Need affordable housing? Better be a senior citizen

Affordable housing in Alhambra is largely unavailable to those who need it most. It’s not enough to qualify based on income. For all practical purposes, one also needs to be a senior citizen. Among the low and very low-income housing inventory, 99.2% of units are directed to seniors only.Yet, according to the city’s own findings, those most in need are low-income families – not seniors. Among them are people who are part of our workforce but cannot afford to live and raise a family in the city.

According to the city’s 2010-2015 Consolidated Plan, family households are three times as likely as seniors to be in need of very low or low income housing. Indeed, overall seniors represent only 13% of Alhambra’s population and a mere 11% of the total in need of low income housing.  Why, then, is the affordable housing stock almost exclusively reserved for them?

One reason may be the perception by some that lower-income families are undesirable neighbors. As unjust as it may be, this group has been stigmatized with higher crime rates, substance abuse, an increased need for city services, and lower property values. In Alhambra, one possible explanation is the city’s pro-business climate and policies enacted to minimize perceptions that tarnish its desired image. Geriatrics, after all, do not generally party until 2am.

But those who qualify for low-income housing are unjustly seen as pariahs.  Studies for the western San Gabriel Valley have shown occupations that would qualify as low income include security guards, paramedics, carpenters, computer technicians, and barbers among others – the very people who contribute to a successful city.

Households within the 49th Assembly District (Assemblymember Mike Eng)who would benefit from affordable housing


Although Alhambra is not alone in the tendency to reserve affordable housing for seniors, no other city in the San Gabriel Valley dedicates such a large percentage. Pasadena has a senior population with similar proportions to Alhambra’s at 11%, but the city dedicates just over half of its affordable rental units to them.  Baldwin Park, a city which has a similar household income to Alhambra, has a senior population of about 6.2% and sets aside 47% of affordable rental housing to those 65 and older.  And Monterey Park, which has a significantly higher percentage senior population than Alhambra at 18%, dedicates 72% of affordable units to them.

California law mandates that cities address the affordable housing problem, but allows them to determine how to serve those in need. It requires that cities provide incentives to developers to encourage such developments.  These incentives are in the form of density bonuses:  allowed exceptions to the city’s ordinance specifying the maximum number of dwelling units which can be developed per acre of land.  State density bonuses are proportional to those most in need.  Bonuses are greater if developers dedicate units for very low income groups and are less for moderate income.  This is done to offset losses to their bottom line.  No age restrictions are placed on these bonuses.  In fact, state law places a bonus cap on units dedicated to seniors, possibly a recognition of the problem at hand.

Yet the city has developed high density projects made possible through bonus awards and has restricted them to seniors only.  How was this possible?

What the city did was to go beyond the state density bonus laws in a way which favored developments for seniors only.  From 1989 to 2008, the city had in place ordinances which permitted density bonuses up to 400% if developers were to build units dedicated to seniors only.  At the same time, they offered significantly smaller bonuses for non-age restricted units.  Developers, whose goal is to provide a return to investors, are all but guaranteed to follow the path where they can build the greater number of units per acre of land.

The city effectively acted as gatekeeper through these skewed set of rules.  The end result is an affordable housing inventory that is almost entirely dedicated to seniors.  In addition, these high-density bonuses have subjected those living adjacent to these developments to high population densities.  Ordinarily, these residents would be protected from this through the city’s planning standards.

The future does not look any brighter for correcting this imbalance.  The city is largely built-out in terms of large rental units.  Of the three developments being planned with a set-aside of affordable units, 100% of those units will be restricted to seniors only. Why not base it solely on income?  Seniors certainly wouldn’t be precluded, nor would families, single mothers, the disabled, or any others provided they met income requirements. By doing so, the city would be closer to addressing the needs of its residents, and that, in turn, would reduce housing stress and promote a more amiable environment. It would also be closer to meeting its ethical obligations.

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