Developers, state policy representatives and housing advocates from up and down the Central Valley convened in Stockton last Thursday at the annual San Joaquin Valley Affordable Housing Summit to discuss one of the biggest issues to face the region in the coming years: affordable housing.
Long a California laggard in terms of economic growth, the valley’s population is set to boom in the coming decades faster than any other region in the state. The University of the Pacific Business Forecasting Center predicts that San Joaquin County is set to pass the 1 million mark by 2035 — a surge of 300,000 people in the next 21 years. According to the Summit’s speakers, this surge will certainly stress a region that already has issues providing housing that residents can reasonably afford.
And according to William Jahmal Miller, deputy director of the state’s Office of Health Equity, a median-priced home now costs two in three California residents more than one-third of their income, which is the federal threshold for housing affordability. That means many residents find themselves in suboptimal housing, especially in San Joaquin and other counties in the valley where wages are lower and unemployment rates higher than in the rest of the state.
The situation gets worse for those who rely on welfare or disability. An individual receiving Social Security for a permanent disability, for example, can expect $877 a month in benefits — meaning housing costs and utilities must be less than $300 a month to be truly affordable. It’s even lower for a single-parent family relying on welfare. Finding that kind of rate for habitable housing on the open market is nearly impossible, pointing to the problems facing those at the bottom of the Central Valley’s income gradient.
But it’s not just cost that makes housing in the valley problematic and a critical issue going forward, according to those at the summit. The region also suffers from more air pollution than most of California, creating health problems. Indicators of economic opportunity — from educational attainment to employment rates — trend lower for this region than the rest of the state. There is a lack of adequate public transportation connecting cities organized by suburban templates and other infrastructure to assist those who are stretched to the limit.
“It’s not just about affordability,” said Housing California executive director Shamus Roller. “It’s about stability, health and opportunity.”
These problems were widely acknowledged by those who spoke at the Thursday conference. So were many roadblocks to alleviating them.
Developers that build houses or apartments to sell at below market rate cannot typically make the projects pencil out financially without a financial boost. Tom Collishaw, CEO of nonprofit housing- and community development-oriented Self-Help Enterprises, said that a rebounding economy means more projects will be viable. But he and others added that communities including Stockton have lost valuable tools to encourage affordable housing, notably redevelopment agencies, which were abolished by Governor Brown during the Great Recession.
Compounding the problem is that financial assistance available for affordable housing rarely makes its way to Stockton, Fresno or any other Central Valley city. In the competition for state and federal money, Stockton doesn’t qualify as “rural,” and therefore must compete against San Francisco, Los Angeles and other large urban centers for limited funding. Often, that leaves Central Valley cities — and their homeless, near-homeless, and under-housed individuals — on the outside looking in.
Despite the challenges, those at the summit suggested courses of action that could make a difference going forward. They suggested sustained advocacy from leaders both elected and appointed is needed for Central Valley cities like Stockton to make themselves visible and viable targets for money and support. Speakers also encouraged agencies and governments that deal with housing-related issues to see everything as an interconnected web, rather than sticking issues of housing affordability into distinct silos such as “education” and “housing cost.”
The takeaway message is that it will take a concerted, continued effort among many people to ensure the valley’s housing stock meets anticipated needs and that planners must consider those at the lowest end of the income totem pole when building for the future.