The biggest problem in California: Housing

State Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson came to Ojai recently, and visited with the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, where I volunteer, and met with the board of directors. We discussed many topics but ended up on the issue that has been dividing the state: housing — affordable housing — and the lack thereof. The New York Times this weekend had an excellent explainer (with anecdotes from Berkeley) on the issue. Here’s the nut:

The affordable-housing crunch is a nationwide problem, but California is the superlative. The state’s median home price, at just over $500,000, is more than twice the national level and up about 60 percent from five years ago, according to Zillow. It affects the poor, the rich and everyone in between.

In San Diego, one of the worst hepatitis outbreaks in decades has killed 20 people and was centered on the city’s growing homeless population. Across the state, middle-income workers are being pushed further to the fringes and in some cases enduring three-hour commutes.

Then there is Patterson + Sheridan, a national intellectual property law firm that has its headquarters in Houston and recently bought a private jet to ferry its Texas lawyers to Bay Area clients. The jet was cheaper than paying local lawyers, who expect to make enough to offset the Bay Area’s inflated housing costs. “The young people that we want to hire out there have high expectations that are hard to meet,” said Bruce Patterson, a partner at the firm. “Rent is so high they can’t even afford a car.”

From the windows of a San Francisco skyscraper, the Bay Area looks as if it’s having a housing boom. There are cranes around downtown and rising glass and steel condominiums. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, housing megaprojects — buildings with 50 or more units — account for a quarter of the new housing supply, up from roughly half that level in the previous two decades, according to census data compiled by BuildZoom, a San Francisco company that helps homeowners find contractors.

The problem is that smaller and generally more affordable quarters like duplexes and small apartment buildings, where young families get their start, are being built at a slower rate. Such projects hold vast potential to provide lots of housing — and reduce sprawl — by adding density to the rings of neighborhoods that sit close to job centers but remain dominated by larger lots and single-family homes.

Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.

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Steve Lopez had a typically excellent, human column on the topic this weekend for the LA Times:

Like other transplants I spoke to in Nevada, Herndandez didn’t want to leave California. It’s home. It’s where she went to school and where her parents still live in the house she grew up in. But unless you choose a career that will pay you a small fortune to manage costs driven higher by a stubborn shortage of new housing, California is not a dream, it’s a mirage.

Moving to get a better job or move up the workplace chain is nothing new. But what’s going on here seems different — people leaving not for better jobs or pay, but because housing elsewhere is so much cheaper they can live the middle-class life that eludes them in California.

After college, Hernandez worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., and then went to Chicago for a few years. But the West drew her back. Not California, but Nevada, where she worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Las Vegas and then joined the staff of a state legislator in the state capital.

“I started looking at the bigger picture in Carson City, where I was able to pay the rent, have a car and a comfortable life and put some money into a 401(k),” Hernandez said. “Would I be able to do that in California? Probably not.”

It’s a generational conflict, essentially, and it’s painful for me to contemplate how poorly once again my generation has prepared for those to come, including the creative young people of the golden state.

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