Following the lead of other major U.S. cities that recognize the growing need for affordable housing, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced last fall that he would seek to put a $1 billion bond measure before voters to help finance the creation of more such housing in the city. Getting such a measure on the ballot and winning two-thirds majority approval are two very different things, but the urgency Villaraigosa attached to the proposal underscores the fact that the battle to alleviate California’s severe shortage of affordable housing is one the state is still losing. Demand continues to far outstrip supply, as the chasm between housing costs and household incomes grows ever wider.
Ominously, only 16% of California households statewide earn enough to purchase a median-priced home. Even fewer qualify in places like San Diego (7%) and Orange County (9%) – figures that the California Association of Realtors projects will drop even further next year as prices continue climbing while real wages and incomes fall hopelessly behind.
Income gains have lagged home price increases by about a factor of 10 since 2000, with California’s median home price soaring 138%, while household incomes grew just 12.6% in the four years ending in 2003, the latest year for which data is available.
Homeownership rates are particularly low among working families with children.
What’s the problem here? A recitation of why it’s important both socially and economically for more people to be able to live in decent housing they can afford, closer to their jobs, is hardly necessary. Although financing programs available to developers who want to build such housing are still inadequate, state and local officials are doing more than ever to address the issue. And, as an abstract concept, most people understand the underlying issues and agree that affordable housing is a good thing that benefits everyone, not just those who live in it.
Sadly, the primary culprit continues to be NIMBYism and the clout it carries among elected officials and housing decision-makers. It is this opposition that continues to make it more difficult, and more costly, to construct new affordable housing – or to rehab existing properties – by undermining political support for the funding and zoning that make such housing possible.
What makes NIMBYism so egregious is that it is so misguided and ill-informed. Opponents fail to recognize the larger socioeconomic problems that stem from a lack of affordable housing which, in some cases, include the very things they fear most – thus contributing to the eventual decline of the neighborhoods and interests they claim to be protecting. Even when these simple facts are laid out for them, however, it remains extremely difficult to change people’s hearts and minds on this issue.
Difficult, but not impossible. I believe, through sustained educational outreach at the grassroots level – neighborhood by neighborhood, project by project – that change is possible, particularly since so many people are now resisting the conventional concept of urban sprawl in favor of higher-density development closer to urban employment centers. Each positive outcome will add new ammunition to the argument, and eventually the tide will turn.
Recently, our company achieved several successes on the NIMBY front. In the case of a multifamily community we were invited to develop in Fullerton, Calif., neighbors were up in arms after learning of the project, predicting an increase in crime and making many of the other standard assertions about how low-income housing would be a catastrophe for their neighborhood. We responded by taking the discussion directly to them via a series of town hall-type meetings at which we displayed our plans and ideas regarding such issues as density and amenities; emphasized our record of high-quality development, professional management and long-term ownership; and stressed how our community would be a good fit with the surrounding area.
Eventually, the city did the right thing and approved the project. If it hadn’t, it would have lost a lawsuit filed by a local nonprofit alleging the city had failed to properly use its property tax set-asides and other housing element funding. Unfortunately, their courage and vision cost three members of the city council (including the mayor) their jobs in a subsequent recall election. But they were all there at the grand opening to congratulate us on a job well done – as was one of the leaders of the opposition, who commented on what a wonderful addition to the area our community was, even confiding that her daughter had just moved into one of our units!
In Cameron Park, a suburb of Sacramento, a neighborhood group tried to kill our plans for an affordable community through abuse of the state’s environmental quality law – a common NIMBY tactic. We held meetings, conducted tours of other communities we had developed, tried to demonstrate that new housing would boost rather than lower property values, etc. Despite our efforts, the group sued the city, which told us we would have to indemnify them because they didn’t have the money to fight it.
We fought the lawsuit and won, and the community was built. Afterward our opponents admitted they had been wrong, as they almost always do. It’s sad to realize how much more affordable housing could be built if firms like ours did not have to waste so much money – ours as well as the public’s – fighting these irrational groups.
But fight we must. And each time we win, we need to make sure others know about it. By proactively educating and reminding decision-makers and would-be opponents about the true facts, and the many positive effects of affordable workforce housing – not just for tenants but for the entire surrounding community – we will begin to break down the opposition. We also need to work more closely with state legislatures as well as local officials to gain their assistance in advocating for more affordable housing and helping make sure their constituents understand the truth about its many benefits. If we do that, we can and will change the terms of the public debate about affordable housing, reduce the costs and delays of NIMBYism, and embolden decision-makers to do the right thing.
Michael Costa is president of Long Beach-based Simpson Housing Solutions, LLC, an affordable housing developer, and a board member of the Campaign for Affordable Housing. He is also a member of Affordable Housing Finance magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board.