The divide between housing prices and what people can afford is troubling, especially in California, where we have some of the highest housing costs in the nation. The problem is especially acute in Alhambra where city policies and actions have been off-the-mark, while a significant portion of our community is struggling financially.
In June of this year, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing cities to enact affordable housing ordinances to help address this crisis. Such an ordinance would require developers to set aside a percentage of a project’s units for sale at below market-rate prices.
A comparison of our population’s economic status against our affordable housing inventory shows a gap between the two. Too many within our city have lower incomes that make it difficult to stay afloat given the cost of living. Forty-two percent of our households are classified as lower income, which is defined as households with a combined gross income of less than 80 percent of the area median family income (MFI). For a family of four, this is equivalent to a combined gross income of less than $50,400. For a family of two, it is $40,320.
For those long-time homeowners in Alhambra who haven’t had to deal with today’s rents or mortgages, it may come as a surprise that these figures are considered low-income, since such salaries provided a reasonably comfortable living in their day. The jobs are the same: teachers, first responders, and technicians, to name a few. And they are no less critical to a functioning city today. But wages have not kept pace with housing costs.
California has the highest housing costs in the nation outside of Hawaii. Home prices are more than double and rents 50 percent more than the national average. What this means for most Alhambrans is that housing is the dominant household expense. To just get by, the rule of thumb is that you do not want to spend more than 30 percent of the household income on rent and utilities. For a family of four making $50,400, they would generally not want to pay more than $1,000 on rent. Good luck finding this within the city for a family of four.
In recognition of the problem, the state mandates cities have a plan for addressing the lack of affordable housing. But what, exactly, is affordable housing? It is defined as housing where monthly payments and utilities are no more than 30 percent of a qualified household’s gross monthly income. And qualified households are those from moderate and below income levels, as defined by the following:
Extremely Low Income: 30 percent or less of median family income (MFI)
Very Low Income: 30 percent to 50 percent of MFI
Low Income: 50 percent to 80 percent of MFI
Moderate Income: 80 percent to 120 percent of MFI
(MFI in Alhambra is $63,000 a year for a family of four)
It is also important to note that affordable housing within Alhambra is not public housing, which is housing owned by the government. Instead, affordable housing policy in Alhambra dictates that developers and/or non-profits generate below-market rate units that are often times interspersed with those at market rates.
But a review of the city’s lower-income affordable housing stock shows that 90 percent of the units are off-limits to families and restricted to seniors only. When considering the affordable rental units only, which is more likely of use to lower income groups, that number goes up to 99 percent. Such biased developments are not compatible with our population’s needs. Seniors comprise only 13 percent of our population and only 11 percent of those in need of affordable housing. Families with children have a much greater need and comprise a much higher percentage of the lower income groups. In the Alhambra Unified School District, an astounding 65 percent of our children qualify for free or reduced meal lunches, yet 99 percent of affordable rental housing stock is off-limits to them.
How did we get here? From 1989 to 2008, Alhambra had discriminatory policies in place that heavily incentivized developers to restrict affordable housing to seniors only. It offered developers the opportunity to build four times the number of such units per acre when compared to non-age-restricted affordable developments. One cannot discount the need of seniors, but they make up only 11 percent of Alhambrans in need of affordable housing, so why did the city largely ignore everyone else?
The need for affordable housing is undeniable. Some say that any housing helps the cause. But without city government interaction, the market will invariably alienate the lower income groups. In the case of Alhambra, developments are targeting overseas money without adequate consideration for those in need in our city. To make matters worse, the city subsidizes these developments with the same type of incentives that should be reserved for developers who provide affordable units; these incentives include allowing more units per acre, reduced parking standards, and a lack of open space to make them financially attractive to developers. For example, the Casita de Zen project on 239 W. Main St. was allowed to build over two and one-half times more units while providing half the total open space and 12 percent less parking than our normal R3 zoning standards, and it was done so without any affordable units in exchange. The apartments being built on the old Mervyn’s site are being developed with over twice the number of units, half the open space, and 18 percent less parking than our standard, yet they will rent at luxury rates touted at $1,900-a-month for a one-bedroom apartment. In Alhambra, developers are being given the breaks, but the city isn’t asking for the affordable units in return.
The state supreme court’s recent ruling is in part a response to such abuses. Going forward, it is important that the city do a better job at addressing the needs of its people by demanding developers set aside affordable units or pay into a pool for such developments. Assemblyman Ed Chau is trying to push an update to inclusionary zoning law in AB-744 that allows developers more waivers when building affordable, special needs, and senior housing. Critics of this bill say that developers may use it to take advantage of those waivers to get around restrictions on parking. In the case of Alhambra, they’re already getting such benefits without having to provide any affordable or special needs housing.
Alhambra needs to demand more of their developers, especially those given such subsidies. Affordability and community-oriented design should be a part of every residential development and not the exception. And all parties need to be held accountable. The formation of a housing commission would be a step in the right direction. It would be responsible for ensuring a proper return to the community for developments that receive subsidies, protecting the existing stock of affordable units, and for developing an affordable housing ordinance. We are now a step closer in that direction thanks to the recent state supreme court decision.
In the interest of full disclosure, the Source would like to note that Eric Sunada had previously served on the city's planning commission, parks and recreation commission, and was a board member representing Alhambra on the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District. In 2014, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the city council.