Solving the affordability crisis includes building housing for the homeless

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Ariel Lung/Staff

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Is the Housing Crisis Act, or SB 330, good for me? Is it good for the homeless community? Is it good for minimum wage employees? Is it good for seniors? Or is it good for developers? I set out to answer those questions. So, I read the bill, and read the bill some more. I read other people’s opinions. I read everything I could find. What I didn’t find was a solution to the homeless crisis. I didn’t find a solution to the housing shortage for those with very low incomes. I didn’t find a solution for seniors and disabled persons who are vulnerable to the shortage. What I found was something that was not meant to be understood by the average person. I found that this bill allows developers to pressure cities for approval under threat of penalties. I found that city zoning comes in second. I found that the people have less of a say in what gets built in their neighborhood.

There are many examples I can use for showing this purposeful confusion. But this one stands out.

“Housing units targeted for lower income households shall be made available at a monthly housing cost that does not exceed 30 percent of 60 percent of area median income with adjustments for household size made in accordance with the adjustment factors on which the lower income eligibility limits are based.”

Thirty percent of 60 percent? Why not say 18 percent? Laws like this, which have very real impacts on many vulnerable communities, should be written so that they can be easily understood and utilized.

Another thing that’s confusing is the very concept of “affordable” housing. Because affordable varies from person to person, who decides? Someone with power and influence does. People with influence tend to be paid better, so affordable to them does not mean affordable to a minimum wage earner, a senior, or a disabled person living on a fixed income.

We need more transparency on these complicated issues, and they should be better communicated to those who most need these resources. More than that, we need housing designed especially for the homeless, not just more affordable housing.

California has a poverty rate of 18.2 percent. Poverty, for one person, is $12,784. The reason California has such a high poverty rate is housing costs.  Homelessness is also subject to these forces, with rising housing costs pushing many onto the streets. In 2017, the median income, or average income, was $71,805  in California. The number of billionaires in California is 163, which is more than in any other state. To get a median income, billionaires must be included. Remove the billionaire income, and the California median income is much lower than published figures. Yet median income is used to decide the level of affordability. It’s not a fair standard to base housing costs on when it includes people with no income as well as billionaire CEOs. It favors the rich, not the poor.

Low-income housing should be based on the poorest incomes, not a percentage of median incomes. Housing should cost no more than 30 percent of income. So, for a full-time minimum wage worker in California making $12 an hour, housing should be less than $700 a month. For someone on disabilities who gets what I get, it should be $310 a month.

The estimate is that California needs 180,000 housing units a year to keep up with its growing population. To help with the shortage for the poor, shouldn’t 18.2 percent of those units be for people that are impoverished, to match the poverty rate? There are an “estimated” 129,972 homeless people in the state. Shouldn’t the first 130,000 units be for them? It’s not as if we don’t have room. There are vacancies statewide, with approximately 100,000 empty homes in the San Francisco metro area, and 110,000 empty rental units in Los Angeles. So, there is plenty for those who are doing well. For the rest of us, we compete with each other for the few inexpensive or subsidized units. Those units tend to be substandard and, in my experience, run by slumlords, which is the case with my subsidized unit.

When people are forced to pay a major percentage of their income for housing, they have no money left to spend in locally owned businesses, thus they can’t participate in the local economy. Instead, they often shop at cheaper, big box stores that underpay their employees. Big box stores that prefer automatic checkouts over employee-run registers. Stores that are owned by multi-billionaire families that skew median income levels. When a politician gets into office, they are supposed to represent the least fortunate as well as the affluent. This bill does not do that. It puts the pressure on local officials to approve developments that will not alleviate the major issues but will benefit the developers.

Our economic issues will be solved when greed — and bought-and-paid-for politicians — are removed from the equation. Our housing issues will be solved by building truly affordable housing across the state. We must build housing that seniors and disabled people and minimum wage employees can afford to live in. Housing that does not need to be subsidized by the taxpayer. Only then will small businesses thrive. Only then will people enjoy living again instead of working multiple jobs to still struggle.

Mike Zint is an activist and a co-founder of First They Came for the Homeless.