California counties hold the key to solving the housing crisis

Some alarming signs are emerging of the way some counties are failing to help fix the state’s affordable housing crisis.

Counties in California are beginning to submit annual progress reports of their General Plans to the state and some alarming signs are emerging, showing counties are failing to do their part in addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis. 

Counties all across the San Joaquin Valley are falling far behind in building and preserving  housing for very low to low income levels — the very households hardest hit by the confluence of a housing crisis and a public health crisis. 

Each year, counties must show the progress they have made toward building and preserving affordable housing in ways that are outlined in their General Plan. But despite clearly laid out goals, Leadership Counsel is seeing very few signs of progress in areas where we work. 

In Fresno County, zero farmworker housing unit permits were issued in 2020. No actions were taken by county leaders to facilitate such housing. Similarly, the county has not addressed significant infrastructure barriers (lack of water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure) that impedes affordable housing development in communities throughout the county.

In Merced County, the annual report shows that the county will not come close to meeting its Regional Housing Needs Allocation for lower-income households. That’s because from 2016 to 2020, the county has built just 20 units for very low income levels while the actual number should have been 1,085. Yet, in the same timeline, 530 units for above and moderate income levels were built out of the 1,885 needed. 

Riverside County remains exceptionally far behind in building enough housing to meet the needs of lower income households. Since 2014, only 224 units for very-low income households were permitted, along with 82 units for low income households. None were permitted in 2020, however. That’s a stark difference compared to the 7,197 permits issued for above-moderate-level income housing units in the same time period. 

Why this matters: California is facing an affordable housing crisis that worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents were laid off while rents skyrocketed in some towns and cities. Families were forced to make financial decisions that they did not predict even a year ago. The rising rents and the looming threats of evictions are the key reasons that the counties must do their part to help the state move out of this situation. 

If counties continue to fail in making an effort to provide the necessary infrastructure, the shortage of affordable housing will persist across the county and state due to inability to build. Local decisions and priorities have regional and state-level impacts. Implementation of identified goals to achieve established needs is critical to moving families, towns, counties and the state on a trajectory toward housing security and a stable economy. 

How we can fix it: It’s simple. Counties must not ignore the housing programs they outline for themselves. It must do all it can to meet the housing needs of its residents, as outlined in their Housing Elements within the General Plans. Counties must not cross their arms, point fingers or cut corners. There are programs, policies, and possibilities that remain untapped in counties throughout the state. 

The state can and should explore ways to enforce rules. California counties hold the key to solving the state’s housing crisis. Currently, there is no accountability for counties who do not meet the regional housing need. 

Community groups like Fresno County’s Comunidades Unidas por Un Cambio have led the charge with resident-identified solutions to housing. If sections of the General Plans continue to be unmet, organized residents have shown they are forceful advocates for their neighbors, even if it means suing (and winning) to ensure the county meets its own obligations.

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