Housing Crisis? What California Has is a Housing Catastrophe

June 2017, Sacramento Bee Opinion

We do a lot of talking about the housing crisis in this state. But I’m beginning to think the word “crisis” isn’t strong enough to convey just how alarmed every Californian should be that the cost of meeting a basic necessity of life – you know, shelter – is devouring entire communities with no signs of slowing down.

Seriously, just check out the data from the latest parade of housing reports.

According to the California Association of Realtors, only 32 percent of households statewide can now afford to buy the median-priced, $496,620 home. In Sacramento County, one of the fastest growing markets in the Golden State, a mere 46 percent of households can afford a home for the median $319,720.

Meanwhile, housing prices in across the southern half of the state have ticked back up to pre-bust levels.

In Los Angeles County, year-over-year median home prices rose almost 6 percent to $550,000, matching the previous all-time high in 2007. Orange County topped its housing-bust high last year and set a new record of $675,000 in April. San Diego County isn’t far behind with a median price that rose 7.4 percent to $525,000.

Where does this leave millennials and younger Generation Xers who would like to build their lives in California? People like me, for example?

The rental market isn’t much better.

Nationally, the median price for rent rose 0.7 percent to $1,412 per month in April, according to a recent report from Zillow. But lucky us. Sacramento and Los Angeles are on the short list of cities with the highest year-over-year growth. Rent here climbed almost 5 percent, while rent in Los Angeles jumped 4 percent.

So, instead of a housing “crisis,” how about we call this a housing “emergency”? Or better yet, a “catastrophe”? Because that’s what it is.

While landlords and developers are pulling in record profits, the people of this state are, in many cases, scrambling just so they don’t end up out on the street. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear a story about a landlord who has suddenly raised the rent by 30, 40 or even 50 percent, and now his tenant has to move out.

What’s more, landlords are becoming so picky that one local advocate for the homeless recently told me that, in Sacramento, many are refusing to rent to people on a fixed income, even grandmothers on disability. And they can get away with it because there’s a ready and willing pool of would-be renters who are eager to fill out applications and plop down thousands of dollars as deposit.

This has become a fairly common situation in midtown Sacramento, where the vacancy rate is less than 2 percent. But, increasingly, it’s also happening in other neighborhoods, such as Oak Park.

Where does this leave millennials and younger Generation Xers who would like to build their lives in California? People like me, for example?

For now, if we’re lucky, it looks like renting until we have a head full of gray hair. A recent survey from ApartmentList.com found millennials in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose will have to wait almost 20 years to save enough money for a 20 percent down payment on a house or a condominium.

If we’re not so lucky, we’ll be living on the streets.

Last week, L.A. County released data from its latest Point in Time count of homeless people and found their numbers jumped by 23 percent over the past year to about 58,000 people. That’s despite getting about 14,000 people off the streets and into permanent housing, using rent subsidies, new construction, outreach and support services.

That’s a suburb, 58,000 people. The cost of housing just outpaced the county’s efforts.

“There’s no sugarcoating the bad news,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We can’t let rents double every year.”

Sacramento County will release it’s Point in Time count in early July, and there’s no reason to believe it will be any better.

Orange County reported an 8 percent jump in its homeless population over the past two years, with more than half of the county’s 4,800 homeless living outside. Santa Monica had a 26 percent spike, reversing years of declining numbers.

Something has to give.

I suppose we should be grateful that the Legislature is finally tackling the housing catastrophe. The Senate passed a package of bills on Thursday, some that streamline regulations to break the near standstill in the residential development and others that creating new sources of funding to build and help Californians access affordable housing. All told, more than 100 such bills were introduced this year.

But what took them so long? Reports like this latest litany of data are eye-opening, but hardly new. This trend has been clear for a long time.

Meanwhile, California has and probably will continue to lose millennials and Gen Xers who refuse to spend more than half of their income on housing. The state also will have more homeless people to get off the streets with less money from the federal government.

Sorry to rant. But there is every reason to be alarmed.