were able to get it through two committees and almost off the Senate floor (means) there is actually very, very broad and deep support for a pro-housing agenda.”
Many of the same ideas proposed in SB 50 will be up for debate again this year.
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