By Barbara McMurray, special to the LB Indy
The lack of affordable housing in Laguna Beach and beyond has reached a tipping point, creating a groundswell of interest in finding solutions. That was the good news at Monday’s public workshop, “Affordable Housing – A Home, A Heart,” at Neighborhood Congregational Church that drew about 40 attendees.
The bad news was plentiful – and sobering. Keynote speaker Rona Henry, an affordable housing advocate with the Welcoming Neighbors Home Initiative, shared statistics showing how the severe housing shortfall occurred and what needs to be done about it. She noted factors such as redlining (the unlawful practice of racial housing discrimination), the minimum wage not keeping pace with inflation, and residential zoning patterns that have contributed to the lack of housing affordability.
“The government’s guideline is that a family or individual should spend no more than one-third of their income on housing,” she said, “or it morphs into a severe economic problem.”
The trouble has been brewing for decades. According to the Urban Institute, Henry said, average family wealth by race and ethnicity showed that in 1983, white families held five times more wealth than Black families and, in 2016, seven times more. Also, in 2016, white families held five times more wealth than Hispanic families. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research showed that the minimum wage would currently be $21.50 per hour had it kept pace with productivity, but nationally, it lingers around $7.25. In California, it is $15 – still far from enough to afford the average asking rent in Orange County of $2,596 per month. Alarmingly, renters need to earn 3.3 times the minimum wage, or $49.92 per hour, to afford this average, according to the California Housing Partnership Orange County’s 2022 Affordable Housing Need Report.
To add to the gloom, Henry noted, the same report showed that rent in Orange County increased by 16.7% between December 2020 and December 2021.
The way out is to build more housing, especially affordable homes for households earning less than $100,000 per year, to make up for the shortfall in affordable home production that has been going on for years.
“Talk about a missed opportunity,” she said. “During the 2014 to 2021 fifth State Regional Housing Needs Allocation planning cycle, Orange County met only 40% of its lower-income housing goals while overproducing by more than double housing for moderate and above-moderate income households.”
In Laguna Beach, that housing production cycle was dismal: a seemingly easy goal of one very low and one low-income housing unit required by the state resulted in only one permit issued for a low-income unit. The sixth housing cycle ending in 2029 aims to address the long-simmering mess. The state’s official housing production goal is 180,000 units a year. The 197 jurisdictions of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) need to create a total of 1,341,827 housing units. Orange County needs to produce about 75,000 more living units in the low-income category, and Laguna Beach needs to build 198 of those.
Which city excels at building affordable housing? Irvine, with more than 4,000 units built and 1,000 more currently in progress, has the most affordable units of any city in Orange County.
At the meeting, heads nodded in agreement when it was mentioned that many neighbors and adult children who grew up in Laguna Beach have been evicted or priced out.
One Laguna Beach native in her late twenties, currently unhoused, attended the workshop to learn about affordable housing options that consider the challenges of her mental and physical disabilities. She explained why moving to a less expensive area was implausible. The doctors she depends on for daily help with her stability are local, so moving away comes with hurdles to her well-being that seem insurmountable. Hearing a personal story like this gave other attendees an understanding of why it can be crucial for a person’s needs to be supported in their hometown.
Attendee Mary Jo Winefordner said, “For me, a true community is when the local cafe server, firefighter, or schoolteacher is also your fellow parishioner, PTA member, Girl Scout leader. I feel that vital component is missing here and elsewhere due to the lack of affordable housing.”
Ketta Brown, a former LBUSD board member who was just appointed to chair the city’s Housing and Human Services Committee and who serves on the board of directors for the Friendship Shelter, was blunt. “If we don’t do something about affordable housing, we will no longer have a town we want to live in.”
Dr. Michele McCormick, who chairs Neighborhood Church’s Spirit in Action team, echoed that sentiment. “Without diversity, a city dies.”
Part of the discussion revolved around connections between environmental impact and workforce housing. Living close to work, including walkable distances, lowers auto emissions and reduces congestion and parking issues. Overall, affordable housing has numerous upsides: young adults and families can afford to live in Orange County, retail sales and tax bases are positively impacted, local businesses enjoy a more reliable workforce, commutes are shorter, negative health impacts are reduced, seniors can downsize and age in place, and urban land is used more wisely when retail and office space can be refurbished.
Henry noted that Europe had done an excellent job of planning housing for residents of all incomes. She cited her daughter’s newly purchased home in Amsterdam, which is located beside a ‘social housing unit’ that looks like all the other houses on her street. Such units are integrated into the community and near mass transit to prevent urban sprawl.
Dawn Price, executive director of Friendship Shelter, which operates the Alternative Sleeping Location emergency shelter in Laguna Canyon, led a breakout session. She noted that in south Orange County, Friendship Shelter’s service area, homelessness dropped by 23 percent, according to a regional Point In Time count held earlier this year. In Laguna Beach, where Friendship Shelter’s shelter and outreach programs operate, street homelessness dropped 60 percent, which Price attributes to the customized housing solutions and strong, ongoing support and guidance offered to each client.
Neighborhood Church Pastor Rodrick Echols, who has advocated for affordable housing for two decades, said, “This workshop was designed to promote equity and social justice in our town. The conversation will continue as we work to find solutions to our considerable housing challenges.”
Henry worked for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for 11 years. Now retired, she and her fellow Welcoming Neighbors Home advocates have successfully lobbied for and won housing expansions in Lake Forest and San Clemente. The group encourages cities to adopt inclusionary housing policies that require extremely low and very low-income affordable housing units and champions permanent supportive housing as a proven solution to homelessness. They believe in a housing-first policy that holds that when people have a place to call home, they are better positioned to address other challenges. Welcoming Neighbors Home members provide dinner once a month at the Alternative Sleeping Location, among other outreach and direct-service efforts.
For information about the group, visit welcomingneighborshome.org.
For more information about California’s housing planning and requirements, visit hcd.ca.gov.