Can you tell us a little about yourself and your interest in housing?

I’m Herb Whitaker, the Managing Attorney of the Auburn Office of Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC).  Our office is the publicly funded non-profit civil legal aid program that serves all of Northern California, including Placer County.

I’ve lived in Auburn and worked in the LSNC Placer County office since 1989.  We handle a variety of civil cases, such as housing, access to public benefits, senior’s issues, health care etc.  Housing has always been a priority area for us.  I’ve seen the problem grow worse in Placer County over the years, as the population continues to increase and the comparative supply of affordable housing continues to decrease, however, I’ve never seen it reach the crisis stage that we are in now.

What do you mean when you say the supply of affordable housing has decreased?

The actual number of affordable housing units may have increased in the last thirty years, but when compared to the huge explosion in population in Placer County, the relative number of units for low and moderate income household is way down.  In addition, many moderate and low income household used to live in boarding houses, mobile home parks, residential hotels, and single residence occupancy (SRO) units, and most of these are gone now.   Bell Garden Apartments used to provide 96 affordable units, and now it’s gone.  There were many government subsidized apartment complexes that outlived their rent restriction contracts and converted to fair market rents.

So how much affordable housing do we need in Placer County?

The need for affordable housing in Placer sort of mirrors what’s happening in the entire state, and the numbers are very scary.   The California State Treasurer’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit Office (which is the primary funding agency for affordable housing) estimates that California currently needs 1.5 million new affordable housing units.  This is the primary factor driving up the cost of living and the increasing poverty rates in California.

Herb Whitaker

On the home scene, the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation study released in August of 2016 identified that in the coming years that area will need 12,160 new units of workforce housing, including 7,653 units affordable to moderate income families or below.

In Placer County the estimates come from the Sacramento Council of Governments (SACOG), which is responsible for estimating the Regional Housing Needs Assessment for each governmental jurisdiction in Placer County, including the cities and the unincorporated area.  For the current planning period of 2013-2021 we will need 9,779 units which would be affordable to low and very low income households, and another 11,846, moderate and above moderate income units.

How are we doing in meeting those projected needs for affordable housing?

Not very well at all.  Each jurisdiction produces a Housing Element periodically.  This is the primary planning document used to assess how we are doing to meet our needs.  A review of a number of the past Housing Elements going back for decades shows that none of the jurisdictions have ever met the estimated needs for affordable housing, and it look like this trend will continue into the current planning period (2013-2021).  For example, the Placer County Annual Element Progress Report indicates that after the first three years of the planning period, in the unincorporated area there were no units built that were affordable for very low or low incomes, and 12 units for moderate.  By contrast 797 units were constructed for above moderate.

What does it mean to say that housing is not affordable?

I don’t want to get into a discussion here of the precise definitions of the different categories of affordable housing.  Simply stated, the scarce supply of affordable housing makes the price of housing and rentals too expensive for the average workers and residents in Placer County to afford without an extreme burden.

I think it is best expressed in the Placer County Housing Element comparison of housing costs to income:  The Element states:  “Households with a single wage earner working in any one of the occupations listed… including nurses, police officers, teachers would have difficulty purchasing a home in unincorporated Placer County… A firefighter in Placer County could afford a home costing an estimated $237,726.  A preschool teacher could afford a home costing around $120,026.  Even households with two wage earners would have difficulty finding a home in their price range in the county (Placer County Housing Element, p. 39, Table 25).

“Housing is critical to survival. The lack of affordable housing can destroy a healthy stable family. It affects the ability of individuals to engage in work, and the ability for employers to attract qualified employees. It affects students’ ability to perform in school.”

What about seniors and people on fixed incomes?

They are particularly dependent upon the rental market and the crisis is much worse for them.  The current Housing Element states:  “Of particular interest are those households with limited incomes, such as minimum wage workers, individuals on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security recipients.  The FMR (Fair Market Rent) for a one-bedroom unit is $855 and for a studio unit is $717.  An individual working at the minimum wage could afford to pay only $416 monthly for housing expenses, and an SSI recipient could afford to pay only $314.  None of these individuals could afford the rent for a one-bedroom unit or even a studio unit at fair market rent.”  (Housing Element, p. 39)

How does the lack of affordable housing actually affect people?

Every day I have clients contact my office who are absolutely desperate to find some affordable housing in Placer County.  I have two different cases that I’m working on today that involve disabled seniors.  They both suffered a temporary lapse in their capacity to function due to medical and mental conditions, and as a result they are threatened with immediate evictions.  They don’t want to stay in their present rentals and would like to comply with their landlord’s eviction demands, but despite their search for alternative housing in Placer County, they can find nothing.

The rental market is so tight right now that I have many clients who have become homeless, and many others who have to live in expensive overcrowded dilapidated properties.

I had one client last winter who lived in a property in North Lake Tahoe that was condemned by code enforcement.  Facing eviction, he hitch hiked and walked from Tahoe to Roseville to go to court to fight the eviction.  He lost.  I’ve had other clients living in barns and one in a chicken coop.

Because the market is so tight landlords can be extremely selective about whom they accept, and most tenants who have an eviction on their record are now black-balled, regardless of the circumstances or their ability to pay the rent.  The Housing Authorities and governmentally subsidized rentals have waiting lists of 3 to 4 years.  Even if a tenant qualifies for a housing voucher to help guarantee a rent payment, I have seen a recent trend of landlords refusing to accept voucher holders.

These stories are sad, but actually I have dozens of these cases on a monthly basis, and the impact of the housing crisis is acute.  Housing is critical to survival.  The lack of affordable housing can destroy a healthy stable family.  It affects the ability of individuals to engage in work, and the ability for employers to attract qualified employees.  It affects students’ ability to perform in school, and affects a family’s ability to maintain access to health care, a healthy environment, and mental health.  It causes our young people to move away.  The situation becomes even worse for disadvantaged populations, such as seniors, homeless veterans, persons with disabilities, seasonal workers, and minority families or families with limited English capacity.

What can be done to address this housing crisis?

There are a number of solutions, but I’m afraid that we don’t have the time or space to go into those now.  Let me just say that this is a problem of public and political will.  This problem affects us all.  The start toward a solution is for our entire community to become aware of the magnitude of the problem.   After that we need to press forward on every front to support public policies and an economic environment that will support the development of affordable housing.