Commentary: Is It Really As Simple As Build More Homes?

Photo by Brandon Griggs on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – On a local front as we head into 2023, the issues for me remain—housing, affordable housing, homelessness and, beneath that, mental health and substance abuse.  While there are a few other issues that pop up, many of those are tied up into those.

As noted from citywide surveys, over the last six years or so, the community recognizes that affordability of housing is a problem.  What they are willing to do about it is in question and subject to debate that will likely find its way into a General Plan update discussion.

The reality is that Davis is not unique in this respect.  Davis has enacted some barriers to additional housing that creates a heightened challenge, but this is a problem that seems to exist across the state.

A recent op-ed in the LA Times bears this out.

Michael Lens is a professor of urban planning and public policy, and associate faculty director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA.

He argued that Southern California is facing several housing crises.

For one thing, so-called starter homes “cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

For another, “Rent burdens are crushing the working-class tenant majority.”

Moreover, “Los Angeles’ lower-income neighborhoods are the most rapidly gentrifying communities in the entire country, pricing out many.”

However, Lens argues, “None of these symptoms of our housing policy failures, however, are as tragic as the homelessness crisis. Despite investments in supportive housing and services, the number of Angelenos who struggle to stay housed has remained unacceptably high.”

While Los Angeles may be worse than many places, it is by no means alone.

A report from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) released last week showed that California is now home to 30 percent of the US homeless population—roughly 172,000 homeless people.  And it has the largest rate of increase in the nation, at 6.2 percent.

“The data is unfortunately, heartbreaking, but not a surprise,” said Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown in a recent interview with ABC 10 in Sacramento. “In fact, I would say from my end, the numbers are actually underestimated.”

Dr. Shankar-Brown is the president of the National Coalition for the Homeless.  Worse yet, California accounted for half of all unsheltered people in the country.

“In California, we’ve continued to see compounding issues,” said Shankar-Brown. “One, again, the lack of affordable housing being a tremendous issue. Housing is not affordable. It is not accessible for so many, rent prices have continued to surge, and all while many do not have a fair living wage or wages have also not continued to keep up.”

In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass has attempted to prioritize homelessness by declaring a statement of emergency.

Michael Lens points out that while this is unusual for “a human-made disaster” the approach “gives her power to convert hotel rooms into housing, sign master leases for entire buildings and expedite housing approvals. She is determined to see more temporary shelters and subsidized housing be built.”

Lens is critical of this approach however, noting, “Moving people into temporary quarters might seem like the only quick solution, but any approach that relies on shelters runs counter to the research evidence that permanent housing solutions are both less costly and more effective.”

He points out, “Getting people off the street makes only a small dent in the problem if those people are replaced by new distressed renters.”

Here’s the kicker: “Bass has spoken only about subsidized housing. Subsidized housing is essential, but stopping the flow of people into homelessness requires building more housing of all kinds, including market rate.”

This is the problem across the board, but Los Angeles provides an important example of it.

“We do not build enough homes,” Lens argues.  “Research is clear that more housing production in a region is necessary to keep housing costs affordable.”

This is an important argument because we have seen a lot of people arguing for subsidized housing as the solution of the affordability crisis to the exclusion of market rate housing.

Lens attempts to correct this misconception.

He argues, “People often cast subsidized and market-rate housing against each other, but they are complementary.”

For one thing, he argues, “Allowing more and faster production of market-rate housing can slow the pace at which rent rises and make our housing subsidy dollars go further.”

In previous pieces, we have cited research that shows that building more housing either reduces the cost of existing housing or, at the very least, slows the rate of increase.

There are other barriers to housing.  Yesterday, we noted that so far attempts to bring in more multi-family housing through legislation like SB 9 have not yielded results.

We noted the history of restrictive zoning as not only increasing housing costs but helping to keep people of color out of single family neighborhoods.

Lens points out another problem.

He writes that “what many residents know best about the supportive housing built or in production through Proposition HHH is that it costs more than $500,000 per unit to build. The cost to the city and its taxpayers is approximately $120,000 per unit, because HHH funds represent only one layer in a complicated financing stack.”

But he adds “our restrictive zoning and land use policies reduce the available parcels where housing can be built with HHH funds or other subsidies, and makes land acquisition costs extremely high. Neighborhood opposition also makes it hard to build even on publicly owned land.”

Lens points out that many critics cite gentrification as a reason for limiting new market-rate housing, “assuming that new housing makes neighborhoods more attractive and expensive.”

We see this argument a lot in various forms.

But Lens cites studies that show that “even in lower-income neighborhoods, housing production helps keep rents from rising faster than when we do not build at all.”

He acknowledges, “This is counterintuitive, but developers are often responding to the conditions that cause rents to rise, not making them increase through housing production.”

Instead, he argues, “When we don’t build housing, the gentrifiers can choose only among existing housing units, most of which already have renters. Landlords can (and will) decide not to renew leases or will hike rents up so high that the incumbent renters must leave.”

He adds, “If we build new housing, the neighborhood will still change, but incoming renters have somewhere to go that’s not already occupied.”

It’s not that subsidized homes are not part of the solution, it’s that only subsidized homes isn’t a practical solution.

Lens argues, “It would be great if we could build enough subsidized homes for the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, doing this would require billions of dollars, especially if we do not take the hard steps to make it easier to build.”

In the end, he concludes “if we don’t build more housing of all types, we are sustaining homelessness, not solving it.”

That goes not only for homelessness but for housing affordability. Unfortunately, until people recognize this, housing affordability will become an even larger problem and these forces will continue to alter local communities—especially our own.


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 thoughts on “Commentary: Is It Really As Simple As Build More Homes?”

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I wrote: “The reality is that Davis is not unique in this respect. Davis has enacted some barriers to additional housing that creates a heightened challenge, but this is a problem that seems to exist across the state.”

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