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13 May 2019

Back in 2017, I visited Detroit on a housing trip and learned all about an American city that had record numbers of houses stood empty. So, when I heard that the trip this year was to California, I figured I’d probably got some idea of the housing crisis faced by a major city in the richest nation on the planet. I was wrong – what greeted me this time, was a culture shock – one that leaves you counting your own blessings as well as realising that the UK system, although far from perfect, could be a great deal worse.

We touched down in LA on Saturday night and on Monday morning we went to meet with our hosts for the trip. The Housing Authority City of LA (HACLA) took us on a walking tour of one of it’s larger estates that’s currently being renovated – Jordan Downs affordable housing estate – a 700-unit public housing apartment complex in Watts, LA. The estate covers around 50 acres of land and houses around 2,300 residents. These homes are ‘stick-built’ – i.e. made from wood and are around 50 years old. They have a 55-year shelf life leading to them being knocked down and rebuilt after that time period. Jordan Downs is currently moving its residents to a new estate across the street and beginning the rebuilding phase which will see it double the number of units to 1400 on the site. The statistics for Jordan Downs speak for themselves. The land cost a cool $30 million to buy and another $31 million to clean as its industrial land – that’s $61 million before anyone has put a brick in the ground! On average the build cost per property for affordable housing in LA is a whopping $400,000 – land in and around LA is some of the most expensive in the world and that drives up costs to artificially high levels. By contrast the average family income for a HACLA home is just $24,000 – too little to afford to live in LA, but considerably more than many housing association residents in the UK.

Homelessness is a huge issue in California – again the statistics are eye-watering. In the state there are around 70,000 homeless people – that’s the same sort of numbers of a town the size of Shrewsbury or Tynemouth to put it into perspective. Across the city of LA around 19,000 households have been provided by the HACLA to the formerly homeless. And in San Diego, the San Diego Housing Commission currently has a waiting list of 90,000 families on Section 8 (payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords by the state) whose average household income is just $19,000 and need to move into affordable housing. Jordan Downs is not alone – we visited Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, Gateway Apartments, Pueblo Del Sol, William Mead – all affordable housing developments.

But then came the biggest culture shock of all – an area of LA known as Skid Row. The infamous district has become part of our own vernacular to describe being down on your luck, and there was even a rock band named after it. I’ve seen it in movies, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw first-hand – streets lined with tents where people, in one of the richest cities in the world, live with their nearest and dearest, and in some cases, their children. In the UK, we know only too well that a homeless child is given a priority to put a roof over their head, and in California I’m sure it’s as important to prioritise, but the city simply doesn’t have the housing to support the demands of the homeless population.

Tuesday brought new challenges. HACLA talked about some of the projects of the future, one of which, La Mas was the centre of discussions. It’s known as the ‘backyard homes project’ and essentially it incentivises homeowners (via cheap loans) to build studio accommodation in their back yards – often converting garages. This accommodation must then be rented for five years by HACLA tenants, allowing the homeowner to take advantage of the finance deal before reverting back to their control. Many of those households who sign up to the project have equity in their homes but are just scraping by – they’re asset rich but cash poor, so the scheme has benefits to homeowner and to HACLA – and of course to those who would benefit from the rental of the accommodation.

The final two days of the trip was spent in San Diego where we met the staff at the San Diego Housing Commission and visited many of the housing schemes (around 24 different sites) in the area. One of the sites we visited, called Atmosphere highlighted that for every bedroom on the development, a house should have a parking space – 3 bedrooms, 3 parking spaces. This obviously puts the price of the land up for each house constructed and once again the statistics speak for themselves. Atmosphere has 202 units and around 366 parking spaces – the development cost a staggering $79.5 million to build. Other sites were the same – $33.2 million for just 65 properties and $85.4 million for 128 properties. Ouch!!

In housing terms, San Diego has been creative in finding new ways of delivering a roof over someone’s head by recognising the need to renovate existing properties that can be used for social housing. We visited a former hotel – the Hotel Churchill – that has been entirely regenerated as apartments for homeless ex-service men and women. It’s entirely to the city’s credit that this has worked so well and will deliver housing to the neediest. I haven’t got enough good things to say about how they are tackling the challenges they have.

The challenges that the state of California face and especially in its major cities made this trip incredibly thought provoking. It’s certainly an unmatched housing crisis in a developed nation – one with the wealth and resources of the United States of America.

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