At the center of many efforts to address homelessness is the simple notion that, if society wants to get people off the streets, there need to be more homes and apartments people can afford.
Take that idea a step further and it’s clear that a tightening housing market like Bakersfield’s isn’t helpful: It drives rents higher while making it tougher for people with spotty credit to compete for what few leases may be available.
But fixing the imbalance between local housing supply and demand proves elusive for reasons such as high costs and strict rules about where apartment buildings can and cannot be built.
Advocates for people living on the street in Kern County say the time has come to reconsider. As the local apartment vacancies continue to drop to record lows and monthly rents soar to new heights in Bakersfield, they’re calling for substantial changes to local zoning laws and removal of costly state requirements for multifamily residential developments.
WORK TO DO
Also needed, they say, is more money to build affordable housing and better incentives encouraging new construction of multifamily residential projects.
“There has to be an intentional and aggressive investment in affordable housing. There has to be. And there has to be a plan,” said Carlos Baldovinos, executive director of The Mission at Kern County.
Progress is being made in Bakersfield as more public money is spent to develop subsidized apartment units. Market-rate units are also under construction, albeit at the higher end of local rents.
There’s a sense, though, that development of new housing has fallen so far behind in decades past that the pace of new construction needs to pick up — and that the best way to accomplish that is to make fundamental changes.
“We need to be willing to try different and new things,” Bakersfield Homeless Center CEO Louis Gill said. “Because we have to get more units online and available. Because there’s just a scarcity. And if we don’t do something about that we will continue to see the levels of homelessness that we have. … There’s got to be somewhere to go.”
Research by residential real estate website Zillow has established a link between a community’s rate of homelessness and the affordability of its housing.
Higher rents relative to income lead to increases in homelessness, according to a report the company published in late 2018. Once median rents eclipse 32 percent of a community’s median income, the study concluded, its rates of homelessness accelerate.
Zillow’s summary of the research noted homelessness is worst where affordability is lowest, and that “in many areas (that have passed the 32 percent threshold), even modest rent increases can push thousands more Americans into homelessness.”
A May 2019 report by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness drew a strong connection between homelessness and access to housing that people can afford. It also linked housing stability with improved personal health and well-being.
The report said greater availability of housing not only lowers the risk of people falling into homelessness, but it also improves food insecurity and educational progress, lowers domestic violence rates and reduces child separations and psychological distress.
Data available at the time suggested markets haven’t responded to demand for housing and that the poor face the biggest cost-related challenges, the report said. It suggested increasing awareness of the problem, focusing services on at-risk populations, making it easier to get assistance, expanding the supply of affordable rentals and, funding interventions to housing stability with prioritization of people who are homeless.
Executive Director Anna Laven at the Bakersfield Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative said subsidized-housing vouchers for qualified people are in danger of falling short as rents increase in the city and the county.
Plus, at a time landlords are reporting long lists of applicants for every new vacancy, Laven said, people with bad credit, checkered employment and pets have trouble finding somewhere to rent.
Much of the new product that is being built, she noted, target middle and upper income levels.
“We need to think about some of the regulatory pieces at the local and state level that increase the cost” of providing more affordable housing, she said.
Ian Sharples, a board member of the Income Property Association of Kern landlords group, said by email that the community has underbuilt multifamily housing for 40 years. He blamed public policy.
“Unaffordable housing and homelessness are the natural and obvious results of this sort of government intervention to oppose new housing,” Sharples wrote.
Asserting many people want to live in walkable, densely populated neighborhoods, he proposed overhauling zoning regulations to accommodate development of new apartment buildings.
Gill said the situation isn’t dire at the moment because of the evictions moratorium put in place during the pandemic. But he predicted new strains on the public safety net as soon as November following the moratorium’s end June 30.
The city of Bakersfield emphasized by email it has put plans and programs in place to address affordable housing and other factors affecting homelessness. It pointed to a recent, strong rebound in the development of affordable housing within the city.
After a multi-year lull that followed the closure of the city’s redevelopment agency in 2012, development of subsidized apartments rose strongly about three years ago. It went from three years of fewer than 600 new units every 12 months, to more than 1,000.
Since Bakersfield’s Measure N passed in late 2018, the city said it has spent $14 million from the sales-tax increase on affordable housing projects. That has provided 443 new units, 166 of which are now under construction.
The city also called attention to its appointment of a planner within Bakersfield’s new Economic & Community Development Department. That person will be responsible facilitating production of affordable housing.
Also, since the October opening of the Brundage Lane Navigation Center, it said, 62 people have been place in housing. Thirty-five more have been assigned a voucher and are waiting placement in a rental.
No one at the Housing Authority of the County of Kern was available last week to provide comment for this story.