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Coming Up Short on Places to Live

The shortage of affordable rental housing can be traced directly to the 1980s when the federal government sharply curtailed domestic spending.




Image: Wikimedia Commons

My wife Susan and I just returned from a long stay in Kaua’i, Hawaii’s northern-most large island and one of the state’s five counties. Often called the Garden Isle for its verdant mountains, rich floral palette and sparse population, it’s gentrifying rapidly—with more hotel projects, more homes and more cars, all moving faster.

While we were there the local newspaper announced a major grant for affordable housing. The state will receive three million dollars, and half of it will go to tiny Kaua’i. The money comes from the Housing and Urban Development Department’s National Housing Trust Fund, and it is designated for families earning less than 30 percent of the area’s median income. To be able to afford rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Kaua’i means earning at least $23.50 an hour, more than twice the minimum wage.

I was happy for Kaua’i, so when I returned home, I wanted to know what California received.

Turns out that the HUD Fund provides a grant to each state on the basis of a formula. Our share is $10 million. So Hawaii, with about 1.5 million people, will receive a little less than a third of what California gets, with a population over 20 times larger.

Now $10 million is nothing to sneer at, but it wouldn’t even begin to fill the affordable housing deficit in Los Angeles. Zillow, the apartment rental website, reported that in the second quarter of 2015, renters in our region paid 48.9 percent of their incomes for housing. That’s up from 35.6 percent that tenants paid between 1985 and 2000, and a higher percentage of income than renters paid in New York. According to a UCLA study quoted in the Los Angeles Business Journal, since 2000, housing prices in Los Angeles have risen four times faster than incomes.

For the desperately poor, housing costs take even more of their income. Adam Murray, executive director of the Inner City Law Center, says almost 290,000 people here spent 90 percent of their incomes on rent. That puts a lot of households on the edge of homelessness. But it’s not a story confined to Southern California. Across the country not a single county provides enough affordable rental units to meet the demand.

The shortage of affordable rental housing can be traced directly to the 1980s when the federal government sharply curtailed domestic spending. For affordable housing, the funds were already inadequate. Despite the pastiche of programs and tax credits that Congress glued together over the decades since, support for housing remains inadequate and overly complicated.

The local money dried up in California as well. Governor Brown dissolved Redevelopment Agencies, which in many cities like Los Angeles and Santa Monica provided major funding for worker housing. Since then he has vetoed the legislative efforts to replace those resources, and affordable housing seems not to top his priority list.

Meanwhile a little-known state law threatens renters across the state. The Ellis Act allows a landlord to remove units from the rental market or demolish an apartment building and replace it. Either way, tenants lose housing they can afford. Units replaced by something else, like a commercial building, vanish, or the new apartments, no longer under rent control, cost more than the old tenants can afford. In Santa Monica with only 27,000 units, 2000 have disappeared since 1985, according to the Rent Control Board, and all the new apartments built in the city are exempt from any rent regulation. In Los Angeles 143,000 units that were affordable to families earning less than $44,000 a year in 2000 have disappeared. Los Angeles needs to build 5300 affordable apartments each year to keep up with demand, but since 2006 averages about 1100.

That’s not enough. As Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, told the Los Angeles Times, “The people who make Los Angles run—such as the hotel workers, the service workers, the teachers and the bus drivers and the regular working people—are being run out of Los Angeles.”

Whether on an island or here, the question remains: How much do we value the labor, the lives, and the families of people who have to work 92 hours a week at minimum wage jobs to rent a one-bedroom apartment in California? Shouldn’t they have a decent place to live?

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