Business & Economy

One state, unaffordable: Your housing questions, answered

Rising rents and soaring home prices are making the California Dream more and more difficult to achieve.
Rising rents and soaring home prices are making the California Dream more and more difficult to achieve.
cyclotourist / Flickr

The cost of living in California keeps on climbing. There’s just not enough housing to keep up with the demand of a growing economy.

It’s a crisis that has strengthened calls for rent control, left many on the brink of financial ruin and dimmed the dream of a California retirement.

We asked for your questions about affording a home in the Golden State, and then we brought together reporters, experts and lawmakers to help us answer them in an hour-long special called California Dream: “One State, Unaffordable.”

Here are some highlights:

Why is it so expensive to buy or rent a place in California?

We heard this question over and over, so we put it to our panel: Ben Metcalf, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development; Bernadette Austin, associate director of the UC Davis Center for Regional Change; and CALmatters housing reporter Matt Levin.

Levin summed it up this way: “Fundamentally, California has not built enough housing to keep up with demand.”

We need about 180,000 units of new housing every year just to keep pace, he said, and the state averages less than half of that.

Metcalf said there are a lot of reasons why the state hasn’t built enough, including losing some of the construction labor force in the recession, increased building costs and the "very practical challenge" of people being concerned about change in their communities.

And Austin noted that not only is there a housing shortage, but also, it’s become harder to meet the financial standards for homeownership, so more people who would like to buy a home are stuck renting — adding pressure to the rental market.

How do one-size-fits-all laws at the state level negatively impact cost of living issues for urban vs. rural areas? 
    — Heidi Hansen, Lincoln

We posed this question to state Sen. Scott Weiner of San Francisco, who authored SB 827, a controversial bill which would have forced cities to allow taller, denser development around public transit.

“The reality is that housing is a statewide problem in California,” he said. “It is not a city-by-city issue. No city by itself can solve the housing crisis. When every city acts together, we can.”

Weiner said that cities and neighborhoods have strong incentives to limit housing development, and that we need to have statewide standards, similar to what we have for public education.

“We would never say that any local school can do anything they want. We set state standards and the local control exists within those standards,” he said. “And that's what we need to do with housing. So it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. It's about saying this is a statewide problem with a statewide deficit of 3.5 million homes, and we need to address it at a state level.”

What projects are you putting together to house older people that have a little bit of income that are one step away from the street? What are you going to do to house people like that?
    — Marigold Hernly, San Diego

Sen. Weiner said there’s a huge population of vulnerable seniors in California, and we need to be aggressively investing in low-incoming housing as a safety net for those at the lower end of the economic ladder. He also said that rent control can be particularly helpful for this group.

"The last thing we need is to have more and more homeless or marginally housed seniors," he said. "These are people who have spent their lifetime in our state and our communities and they deserve the absolute basic dignity of being able to remain in housing, or, if they need new housing, to be able to find that housing."

Why no discussion of zoning? Cause is simple: not enough housing. Solution is simple: build more housing!
    — Matthew Stevens

CapRadio’s Ben Bradford has been reporting on the barriers to building more housing in California, and he said “it comes down to the almost philosophical way our cities approve housing.”

He recently spoke with UC Berkeley environmental law professor Eric Biber, who’s part of a team of researchers looking at barriers to housing development.

Many developers claim that a sweeping environmental law called CEQA is the biggest impediment to housing. But Biber said the bigger issue is that landowners are often resistant to new development around them. Local governments face pressure from constituents, who “want to have control over how their city develops,” he said.

“The reason that CEQA is both triggered and used as a lawsuit is to respond to underlying political fights at the local level about development,” Biber said. “And those political fights would occur anyway.”

This is just a sample of the questions we heard from people concerned about the cost of living in California.

You can hear more answers in our hour-long special “One State, Unaffordable,” produced as a part of the California Dream project — a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

We’re also continuing the conversation in our CA Dream Facebook group. It’s a community full of people making a life here in California. You can join here.