Newsletter: The affordable housing crisis in the time of coronavirus

An aerial view of the site of a proposed affordable housing project near million-dollar condos in Solana Beach in San Diego County. It’s a 10-unit project that has been in the works for the last decade and has yet to break ground.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, April 17. I’m Benjamin Oreskes, filling in for Julia Wick, and I’m writing from Los Angeles. You might remember me.

I used to pen this newsletter before they found a far better replacement for me. Give the Los Angeles Times’ newest podcast, “Coronavirus in California: Stories From the Front Lines,” a listen. Our host, Gustavo Arellano, checks in with Julia to see how she’s feeling.

Today’s newsletter delves into a subject that Californians have struggled with for quite a long time: affordable housing and how it’s not in ample supply. Earlier this month, my colleagues Liam Dillon, Ben Poston and Julia Barajas published a deep dive into the subject.

It took them months to report out and write, and centers on a small development in Solana Beach where each unit would cost more than $1 million if they were ever built. They also found that for a variety of reasons, apartments cost an average of about $500,000. In the last decade, the price tag has grown 26%, after adjusting for inflation.

[Read the story “Affordable housing can cost $1 million per apartment in California. Coronavirus could make it worse” in the Los Angeles Times]


I spoke with Dillon about his story and how the pandemic will exacerbate this affordable housing crisis:

BO: Tell me how this project came together.

LD: I have been writing about housing in California for four years now and had always heard that one of the barriers to resolving the housing shortage, particularly the affordable housing shortage, was how expensive it was to build low-income housing. But there was no real data point that showed how these costs compared in California to the rest of the country. We were fortunate that, in the fall of 2018, there was a report that came out from the U.S. GAO, which is kind of a government watchdog in D.C., that compared what the costs were in California to the rest of the country.

I thought that was a good kind of opening to try to understand what cost drivers there were that may be specific to California, and understand how they could maybe be made better to make an effort to fix one of the state’s most pressing problems.

BO: The story focuses on a project in Solana Beach, which has yet to break ground but where each unit will cost about $1.1 million. It’s been in the works for more than a decade. Tell me how it reflects the problems we have with building affordable housing in this state.

LD: The reason this project is representative is that in almost every single way, the macro factors we’ve found that drive up the cost of building low-income housing in the state were exemplified almost in sometimes a comical way. We did a pretty robust data analysis and found that smaller projects tend to cost more per apartment. In this case it was 10 apartments.

No. 2, we found a big cost driver was parking. Obviously, if you’re building a house for cars, you have less room for houses for people. In this case there were 10 apartments and 53 parking places. The wages of union workers are also a driver of these costs.


You can see why these interest groups ... argue for these particular provisions. But when you add them all up, these are the things that drive up the cost of these projects to a point where it’s very hard to imagine we’re going to be able to house all the low-income Californians who need new housing.

I think this piece lays out a road map for lots of things that can change that could bring down costs. The bureaucracy involved is, quite honestly, a mess. In the story we go through how other states generally have one department that hands out housing funding. In California, it’s five.

BO: Finally, how do you think this pandemic that we’re facing will make our affordable housing crisis worse?

LD: I think in some ways it’s too soon to tell exactly what the effect is going to be on things like development costs, right? But I think it is not too soon enough to tell that the need for affordable housing in California is gonna be dramatically higher.

With local and state level government losing a significant amount of tax revenue, that means likely layoffs and fewer people around to process permits to do things like zoning changes or to do planning. All of the things that you need to push projects through the approval process. That only means it’s likely that these projects take longer, and that can be more costly.

All of the problems that we’ve identified are no less problems, and in fact it’s more urgent to fix them in a situation where you have a much higher need for affordable housing and a much lower government capacity to get it done.

Read this incredible story here.

Go deeper. Learn more about the sophisticated data analysis that was required to do produce this story. Los Angeles Times

Finally. Liam hosts a podcast about housing policy alongside CalMatters’ Matt Levin. They recently had Ginger Hitzke, the developer of the Solana Beach project, to discuss the story. Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


A growing death toll: Even as the growth of coronavirus cases appears to be slowing in California, the numbers of dead reached new highs this week, with the toll being particularly grim in Los Angeles County. On Thursday, health officials in the county confirmed 52 additional deaths for a total of 457. It marked the third straight day L.A. County has seen a record number of deaths. Los Angeles Times

Infections have raged among hospital staff beyond what has been disclosed, including at UCLA. Los Angeles Times

Heartbreaking: This mother and daughter were inseparable. They died from coronavirus on the same day. Los Angeles Times

More remembrances: More than 950 people have died in California. These are some of their stories. Los Angeles Times

A glimmer of hope. L.A. and other areas are planning to reopen some businesses in May, with retail likely going first. Los Angeles Times

Must-see. Photos from the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Los Angeles Times


Alleged corruption stops for no one. A 20-story residential tower planned in downtown Los Angeles is at the heart of a federal investigation involving a developer who allegedly arranged a $500,000 bribe for a City Council member, a Times analysis shows. Los Angeles Times

The future? Are L.A. restaurants and diners ready for masked servers and temperature checks? Los Angeles Times

Newspapers closing: The Times’ parent company, California Times, is folding three award-winning community newspapers that serve the cities of Burbank, Glendale and La Cañada Flintridge because of steep losses in advertising driven by the coronavirus crisis. Los Angeles Times


Scoop. A secretive Trump administration project that enlists private companies to bring masks and other medical equipment to the U.S. to fight the coronavirus outbreak has provided ten of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to the nation’s largest medical-supply companies with little public accounting.Los Angeles Times

2020 watch. Latinos are essential workers. Will they be essential voters? New York Times

Things fall apart. Gov. Gavin Newsom made a big splash when he announced a $1-billion deal to purchase masks ... that might not pan out. These types of big promises are not unusual for the governor. Associated Press

Food fights in S.F. As the crisis for San Francisco’s homeless population grows, Mayor London Breed is clashing with the supervisors over how to respond. San Francisco Chronicle

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Nice digs. The LAPD has a quarantine site for officers. It’s at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. Los Angeles Times

Gulp. Despite a federal ban, landlords are still moving to evict people during the pandemic. ProPublica


TP problems. That toilet paper you bought on Amazon? You may be waiting a while. Los Angeles Times

Not an alternative: People are clogging sewage systems with disinfectant wipes. KCLU

Welcome! Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are taking the first steps to make the Los Angeles area their home, volunteering this week to deliver meals to vulnerable residents locked down in West Hollywood. Los Angeles Times

Don’t leave! After the pandemic, what will be left of Anaheim’s Little Arabia? Los Angeles Times

No baseball? :(. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw is waiting for baseball. Will he run out of time? ESPN

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Los Angeles: partly cloudy, 67. San Diego: partly cloudy, 65. San Francisco: mostly cloudy, 60. San Jose: mostly cloudy, 60. Fresno: scattered showers, 72. Sacramento: mostly cloudy, 72. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Holly Hagy:

For years after I moved to California, I would drive the freeways outside of L.A. and see the hills, mountains and beaches, especially along the 101. I would marvel at their beautiful, golden hue that covered them and the way the sun would illuminate them, making the golden light glow. I truly thought this was why California was called the Golden State. One day while driving and seeing the hills, it dawned on me that this was not the reason it was called the Golden State; it was because of the Gold Rush! I laughed out loud at myself for thinking that all these years.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.