It’s no secret that housing is expensive in California. For long-time homeowners, rising home values have been a boon. But for the millions in California and the thousands in Fullerton who don’t own homes, housing affordability has risen to the level of a crisis.
Fullerton, along with all cities in California, is about to release its Housing Element. This is a plan required by the State every eight years in which cities must plan for a variety of housing types. Cities don’t build housing, but they have a lot of control over what types of housing gets built and where.
An important part of the Housing Element is the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). The State department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) projects a need for housing based on population, overcrowding, overpayment for housing, and other data. They take that State number and allocate it locally and then it’s up to local jurisdictions (city or county) to look at their land and identify available sites for housing development.
The current RHNA projects a need for Fullerton to build 13,209 units over the next eight years. This represents a significant increase from the last RHNA allocation of 1,841 units.
The housing units are spread across four categories based on income: very low, low, moderate, and above moderate (also called market rate).
During the last RHNA cycle, Fullerton (like most Orange County cities) far exceeded its RHNA targets for above moderate housing and fell far short of its targets for low and very low-income housing.
“We have seen the development of new housing becoming available, but it hasn’t been housing that is affordable for working families,” Cesar Covarrubias, executive director of the Kennedy Commission, said.
The Kennedy Commission is an Orange County-based non-profit that works on expanding housing opportunities for low-income families through public policy and systemic change.
Jane Reifer, of Friends for a Livable Fullerton, is concerned that despite new developments adding density and impacts to crumbling City infrastructure, they will not help meet the City’s affordable housing goals.
“The challenge is to make sure that we have affordable housing options, but without losing what makes Fullerton unique, distinct and authentic. The reality is that only a small percentage of what’s actually being built now is affordable. For example, of the 933 new for-profit units under consideration right now, only 18 are affordable (2%). Even adding in a 59 unit non-profit project that’s 100% affordable, only 7% of what’s currently planned is affordable. At this rate, despite massive increases and impacts, we won’t get significantly closer to meeting our goals.”
One key driver of the housing affordability crisis is the fact that wages have not kept pace with rising housing costs. According to an Affordable Housing Needs Report produced by the Kennedy Commission in May of 2021, renters in Orange County need to earn $39.48 per hour (2.8 times the State minimum wage) to afford the average monthly asking rent of $2,053.
In Orange County, one needs to earn at least $162,000 a year to afford a median priced home at $826,000. At this minimum qualifying income, only 21% of Orange County households could afford the monthly housing payment of $4,050.
In short, a large percentage of working families have been locked out of the housing market and are “rent burdened,” meaning they spend over 30% of their income on rent or mortgage. More than 58% of households that rent and more than 32% of households that own are considered “rent burdened.”
At the far ends of the income spectrum, the numbers get even bleaker. Eighty-two percent of extremely low-income households are paying more than half their income on housing costs compared to just 1% of moderate-income households.
Housing and economic insecurity take their toll. Some, such as homelessness, is seen by the general public, and some is unseen, such as overcrowded housing.
Barry Ross has been leading an initiative through Providence/St. Jude hospital called Housing is Health. This initiative seeks to prevent homelessness and advocates for affordable housing because these are also public health issues.
“I think what’s most striking is that the average life expectancy of homeless people is about 20 years less than the housed population,” Ross said. “If you’re homeless, you’re going to live a shorter life.”
Also, because of overcrowded housing conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionate impact on lower income communities, often communities of color.
“One of the things we saw with the pandemic was higher rates of COVID infection in the most crowded neighborhoods in Orange County,” Ross added. “People who lived in less crowded housing, their rates of infection were lower.”
Given the enormous need for affordable housing, how can it get built? In the past, various forces have blocked or delayed affordable housing projects—everything from a lack of funding to the voices of angry neighbors at City Councils saying, “Not in my backyard.” This latter notion has its own acronym in housing circles—NIMBY.
Fullerton resident Jaymes Dunsmore is part of a growing movement in California that is trying to flip the NIMBY narrative. As part of a local group called People for Housing, Dunsmore calls himself a YIMBY, meaning “Yes in my backyard.” People for Housing is part of a larger statewide advocacy group called YIMBY Action.
One thing that YIMBYs like Dunsmore do is show up at City Council and Planning Commission meetings and speak in favor of large housing projects. From his perspective, the housing crisis comes down to an issue of supply and demand.
“It really comes down to the fact that we haven’t been building enough housing,” Dunsmore said.
He is not wrong. According to reporting from CalMatters, “Over the past few decades, California hasn’t built enough housing to keep up with the number of people who live here. The State housing department estimates that we need to build 180,000 new housing units a year to keep prices stable. Over the past 10 years, we’ve averaged less than half of that.”
Dunsmore is in favor of more housing at all levels, from affordable to market rate, and a key policy goal of YIMBY Action is to make it easier for developers to build more housing. Two recent bills that came out of the YIMBY movement are SB9 and SB10, which allow for more density in single family neighborhoods and near transit.
Cesar Covarrubias from the Kennedy commission agrees with Dunsmore that we need more housing production, but he believes that the greatest need is for affordable housing.
He points to the fact that, over the past eight years, 31 out of 34 cities in Orange County exceeded their RHNA targets for above moderate housing, and only six out of 34 cities met their allocations for lower income. Thus, for him, that is where cities need to focus their priorities.
Covarrubias believes Fullerton should adopt an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring developers of market rate housing to set aside a percentage of units as affordable. Irvine has an inclusionary housing ordinance of 15%. Fullerton does not have one.
Funding is often a barrier to building affordable housing. Covarrubias believes it’s time for the County to float a housing bond.
At the state level, the Surplus Land Act has allowed cities (including Fullerton) to leverage city-owned land to get affordable housing built. In fact, at their October 19 meeting, Fullerton City Council selected a developer to build affordable housing on a City-owned lot at 1600 W. Commonwealth.
Local nonprofit Pathways of Hope originally proposed affordable housing for the formerly homeless on this site in 2018 and, due to intense neighborhood opposition, the project was tabled. Because of the Surplus Land Act, the project was revived, although Pathways is no longer involved.
David Gillanders, executive director of Pathways of Hope, says that on top of all the right policy decisions, what is also needed is creativity, willingness, and boldness by local leaders and residents. Local leaders need to “make the hard choices necessary to preserve the solvency of their communities and not just rely on what makes people mad…Absent that leadership we’re not going to get any of this.”
Fullerton is about to release its Housing Element. For questions and comments, contact Planning Manager Heather Allen, at Heather.Allen@cityoffullerton.com.
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