The Multifamily Myth

Rezoning isn’t an automatic fix for lower-income people



From Redway to McKinleyville, Humboldt county planners and an anxious public have been tying themselves in knots over tomorrow's imaginary apartments. The zoning changes that would allow these apartments are supposed to satisfy the state of California, which decades ago settled on a curious idea: The more people live in one place, the cheaper it is.

In a high-cost state, that dubious notion is an ongoing frustration, according to Michael Lane, policy director of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. Under state law, "density is used as a proxy for affordability," said Lane. "If that was the case, Manhattan would be affordable."

Yet the planning goes on, year after year, in cities like Eureka and counties like Humboldt, assuming that multifamily zoning somehow provides for people unlucky enough to earn low wages. That assumption might have been true in Humboldt County once, but it isn't anymore, according to both housing advocates and county officials. For three years, from the start of 2007 to the end of 2009, 114 multifamily units were built in unincorporated Humboldt County communities, ranging from duplexes to apartments, according to a county survey. Not a single one of them charged rents low enough to be affordable for anyone with a "very low" income -- defined by the feds as families who make 31 percent to 50 percent of Humboldt County's median family income. Just over half of those units -- 65 dwelling places -- rented at affordable rates for the richest of the poorish, families who managed to bring in 51 percent to 80 percent of the median, the survey showed.

Since then, building has slumped even further. In 2010, only one permit was issued for any multifamily housing in all of unincorporated Humboldt County, according to Michael Richardson, a senior planner for the county.

That permit was for a duplex in Cutten, completed earlier this year. It is a tan and brown building with crisp white trim and dark red doors, down a gravel drive behind a craftsman style home on Fern Street. The duplex is across from a Murphy's Market, in easy hearing range of the traffic that rushes past on nearby Walnut Drive. Inside, each unit has two bedrooms and one bathroom tucked into 900 square feet. Outside, each has a one-car garage. The owner, real estate broker Mark Burtchett, doesn't want to invade his tenants' privacy by divulging their rents, but said that when he first offered the duplexes for rent a couple of months ago, he was asking around $1,150 to $1,175.

Is that "affordable" to low-income people? Not really. Government guidelines vary, but one rule of thumb used by many, including Humboldt County, says "affordable" rents are 30 percent or less of the monthly income earned by everyone who lives in that rental. So $1,150 is "affordable" to people making right around $3,830 a month, or $45,960 a year. That's not a federally recognized low income for two or three or even four people in this county, although four come close, according to 2011 HUD figures. Pack five people into that 900 square feet, and you've got affordable housing.

So much for density automatically (magically?) providing affordability.
Here's the problem, said the county's Richardson: "Humboldt County is such a desirable place to live that people are willing to suffer. ...People are willing to pay more than they should for housing."

One half of the Cutten duplex is home to Kathy Sherwood and her granddaughter Karlee Daniels. Sherwood says she pays $1,075 a month and "I can barely afford it." She tried to get into senior housing, but couldn't have kept on living with her granddaughter. "We need affordable housing," Sherwood said. "Where? That's such a huge question. I don't know."

Low income is a squishy thing. Both HUD and the county take a broad view, extending the label to people who earn up to 80 percent of the county's median family income, given the size of their household. For four people, that median is $54,900. The median also moves, though, as families get bigger or roommates are added. So by HUD's reckoning, eight people living under one roof could bring in $60,400 in this county and still be considered in need of affordable housing. They are dubbed low income, not "very" or "extremely" low income. One person in that same, highest-of-the-low range, making 51 to 80 percent of the median, would earn between $20,051 and $32,050 annually, according to the 2011 figures from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That is the group that this rezoning is likely to serve, at least a little, Richardson said. For anyone making half of the median or even less, nothing new will come from the rezoning without government subsidies that are increasingly tough to snag. One project that did win some state funds, Aster Place in Myrtletown, was approved this year at around 40 units. Now state and federal subsidy money is drying up so fast that one list of possible money pots for builders "looks like a casualty list," bleeding with strike-throughs, according to Evelyn Stivers, also of the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California.

Without a money pot, for all the sturm und drang, the wrangling over whose neighborhood should endure how many someday apartments, the rezoning by itself won't create much that's real and affordable. It will let landowners build more apartments if they want to. But it won't change market rents.

Richardson expects the impact of the proposed rezoning to play out about like this: 40 to 50 new multifamily units a year, on average, could be built. Builders might price 17 to 23 of those low enough to scrape under the "affordable" ceiling for the highest end of low-income people -- households that bring in a combined 80 percent of the median. For households that earn less than 50 percent of the median, this entire exercise, Richardson said, should pave the way for five new units a year. Five. And that's if some subsidy money keeps coming.

Those numbers are just about what the county has been managing lately anyway, Richardson said. Without the rezoning, he expects that rate would drop even lower.

In the world of "very low" income, households that scrape by at 31 to 50 percent of the median, the prospects of finding affordable rents are bleak. People who make exactly half the median family income here should pay no more than $572 a month in rent for a two-person household or $715 for a four-person household. (If you pay that or less for your rent, please go to our website and comment on where your place is and how nice it is -- or isn't. We'd like to know. You can stay anonymous on the website, or email your contact information to the editor if you'd like.)


Lane, from the nonprofit housing association, has watched cities and counties around the state battle for years over multifamily zoning with results that are chilling or heartening, depending on your perspective. For housing advocates who have fought bitterly for every crumb, forcing a few affordable units into the neighborhoods of millionaires, so the cleaners and hairdressers to the wealthy can send their kids to great schools, might feel like a triumph. For anyone asking for a real slice of the cake, pretending that higher densities alone create affordable places to live comes awfully close to just that: Pretense. Lane said he would be surprised if even a third of these paper units ever turned into real roofs over the heads of real human beings who don't earn much money. One quarter might come closer, he said, although no one tracks this.

"It is problematic," he said, to assume that multifamily units are affordable, but at least cities and counties are forced to zone for that. "The only thing worse would be to have nothing."

No one seems entirely comfortable with being asked precisely what these zoning changes will actually accomplish.

"When you say ‘What good will it do?' it's like saying ‘why plan?' " said Jan Turner, an attorney with Legal Services of Northern California, which represents Housing for All, a group that has sued Humboldt County for not doing enough to house its poorest people. "It undermines the effort to the rezoning. ... That could very well be picked up by people who don't want it to happen. Whatever undermines the process is fine with them."

When Kirk Girard, director of the Humboldt County Community Development Services, is asked how many people could get an affordable roof over their heads because of the zoning changes, he mulls for a moment, then says, "That's a good question. Right now the county doesn't have any control over that. We leave that up to the marketplace for the most part."

This is, one can suppose, the same marketplace that gives Humboldt County its distinctive gasoline prices.

"Our role is to make the land available," Kirk said. "We meet that task if we have land at least an acre in size and capable of being built out at 16 units per acre," along with other criteria such as transit availability.

So why does the law insist that density will provide affordability?

We can blame a bad compromise, said Michael Rawson, co-director of the Public Interest Law Project based in Oakland.

Rawson and state officials are a little vague on the dates, and reluctant to dig back through thick volumes of law to pinpoint the exact year. But sometime in the 1970s or ‘80s, depending on who is guessing at it, the mantra became enmeshed in state law.  If there are a lot of units in one place, at least some reasonable chunk of them will be cheap enough for low-income people.

"Folks recognized at the time that was a political decision as much as a correlation," Rawson said. "What some planners really wanted was a requirement that as you go forward, each community has to have some level of affordable housing. ... If you're going to deal with social equity, communities could say we're not going to allow the market to decide what gets built. That's inclusionary zoning. The Legislature wouldn't agree to that."

Local jurisdictions can do more, but they're not required to. Humboldt supervisors have said they plan to consider inclusionary zoning later this year, but the idea has been sharply challenged, and right now nothing is on the books here.

Not all states have taken the density equals affordability approach.

"New Jersey has done it more right than California," Rawson said. In New Jersey, he said, every community is required to make sure that a certain share of low-income units actually gets built. "It's worked out pretty good," he added.

Oddly, after decades of equating density with affordability, the state hasn't tried to measure whether it works.

"That's the role of the local government, to evaluate local programs to see whether they're effective," said Paul McDougall, a housing policy manager for the state department of Housing and Community Development.

The state doesn't even know how many affordable units get built every year. And it doesn't know when it will know, according to Glen Campora, assistant deputy director of the department's housing policy division.

The state Housing and Community Development Department does gather data from every city and county required to plan for affordable housing -- 525 jurisdictions, Campora said. It is trying to figure out a way to get each one to submit the same information, electronically, so all those units can be tallied up and made available to nosy reporters, or perhaps even policy makers.

"We're working on it," Campora said. "Efforts are under way." Asked to estimate whether the job might take two years or 20 years, he said state resources are so pinched that it's impossible to even guess. "I don't know how much more we'll be able to work on it in the near term."

So next time you hear about squabbling over which land should be zoned multifamily, know this: The drama and the worry and the hundreds of at-issue parcels carefully laid out across all of unincorporated Humboldt County, are, at one level, elaborate political theater. They will do staggeringly little when it comes to putting actual roofs over the heads of people who work for low wages. It's not that the zoning changes are unnecessary. They are crucial -- the same way a seed is crucial to a good crop (at least for plants that aren't cloned or grafted). Without good soil, water, time and luck, that seed isn't going to grow a healthy crop of anything. In Humboldt, no matter what the zoning maps say, "the market" left to its own devices won't build nice new apartments that rent anywhere near the lower end of affordability guidelines. Statewide, "it never has," said Rawson. To really house more of the people who are struggling, if Humboldt County wanted to, it would need to draw on tools it has previously rejected as well as tools it has used, ranging from the fast-vanishing state and federal subsidies to a flat-out quota for new developments, to various special breaks for builders or landowners. So far, nothing in the county's track record suggests it's going to go there.



Attend a workshop
Eureka     Wednesday, June 22, 6:30-8 p.m.,
    Wharfinger building, 1 Marina Way
McKinleyville Thursday, June 23, 6-8 p.m.,
    Azalea Hall, 1620 Pickett Road
Redway    Monday, June 27, 6-8 p.m.,
    Redway Elementary School,
    344 Humboldt Avenue,
See the maps, read the report

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