California Tops Nation Least Affordable Housing

Timothy L. Coyle
Consultant specializing in housing issues

Nearly all of the nation’s top 20 least affordable housing markets are in California.  The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and Wells Fargo Bank report that 18 of the country’s most unaffordable regions are in the Golden State, including all of the top 10. 

As usual, San Francisco and its peninsula communities led the way with the greatest mismatch of prices and income – only nine percent of the households there had enough steady pay to buy a home in the area.  The Los Angeles metropolitan area ran a close second.

And, it’s not just the state’s coastal areas that were found to be experiencing this income/home-price mis-match.  Merced, Napa and Salinas were all in the top ten, with Stockton/Lodi not far behind.  Supply is on trial inland.

“Though low mortgage rates and favorable demographics have helped spur demand, a lack of inventory exacerbated by supply issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to rising home prices,” said NAHB Chairman Chuck Fowke.

Indeed, the lack of an adequate supply of housing hurts everyone.  Even existing property owners are faced with supply factors in learning what little distance into existing markets their exceptional home sales proceeds reach.    

Today, in order to meet California’s new housing demand – including its chronically unmet need – would require producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 units annually.  That’s well in excess of the 100,000 or so homes produced in the Golden State last year.  

To accomplish even a modest increase in housing production will require a profound change in attitude – and some heavy lifting in the state Legislature and at City Hall.  

Attitudes today among most of our political leaders in California are largely hostile to new housing, despite their “endearing” words for homeless people and the more widely un-housed.  In truth, the contrast between the words and actions of politicians defines them all – those who could actually do something about the crisis – as hypocrites.  They’re no better than that.

On top of the myriad regulations they already impose on development, over the years state and local elected officials have unleashed a typhoon of preferences and requirements on which housing has to deliver to get project approval.  

Whether they were aiming to promote affordability or energy savings politicos have systematically ignored housing markets and simply have asked housing to do too much.  They’re not inclined to pull back, either.

As said, attitudes have to change before anything meaningful can be done to turn things around.  When they do, however, here are a few reforms legislators and members of city councils or county boards should consider:

  • Restore redevelopment, to provide a steady and reliable source of cash for affordable housing construction and rehabilitation;
  • Scrap the state’s housing element law and replace it with large financial/infrastructure payments for locally approved housing;
  • Abolish local inclusionary zoning which kills new production.  Instead, by combining redevelopment funds with more land banking – and greater flexibility –  more affordable housing opportunities can equitably be created;
  • Consolidate and cap local fees development-impact fees; and
  • Repeal CEQA and replace it with a process for one and only one locally performed – and much trimmer – environmental review of a housing project.

That’s a start at systematically making more affordable housing in California.

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