How William Huang brought affordable housing to Pasadena

Photo courtesy of William Huang.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

In 2008, the Pasadena City Council created a department of housing to create, finish and promote affordable housing projects. The city tapped William Huang, housing director for Los Angeles County, to lead the department.

Since then, Huang has overseen the construction of multiple homeless and low-income senior housing projects. He’s also in charge of the city’s programs for Section 8 tenants, first-time homebuyers, housing stock preservation and inclusionary housing for new developments. Huang will be the keynote speaker at Grassroots Alhambra’s first-ever affordable housing forum on April 28. He sat down with the Alhambra Source to talk about what cities can do to meaningfully address California’s affordable housing crisis. Excerpts from the interview follow.

How Pasadena’s Housing and Careers Services Department was created

Housing was an issue, important enough for the City of Pasadena to start a new department focused solely on housing. The development of affordable housing is very complex – the financing is layered and it’s difficult. And they had a handful of affordable housing projects that were attempted here in Pasadena and didn’t get completed and got stalled out, because housing at that time was just a function of the planning department. And so they wanted to create a department that could really focus on it and build up the expertise to complete these projects.

We have successfully accomplished that goal of completing affordable housing projects here in Pasadena. I can tell you the last two projects that we opened, one was a 70-unit very low-income senior housing project. And then the other was a 20-unit project for homeless families, permanent housing for homeless families. These were two of the examples of the stalled projects, so we got them completed and we opened them and they’ve been very successful.

What’s changed since Huang first started as housing director

The housing crisis has gotten exponentially worse. And it’s primarily a matter of economics. The cost of housing has been rising at a much faster rate than incomes. So that means that more and more of a household’s budget has to go towards housing and housing is already typically the largest line item in a household budget. And so that item keeps getting bigger every year. It’s become a real crisis, not just for low-income people, but also for moderate-income and middle-class families are really struggling to get into housing. College graduates are struggling to afford housing, especially if they’re carrying student loan debt. And this is just to rent. To buy is even harder.

One of the outcomes of the Great Recession was that it put a lot more pressure on the rental market. Because normally what happens is people rent for a while, they save money and then they transition into a homeowner, right? And so they vacate an apartment and that apartment becomes available for somebody else. During the Great Recession, people were not able to cycle out of rental housing, because things like credit got much more difficult to achieve and a lot of people were looking at the homeownership market, which was going down at the time, saying, “Well, I’m not sure I want to buy. I’m gonna stay here as a renter.” And then you have people whose homes were getting foreclosed on. Once they got foreclosed on, they had to live somewhere. They became renters. So you have all this pressure building up in the rental market and it’s created an exceptionally tight rental market with prices going really high and yet vacancies still very low.

And now the average home sale price, those have also rebounded and those are also going up. It’s making it very difficult for people who want to transition out of renting to become a homeowner.

So you have a very compacted rental market and a lot of folks can’t even participate and end up homeless. They end up doubled up. They end up back with their parents. They end up all over the place, but you can look at the homeless numbers and you can see that there’s 58,000 homeless people in L.A. County on any given day. It’s a crisis. So it’s very difficult. It’s a very difficult issue. It’s gotten much worse and it’s that much more challenging.

Creating homeless housing

In Pasadena, which I think is not different from the rest of the county, the primary reason people become homeless is just economic. They can’t even afford to live doubled up with roommates and stuff. They can’t even afford their share. A lot of homeless people are working. People are surprised by that. A lot of homeless people work full-time, but on minimum wage, you cannot afford an apartment. You can’t save up for a first and a last [month’s rent] and if you do get an apartment and then you get sick and you don’t have sick leave, you lose your apartment, because you can’t make your payment.

We’re seeing a big issue with the number of homeless seniors. And these are not people who have been homeless out on the streets for decades and decades. These are people who are becoming homeless for the first time in their life! You know, the average social security payment is $1,300 a month. A one-bedroom apartment here in Pasadena is over $2,200 a month. There’s no way that they can pay for rent and still eat and take care of their health. So we’re seeing a rapid increase in homeless seniors. And a lot of us who are or have taken care of our parents, if not for our care, our parents would be homeless too. Because they wouldn’t have been able to afford it. I mean, my dad passed away a couple of years ago, but he had a master’s degree. He had his own business for years and years. He was an engineer. And still, he got $1,100 a month in social security. Except for family help, there’s no way that he could afford a place.

The only thing that ends homelessness is a permanent home. [Laughs] You know, it’s not rocket science. But providing a permanent home, if you’re talking about somebody who is chronically homeless, who has severe issues, who has mental health, maybe chronic physical health or substance abuse issues, they also need a significant amount of services. Just putting them into housing is not going to do it, because they’re not gonna be able to remain in housing. So the model that keeps chronically homeless individuals in housing at over 90 percent is what’s called supportive housing. It’s not a shelter bed, but a permanent housing unit with services. Whatever kind of services they need, they can get those services. That keeps them into housing.

So that family housing project that I mentioned, that 20-unit one, that’s what it is. It’s permanent housing, so they can stay there, as long as they pay their rent, follow the rules and it has a lot of services that are available for the residents. So the residents are doing really, really well. The project has been open, I think, about a year-and-a-half and when the households first moved in, two of them had working adults and I believe that the number is like 17 of them have working adults now, because their housing has gotten stabilized. So permanent housing is something that’s really important.

The most difficult aspect about permanent housing is finding a location, because a lot of elected officials and a lot of communities are afraid of this kind of housing. The 20-unit project – we call it Marv’s Place. Marv’s Place is the nicest building in its neighborhood. And nobody know it’s housing for homeless families. It just looks like really nice – it actually looks like luxury housing. It’s not, but it looks like that. It’s very well designed. It’s very quiet. It’s very well managed. It hasn’t lowered anybody’s property values, hasn’t increased crime in the neighborhood, anything like that. And so when it’s done well and it’s done right, these kinds of developments are actually positive for neighborhoods and for business communities, because you don’t have people sleeping on the streets anymore or living in cars and alleys and places like that. They have a permanent place to live, where they can stabilize their lives and they can become very positive, very productive.

Affordable rental housing

There’s [also] a real need for affordable rental housing. Like I’ve mentioned, we’ve developed the 70-unit very low income senior housing project. We had 28 applications for every available unit. So it’s a huge demand for affordable rental housing. And then we do have affordable home-ownership housing for first-time homebuyers. We have an 11-unit project and we have, I think, a 22-unit project under construction right now. So these will go to households at low and moderate income. Because otherwise they would never be able to buy a place in Pasadena.

The City of Pasadena has as one of its core values that a dynamic city is a diverse city. So we also need economic diversity in the city. Pasadena tries pretty hard to produce housing opportunities for folks who are at moderate income and below. There are about 50,000 housing units in Pasadena. And we have about 4,000 units that are affordable or that people live in using a rental subsidy, like a Section 8 subsidy.

Preserving Pasadena’s affordable housing stock

Let’s see. This 22-unit building will finish. This 11-unit building will finish. And then we have another, probably another 40-60 units in market-rate developments that are gonna be affordable. Because Pasadena has what’s called an inclusionary housing ordinance. And what inclusionary housing ordinances do is they require apartment and condo developers to set aside 15 percent of their units as affordable. Every year – recently, anyway – we’ve been producing anywhere between 40-60 of those units.

We also do a good amount of work that affordable housing people call preservation. It’s not the same as historic preservation. What that means is that there are already existing affordable housing projects that are 30, 40 years old that need to be rehabbed in order to extend their useful life. There’s no sense in building new units while you’re losing existing units. You don’t want these existing units to become uninhabitable. You don’t want these existing units to be sold for market rate.

We also have a very robust program to help existing low and moderate-income homeowners to be able to maintain their homes, to be able to stay in Pasadena. We have a collaboration called Under One Roof. We have a lot of seniors for instance on a fixed income but who own their home. But they can’t afford to maintain their homes. Especially in Pasadena, a lot of these homes are very old, early 1900 to 1920s homes. And so we have a program where they can get their house painted, they can get a handicapped ramp built. They can get solar. They can get their lawns — turf termination program, their thirsty lawns replaced with a smart irrigation system and drought tolerant landscaping. They can get attic insulation. They can get water heaters, energy star refrigerators, a whole slew of things free. And then if they need something bigger, like if they need a new roof, then we have a very low interest rate loan program that they can use to get that done.

Creating affordable granny flats

We proposed a concept last night to a council sub-committee that was received very positively. We got some really good feedback on this program. These are some pilot programs to help promote accessory dwelling units.

So ADUs are granny flats. We’ve proposed two pilot programs. One is very basic and that is to deal with illegal garage conversions, existing illegal garage conversions. Because these are illegal units, that means the construction was never permitted. And that means it’s very likely that some or all of that construction is substandard. This creates a safety hazard. Throughout L.A. County there are people who have died in illegal garage conversion fires, carbon monoxide poisoning, things like that, because these buildings are not built up to code. And so we’re proposing to provide a very low rate interest loan to bring these illegal garage conversions up to code.

And then we’re proposing a second pilot for ADUs. And this is to create new ADUs. And one of the big hurdles in creating an ADU is just, “Where do you get the money to pay for it?” These things could cost anywhere from $50,000 to $125,000 to build a new ADU, depending on whether you’re converting a garage or if you’re building a ground up structure. So we’re proposing to provide a short term loan, a loan that would go up to five years, that would enable the homeowner to build the ADU, but they must hand it out to a rental assistance household. Rental assistance is like the Section 8 program. And they need to do that for seven years. So we’ll provide them with this very low interest rate loan and in exchange they would basically create an affordable unit. So that’s the pilot that we proposed and so they were both very well received because those are both real issues in Pasadena. And hopefully, this year we’ll get those programs up and running, subject to City Council approval.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

To learn more about the potential of permanent supportive housing, watch this video on Marv’s Place, a 20-unit apartment building for formerly homeless families in Pasadena.

Updated Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at 10:11 p.m. with Marv’s Place video.

4 thoughts on “How William Huang brought affordable housing to Pasadena”

  1. I agree there is a need for affordable housing.. my problem with your solution of forcing developers to carry the burden of lowering the costs of housing. It may sound callous however I’ve seen it before where these designated low income units are sold and on resale they take the money the builder should have earned… and the city is in the exact same position. Except now the builder doesn’t want to work in a city that price fixes 15 percent of their project. You mix apples and oranges when you discuss homes for sale and home as a solution to the homeless problem… Those homes are supposed to be short term temporary to get people back on their feet. If the government gets into that business… they should carry the financial burden… not the private sector..

  2. Linda Trevillian

    This article is very informative, and I hope that Alhambra’s city leaders (City Council members and those on the various commissions, plus city staff) will take the opportunity to read it. When I think of the huge development on Fremont south of the San Bernardino Freeway and how hard a group of us fought to reduce the total number of units and how we practically begged the City Council to require the builders to include a small percentage of affordable units, I still am angry that we did not prevail. And I wonder whether the development schedule for Marengo at Valley includes ANY affordable units at all. And, as Sean mentioned, the Ratkovich Company should be including at least 15 percent in its new development, also. I have lived in Alhambra since 1962, and I know that many other longtime residents besides me (and others who have moved to Alhambra more recently) do not want to see Alhambra become a city where the very rich are the most favored at the expense of everyone else. We need diversity, not just ethnic, also economic. We need to welcome moderate- and low-income residents of all ages, and we need to address the homeless situation before it gets any worse. Pasadena is making strides that Alhambra should do its best to emulate. And it’s time to start right now.

  3. This article outlines a lot of things Alhambra could be doing to address the affordable housing crisis. I hope the Alhambra City Council will consider adopting some of these policies. The Inclusionary Housing Ordinance is an excellent way to create more affordable units in the city. 15% of units in new housing developments must be set aside at affordable rates. 15% of the 1,100 units currently proposed by The Ratkovitch group at The Alhambra development would equal 165 new affordable units. That sounds fair. The Ratkovitch will make a killing on the other 900 units which they received a density bonus from the city council to build.

    1. That’s 165 units that would be quickly resold at full market value not at affordable housing rates…

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