Disclosure: The work of Brian Addison was cited in the report detailed in this article and the author has had a working relationship with the founder of City Fabrick, the nonprofit which led this research.
The “missing middle” can mean a lot of things when broken down with nuance but the basic thrust of the concept is clear: it refers to middle-income households that are cost-burdened or outright priced out by market-rate housing and, due to that very income level, are unable to qualify for housing subsidies.
And, according to a new report that is the result of a partnership between CSULB and local design nonprofit City Fabrick, Long Beach is disregarding this notion. (That report, mind you, is one of the most thorough housing reports on Long Beach I’ve had the pleasure of reading.)
As I mentioned, there are nuances when discussing the missing middle. For Long Beach developer Scott Choppin, the middle that is hard to find are three-, four-, or even five-bedroom apartments that can cater to multi-generational families. For others, it can be a girlfriend and boyfriend pair who are working full-time and attending grad school, effectively unable to score student housing but certainly unable to afford an apartment at The Current in Downtown. It can also be spouses, perhaps with a kid, who work 9-to-5s with steady incomes, but are effectively priced out of the market because it is largely subsidized or market rate.
“Millions of middle-income Americans living in high-cost regions struggle to find homes they can afford, forcing many people to move further away from cities and their inherent purpose as job centers,” said Alex Jung of City Fabrick. “This jobs-housing imbalance leads to higher commute times, reliance on the automobile, and an overall degradation of quality of life.”
When it comes to discussing affordability, especially in a case like this, it is paramount to discuss its definition—something many folks, be they advocates for affordable housing or property owners’ rights, tend to confuse and mix up.
I’ve long written that there are two discussions when it comes to affordability and housing. There is “housing affordability,” the idea that we should have a housing system which caters to and supplies units for everyone who isn’t wealthy, including basically everyone in the middle class and below it. Then there’s Affordable Housing-With-A-Capital-A; the federally-defined, subsidized housing that, like its inverted market rate sibling, caters to a very specific population, that is, those who fall well below the median income any given area.
In other words, there is housing affordability and there is affordable housing; this report is distinct in that it discusses the former and ways in which we are failing in providing housing affordability as well as ways we can improve it.
And while it might be easy to say that middle-income households should be able to get by, there is the blunt reality of how rent has increased in Long Beach. While rent has risen nationwide by 0.7%, it has risen in Long Beach by 7.3%, that in a city with 60% renters, according to the report. Add to this the fact that, thanks to a botched campaign to get a rent control initiative on the ballot and a pathetically quiet City Council when it comes to renters’ rights, Long Beach remains the largest west coast city without some means of rent stabilization, and you have a housing affordability crisis.
“The cost of housing is directly correlated to the cost of land and construction costs, and in order to make up for that cost, developers are inclined to maximize land utilization by developing high-cost housing,” said Will Shaw of City Fabrick. “Rising rents as a result of gentrification, or the influx of capital and higher-income, and higher-educated residents into working-class neighborhoods increase existing cost burden on renters.”
This isn’t to say that the city hasn’t recognized these concerns. Its updated Housing Element has allowed for a diverse housing stock while attempting to reform policies that constrict housing developments—despite an overwhelmingly anti-housing tinge to its most recent Land Use Element update. It is seeking to implement an inclusionary zoning policy by this fall which will, in one way or another, require developers to include a certain number of affordable units within their developments or pay into an affordable housing fund. Of course, this ordinance will not apply to the boom of development currently happening in Downtown and beyond.
The city has recognized the issue, according to the report, but has failed to take action on a level that has created an impact.
“Our research emphasizes a need for infill development, seeks to increase medium-density zoning by increasing height limits or allowing for mixed-use development along major corridors and in some existing commercially-zoned areas,” Jung said. “But it’s not just relegated to that.”
Much more needs to be done.
The report goes onto a litany of other options that exist outside Affordable Housing-With-A-Capital-A and market-rate construction: Increasing the number of accessory dwelling units or “granny flats.” Encouraging the creation of tiny homes or micro-spaces. Reusing or converting buildings that aren’t occupied or are underperforming, like motels.
There are options, but ultimately there isn’t just one solution.
“Everyone tends to ask, especially after research, ‘Well, does this housing type work for everyone?’ The answer to that question is no; and nor would we expect it to,” Shaw said. “Mitigating the housing crisis in Long Beach and beyond is not about trying to find a sole solution. It trivializes the severity of the issue to believe that there is a single ‘silver bullet.’ One lesson learned is that there is no single comprehensive solution to solving the housing crisis. In fact, one could make the argument that a lack of diverse housing choices has contributed to the state we find ourselves in.”
Editor’s note: This article originally stated that the proposed inclusionary ordinance will be introduced to council next month; it will be introduced some time in the fall. This has been corrected.
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