Kern County has seen an 85 percent reduction in low-income housing production just since 2016, according to a new report from the California Housing Partnership Corporation.
The report examines the amount of affordable housing available, how funding has declined, the high demand for affordable rental homes and other factors. The data in the report is from agencies including the National Low Income Housing Coalition, U.S. Census Bureau and Housing and Urban Development.
The CHPC is a nonprofit organization created by the state with the goal of monitoring low-income housing trends in California and leading affordable housing finance and policy.
According to the report, new construction of affordable housing units was reduced from 199 in 2016 to just 15 in 2017. Rehabilitation of existing buildings for affordable housing dropped from 407 to 75. In total, Kern County went from about 600 units in 2016 to only 90 in 2017.
The rest of the Valley is a little better off, with a 55 percent reduction in low-income housing production, the report says. Statewide, there has been a 45 percent reduction as of 2017.
“We agree with the findings of the report. The lack of affordable housing in Kern County is a big problem,” said Stephen Pelz, executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Kern, which provides local low-income housing through its various programs.
One of the major reasons for the drop in production is that state and federal funding that helped fund those projects has dried up, leaving builders with little incentive to construct those types of residences when high-end housing is more lucrative.
According to the report, funding dropped 21 percent — about $8 million a year — since the 2008-09 fiscal year, around the time the economic recession hit.
City redevelopment agencies helped fund housing projects through its subsidies and other incentives, but once RDAs across the state were shut down in 2012 to save money, that funding source disappeared.
The state still provides funding to Kern County, but even that has decreased from nearly $24 million in 2008-09 to about $19.5 million in 2016-17, an 18 percent reduction, the report says.
HUD has tried to pick up the slack and increased its funding from $6.1 million in 2008-09 to $11.2 million in 2016-17, according to the report.
Pelz said cost increases were also a significant factor in the decline of affordable housing production. He said some of California's newer regulations and requirements can drive up costs 25 percent to 35 percent.
“At some point, I think our state legislators need to start connecting the dots between regulations and cost,” Pelz said. “You’ve got to find a balance there.”
Employee costs are also an issue, as Pelz said some state funding programs require developers to pay employees prevailing wage, meaning that they must be paid hourly and provided overtime pay and benefits.
The lack of construction and funding doesn’t mean that there’s a drop in demand. The report says there were only around 15,000 low-income rental homes in 2016, but about 30,000 more are needed to meet demand.
Pelz said that seems about right, as about 13,000 applicants are on a waiting list for low-income housing through the authority. Applicants usually have to wait five to seven years to get housing through the organization.
“That is not a full measure of need,” he said. “Those are only the ones who decide to apply. I’m sure the numbers are not overstated.”
Even for those with low incomes who already have a residence, many are barely able to make it financially. The report says that paying rent takes up about 65 percent of their income, a significant amount compared to the 26 percent average for households.
“There’s no margin for error,” Pelz said. “If there’s an issue with a job loss or serious illness, they don’t have a lot of options. Job and income growth needs to go up. People need to be able to earn more money.”
The lack of low-income housing has been a large contributor to the rise of homelessness in the county, according to Louis Gill, executive director of the Bakersfield Homeless Center and a member of the Kern County Homeless Collaborative.
Homelessness in Kern County went up 9 percent last year, according to the collaborative’s January Point in Time Count. In total, 885 homeless people were identified across the county, with the majority of them living in Bakersfield.
The collaborative estimates that one of the primary reasons behind the increase is the lack of low-income housing and funding for it.
“You can definitely see how homelessness has increased as units have become more scarce,” he said. “(Redevelopment agencies) were a very good mechanism for incentivizing low-income housing. We don’t have a good mechanism in place now to provide that. You need to have some kind of incentive to bring developers in.”
State legislators seem to be aware of the housing need in Kern County and the rest of California. Just earlier this month, two Senate lawmakers put forth a proposal to spend $5 billion on affordable housing over the course of four years.
Efforts are also being made at the local level to obtain more funding to help with housing and homelessness.
“We’ve been really pleased with increasing focus that the city and Board of Supervisors have been placing on this issue,” Pelz said. “They’re making the connection between low-income housing and homelessness.”
Gill said it’s important that everyone work together to try to resolve the issue.
“We’re going to need to see the city and county work together. It’s going to take coordinated work to resolve this problem,” he said.
While Pelz said trying to bring more affordable housing to Kern County has been an uphill battle, he’s hopeful the situation will improve.
“We try not to get frustrated because we’re pursuing every angle we can,” he said. “We just have to keep working on it. We’re not discouraged. We know why we exist.”