When a new affordable housing development in Central Long Beach opened its application window last week, thousands of people applied for the 47 units available to low-income households, which will be chosen via lottery—underscoring the demand for affordable units, which are difficult and expensive to build.
The “Wellspring” project at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Anaheim Street will boost Long Beach’s affordable unit stock by 87 units—one is reserved for an on-site manager. But because 20 are being reserved for formerly unhoused seniors and another 20 units have been set aside for households with housing vouchers, just 47 were open to the application process.
Of those 47 units, 20 were specifically reserved for people currently living in Long Beach, with the other 27 units available to any qualified applicant in the county.
By Friday, Bridge Housing, the developer of Wellspring, had received 3,461 applications, with another two weeks left in the application window, according to Bridge.
A Linc Housing project that recently opened in San Pedro that offered 100% of its 90 units at affordable rates received over 4,300 applications.
It’s not uncommon to hold a lottery for these types of units—and seeing thousands of applications is normal, officials said.
Developers work to pair applicants with units designated for their annual income and unit size. For instance, 27 of the 47 units in the Wellspring project are designated for households making 40% of the area median income (AMI) but are broken into one-bedroom (7), two-bedroom (12) and three-bedroom (8) options.
That means while applicants are in theory vying for 47 units, they may actually be in the mix for as little as seven units.
The fact that so many people apply for these projects demonstrates the need for units not set at market rate prices. The most expensive unit at Wellspring is $1,859 per month, but there are only two of those three-bedroom units, and they’re designated for people making 60% AMI, or about $44,600 per year.
Why it’s so hard to build affordable units
There’s clearly demand. So why don’t we see projects opening up more often?
In short, it comes down to zoning, financing and sometimes a political will to make way for affordable housing projects.
Getting the funding to build affordable housing is not as simple as going to the bank for a loan, said Frank Martinez, policy director for the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, an organization that advocates for affordable housing developers.
Martinez said one of the main obstacles for affordable housing developers is financing, which is sometimes difficult to obtain and can be scarce. Developers often have to tap into federal, state and even local funds, like waivers for development fees and small loans from cities, that can help them leverage other funding. But it also creates a complicated funding puzzle, with deadlines for when the money needs to be spent.
“It almost doesn’t happen that a project has one source of funding,” Martinez said. “It’s not like buying a house. You have to take out multiple sources of funds.”
And despite the state putting in hundreds of millions toward affordable housing production, it’s not nearly enough for the size of the need.
Getting those funds is highly competitive, and providing things like on-site health clinics, financial literacy classes and other community benefits can increase a developer’s odds of getting funding. Those funds and tax credits are what help make the affordable units pencil out for developers.
Zoning can also be an impediment for housing production.
Cities can make it more difficult to build multi-family housing by keeping old zoning in place that prioritizes single-family homes and limits the amount of space where larger buildings can be built.
Long Beach has updated its zoning to allow for more development along certain corridors, like in 2017, when it approved a specific plan to allow for housing production in Southeast Long Beach and when it approved its Land Use Element in 2018.
The City Council also approved an inclusionary housing ordinance in 2021 that requires housing projects over nine units in Downtown and along Long Beach Boulevard to set aside 11% of its units for lower-income households.
State law also provides developers with incentives to include affordable units by allowing taller projects to be built if affordable units are included. An upcoming project in Southeast Long Beach is using that to add an additional story and 17 affordable units to a proposed project on Pacific Coast Highway and Studebaker Road.
What’s in the works
There are a number of affordable housing projects in various states of development in the city.
Two projects that are getting closer to opening are the four-story, 68-unit senior affordable housing project from Mercy Housing that’s located near Long Beach Poly High School. That will provide low-cost housing to seniors and senior veterans who were formerly unhoused, with rents ranging from $554 to $1,222, according to Mercy’s site.
There’s also the 26 Point 2 development near the Traffic Circle, which is under construction and will add 76 affordable units for previously unhoused and low-income households when it opens, potentially later this year.
At least three other affordable housing projects are in the process of securing funding that could add another 237 units at the site of the old First Lutheran School near St. Mary Medical Center, the Seventh Street Armory Downtown and in East Long Beach where a vacant county mental health facility now stands.
There’s also a push by Long Beach City College leaders to build affordable student housing in the city, and its board of trustees is considering asking voters to approve a $990 million bond next year to help finance housing at its Liberal Arts Campus and in North Long Beach.
New laws that could help
Martinez’s group is tracking a number of state bills that could help streamline affordable housing production in the state, but he says that no one bill this session is going to fix the problems that have stymied production.
Senate Bill 4 could allow affordable housing production on land owned by religious institutions by changing zoning laws. Martinez said religious institutions have expressed interest in wanting to build housing as part of their missions to serve the needy and house the unhoused, but local zoning has prevented it.
While the bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, has authored some controversial housing bills in the past, Martinez said this one is fairly narrow, and because of how churches are naturally dispersed through cities, the bill won’t have widespread effects. His group has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
“No single bill is going to fix everything, but just the idea that we have these natural, willing partners that want to serve their brother, their sister, will make it easier,” Martinez said of the bill.
Getting funding could get easier as well through a constitutional amendment that could lower the threshold for voter approval for a state bill that could put a $10 billion bond measure on the 2024 ballot. Long Beach is supporting both.
The first bill, ACA 1, would lower the required support from voters from two-thirds to 55% for any bond measures to build affordable housing. However, ACA 1 also includes language that would allow cities to spend those funds on “public infrastructure,” which could include public safety, library facilities and parks.
AB 1657, meanwhile, would ask voters to approve $10 billion in bonds to pay for affordable housing and homeownership programs. Voters could decide both issues at the ballot box next year, but Martinez is optimistic of how support for affordable housing production is trending.
“We do think things are moving in the right direction, but we always want more and want it faster,” Martinez said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of state Sen. Scott Wiener’s name.