California’s housing crisis can’t be fixed by just building more housing

Modern apartment buildings with balconies and greenery along a quiet street

Fewer and fewer Angelenos are “California dreamin’.” That’s because two crises — housing affordability and homelessness — are destroying our way of life.

According to the latest research, there are currently more than 181,000 Californians experiencing homelessness — more than a quarter of all homeless Americans — and many are suffering on the streets of Los Angeles.

Elected officials are failing. Take Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) recent budget proposal, which would remove $260 million from the Homeless Housing, Assistance, and Prevention program while also cutting funds from various affordable housing programs. At the same time, we are stripping away resources from programs that would protect affordable housing and help first-time homebuyers.

There are millions of housed Californians living in poverty today. The average rent in California is $2,800 a month, and prices aren’t high just in our largest cities. The average rent in Fresno is about $1,600, which may seem cheap compared to LA until you consider that the median household income in Fresno is a little more than $57,000.

In other words, half of the city’s population is below that level and considered “rent-burdened,” which means they pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. If you work a full-time, minimum wage job in Fresno (let alone LA), you’ll make about $2,700 a month. That means you will pay more than half of your income in rent, leaving you struggling to buy food or even just keep the lights on.

There is general agreement about California’s severe shortage in affordable housing, but not enough progress being made. The homelessness and housing affordability crises are solvable, but the solutions lie in reversing the policies that dug this hole in the first place.

Corporate landlords own a larger share of rentals than ever before; they spend tens of millions of dollars fighting renters’ rights and opposing policy fixes like rent control.

The dominance of landlord groups such as the California Apartment Association corrupts our entire political structure. Multiple Los Angeles City Council members have been indicted and jailed over pay-to-play development schemes, many of which involve luxury developments pushed in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods, even though there is currently a glut of luxury apartments.

Surprisingly, many liberals who eschewed Reagan-era “trickle-down” economics have subscribed to the false notion that if you build anything at all, it will alleviate the affordable housing crisis. But the opposite is true — when you gentrify an area by putting up luxury buildings in working-class neighborhoods, thereby making them more desirable, surrounding rents go up, not down.

Hollywood is a prime example. Luxury towers have sprouted up everywhere in the last 20 years, and yet the area’s population is dropping as Latino families are squeezed out. An area like Hollywood, with its wide, walkable boulevards and mass transit, is ideal for more dense affordable housing. But efforts to include affordable units in luxury high rises are routinely thwarted.

In order to increase the affordable housing supply in the short term, it actually needs to be affordable — both affordable to rent and affordable to supply.

If you spend $700,000 to build an “affordable” unit, it will have to be heavily subsidized for years on end, severely limiting the number of units that can be produced in these times of local and state budget cuts.

But what if that cost could be whittled down to $100,000 a unit?

There is only one way to do this: adaptive reuse. Only by taking LA’s existing buildings and converting them into new housing units can we create enough housing in the near future to give Californians much-needed relief. This could mean tens of thousands of new units in LA alone.

We can’t afford to leave affordable homes on the table. Deloitte estimates that up to 90 percent of future development will involve the redesign of existing buildings. LA must keep up. On average, adaptive reuse costs 16 percent less than ground-up construction while reducing construction timelines by 18 percent.

Adaptive reuse also is good for the environment, as building from scratch leaves a larger carbon footprint. We can protect the planet and our cultural heritage by finding a new use for our historic treasures. The Morrison Hotel (made famous by The Doors’ fifth album) is just one example, with plans to provide 111 housing units at a cost of barely $107,000 per unit.

Adaptive reuse is integral to addressing California’s humanitarian crisis. It is high time for new approaches that are not based on further enriching billionaire developers and filling the coffers of corrupt politicians.