9 ways San Joaquin Valley cities, counties can build up housing opportunities and reinvest in communities

The San Joaquin Valley is often labelled as having “more affordable” housing compared to the rest of California. But for Valley residents, rents are not so affordable.

The San Joaquin Valley is often labelled as having  “more affordable” housing compared to the rest of California. But for Valley residents, rents are not so affordable. In most jurisdictions, more than 60% of lower-income residents are housing-cost burdened, with worse rates for even poorer residents.

In fact, some of the most cost-burdened census tracts in California are in Fresno and other parts of the Valley. Rents in Fresno and other San Joaquin Valley areas are increasing faster than in any other parts of the country and, on top of growing unaffordability, many residents are paying for often-dilapidated and unsafe units that fail to meet basic habitability standards.  

Residents impacted by these rising rents and increasingly out-of-reach homeownership opportunities seemingly have nowhere to turn, given the lack of decent quality affordable housing options. Families have to choose between paying rent, utilities, food and other basic living expenses. At the same time, lack of affordable legal representation, especially for undocumented residents, means thousands of residents face unlawful evictions, harassment, and substandard living conditions without fair representation. 

More than 60% of lower-income residents in the San Joaquin Valley are housing-cost-burdened, with worse rates for even poorer residents.

National Low Income Housing Coalition

Few Valley jurisdictions have any tenant protections that go above what has been established by state law, and these jurisdictions have also historically allocated the minimum number of their local ongoing funding sources to support affordable housing development and preservation. 

Elected leaders must act to address the Valley’s affordability crisis. Here are ways Valley cities and counties can reinvest in our existing communities and build housing of all types for all income levels:

ONE: Investing in and supporting the development of community land trusts 

  • The problem: The California Housing Partnership found that a total of 122, 597 low-income renter households in the Central Valley do not have access to an affordable home.  In Fresno County alone there are 36,523 low-income renter households in need of an affordable home and this number is only increasing as housing costs rise
  • How this policy will help: Community land trusts help establish permanent affordable housing and complimentary amenities and services prioritized by the community. CLTs are unique compared to affordable housing projects in that they provide low-income families with the opportunity to build equity through home ownership and protect them from downturns, such as foreclosures. CLTs have become extremely successful opportunities for low income families, which is why there are over 200 CLTs across the nation. 

TWO: Make suitable city or county-owned land available for free for deed-restricted affordable housing development

  • The problem: The Central Valley and ECV have a lack of and need for affordable housing, cities and counties lack resources to support the development of affordable housing; they have also underutilized land that can be used for affordable housing. 
  • How this policy will help: Cities and counties should identify suitable sites in environmentally healthy and equitable locations, away from major sources of pollution, to dedicate and target affordable housing. 

THREE: Zoning for by right multi-family housing, fourplexes, and duplexes in high resource areas

  • The problem: Cities and counties often plan for expensive low-density housing in higher resource areas. The vast majority of subsidies available to support affordable housing development are for housing at densities of 20 units per acre or more. In addition, larger lot single family housing is generally more expensive than smaller lots and multi-family, fourplex and duplex housing.
  • How this policy will help: Allowing these types of housing by right will expand opportunities for development of affordable housing and ensure greater fair housing choice for residents to live in the neighborhood they choose.

FOUR: Adopt inclusionary zoning ordinances

  • The problem: While few, if any, units of housing affordable to lower-income households are developed in many cities and counties in the Central Valley and ECV, thousands of units of housing affordable only to the highest earners are developed in the region each year. Exclusive high-end housing development does nothing to address the housing needs of the most rent-burdened residents and exacerbates patterns of economic and racial segregation. Since the 1970s, 170 jurisdictions in California have adopted inclusionary zoning ordinances. 
  • How this policy will help: Inclusionary zoning ordinances require new housing developments to include a minimum percentage of housing affordable to lower-income residents, including extremely low and very low income residents, or to pay an in-lieu fee into an affordable housing fund.  In this way, local jurisdictions can ensure that new housing development helps meet the needs of all income levels and advances fair housing choice.
  • What’s already happening: Leadership Counsel, along with partners and residents, have been working in the City of Merced to advocate for Inclusionary Zoning to increase the production of affordable housing overall and in high opportunity neighborhoods due to low production and the concentration of affordable housing in south Merced. After almost a year of advocacy, we pushed the City to apply for a LEAP grant that included the creation of a potential IZ ordinance. Leadership Counsel, along with partners and residents, will continue to advocate for Inclusionary Zoning and affordable housing in the city council on September 7th.

FIVE: Establish Affordable Housing Trust Funds with an ongoing source of local funding 

  • The problem: There is a serious lack of commitment for affordable housing from cities and counties’ annual budget allocations. Few jurisdictions in the Central Valley allocate general fund dollars or other discretionary resources to support the development of affordable housing. For example, in the last 12 years, Merced County has invested no more than $200,000 for affordable housing development.
  • How this policy will help: Ongoing sources of local funding for affordable housing will help fill financial gaps to make affordable housing projects viable, allow affordable housing developers and local governments to leverage matching state and federal funding, and support the expansion of affordable housing developers committed to building in the Central Valley.
  • What’s already happening: City of Fresno residents have been advocating for an affordable housing trust fund for years. After years of organizing, residents were able to secure a trust fund during the FY 22-23 budget hearing where a resolution was established to create an affordable housing trust fund.

SIX: Adopt rent stabilization measures with lower rent caps and additional tenant protections than those provided by state law 

  • The problem: There are currently no cities in the Central Valley or the East Coachella Valley that have adopted rent control ordinances. These regions have the highest rate of poverty in California, yet places like Fresno have seen the highest increases in rent in the nation. Even though  AB 1482 (California Tenant Protection Act) went into effect on January 1, 2020, it does not fully protect low income renters; residents continue to struggle paying rent, and continue to be displaced. 
  • How this policy will help: Rent control is an effective policy solution to curb rising rents and displacement. Strong rent control ordinances are needed to protect BIPOC low-income renters, such as only increasing rent once every 12 months based upon the regional Consumer Price Index (CPI), buyout agreement regulations, mediation/arbitration services, relocation reimbursements and moving expenses, special notice requirements, and language that would prohibit landlords from discriminating against low income tenants or recipients of government assistance. 
  • What’s already happening: Mobile home renters in the City of Madera have been experiencing high rent increases for several years. Management increased tenants’ rent prices by 5% annually, sometimes as much as 39% in a single year. Leadership Counsel is working with tenants to create and pass a mobile home park rent stabilization ordinance that would prohibit landlords from increasing rent more than once a year and 75%CPI, which is usually no more than 3%.

SEVEN: Establish and fund right to counsel programs 

  • The problem: Low income communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by unlawful rent increases, evictions, harassment by their landlords, and uninhabitable housing conditions.  Low-income tenants, especially undocumented tenants, often lack access to affordable legal counsel in the Central Valley and ECV, leaving them vulnerable to displacement and homelessness from unfair and unlawful landlord behavior . 
  • How this policy will help: Right to Counsel programs ensure that lower-income and undocumented residents have access to affordable legal representation to protect them against unlawful evictions or threat of eviction, unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions, landlord retaliation, and discrimination and harassment. According to Evicted in the Central Valley: The Avoidable Crisis and Systemic Injustice of Housing Displacement (2020), “John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement.”
  • What’s already happening: The Central Valley has been hit the hardest with evictions and lockouts throughout the pandemic. “On average, about 6 of every 10,000 households were locked out.” The eviction rates jumped doubled in the Central Valley, much of this is due to the lack of legal representation and lack of funding. For over a year Leadership Counsel and partners have been working with tenants to secure a Right to Counsel in the City; an Eviction Prevention Program was finally approved by the city council in June 2021. 

EIGHT: Developing local sources of data in the Central Valley and ECV

  • The problem: In order to develop policy tailored to address the specific housing issues impacting local communities, local governments need data that allows them to accurately understand the problem. Despite this, local sources of data are often lacking. 
  • How this policy will help: Local governments have various means to easily collect a wide range of data relevant to understanding housing issues impacting local communities. For example, local rental registries which require landlords to register units made available for rent  may be used to also develop local data on housing affordability, rent burden, and displacement trends.  This information will help inform electeds and the public of who is being impacted and how to develop targeted policy responses. 

NINE: Eliminate Fair Housing Disparities By Developing Policies With Deep Community Engagement

  • The problem: Many of the housing and land use policies enacted over the last century, which have led to today’s inequities, have deep roots in systemic racism. Many of these policies were geared to segregate low-income communities of color from white affluent communities, such as redlining and FHA regulations. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, low-income people of color households are more likely than white households to be extremely low-income renters, whereas white households have higher rates of homeownership and higher incomes. 
  • How this policy will help: Electeds must commit to deeply engaging with and responding to the priorities of low-income tenants and homeowners, communities of color, and other populations disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis in the development and implementation of solutions. Ultimately, solutions must not only address the affordable housing needs of the community as a whole, but drive down and eliminate the glaring inequities along race, class, ability, and other lines in access to health, safe, affordable housing and fair housing choice.
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