Frequently asked questions
Causes of the housing crisis
Do we have enough homes?
Not nearly. California ranks at the very bottom of states by housing units per adult, and Ventura County is even worse. Some of our communities like Oxnard have nearly 3 adults competing over each housing unit, driving up prices and overcrowding the few available homes.
In 2016, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report on California’s housing shortage, finding that, “to satisfy pent-up demand and meet the needs of a growing population, California needs to build 3.5 million homes by 2025.”
Other studies also estimate California’s housing shortage as ranging from 2.7 million to 4 million. This represents about half of the nationwide housing shortage, estimated by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 2018 at 7 million homes.
Do we need market-rate housing, or is building subsidized housing sufficient?
The scale of the housing shortage makes market-rate housing necessary. UC Berkeley's Terner Center estimates that it costs about $450,000 to build a subsidizing housing unit in California. That means it would cost well over $1 trillion--about ten times the state's annual budget--to build enough housing to address our shortage.
Market-rate housing often generates subsidized housing, too, via inclusionary zoning laws that reserve a share of units in multifamily buildings for low- or moderate-income residents, or require contributions to subsidized housing funds. And by raising tax revenue--property taxes, as well as income and sales taxes from new residents--new market-rate housing can help the state government and local governments in Ventura County pay for public services, including subsidized housing.
What is zoning, and how does it contribute to the housing crisis?
Cities first established zoning codes to separate housing from polluting industrial areas, but over time added restrictions on height, number of homes per lot, lot sizes, and other features. For example, the vast majority of residentially-zoned land in Oxnard can only have a single home on it--no duplex, no apartments. Oxnard's zoning map is representative of Ventura County, if not more permissive on average.
Density limits are zoning features that cap the number of homes that can be on a given lot. For most residential land in Ventura County, that number is one. Legalizing duplexes or quadplexes is a cheap and easy way to add naturally affordable homes without changing the look of a neighborhood.
Restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs)
Accessory dwelling units, also known as granny flats or ADUs, are secondary houses or apartments that share the building lot of a larger, primary house. They are often built in back yards or converted from garages. These are easy ways to add to the housing stock, while also helping homeowners earn extra rental income from underutilized space on their property.
Historically, ADUs have been illegal on many lots, but a series of bills in 2019 legalized them across California. Still, many cities are dragging their feet on adhering to the state laws, and trying to slow the adoption of ADUs through new requirements and fees.
Lifting restrictions on density and ADU can help can create more homes, but they can only do so much without lifting height limits. Even lots right next to Amtrak stations or in job centers are often zoned for single-story height. Legalizing apartment and condo buildings go beyond creating more homes--they create more space, space for families to live, avoid bidding up the insufficient housing stock, and enjoy walkable amenities.
Minimum lot sizes, setbacks, and other restrictions
Zoning codes go far beyond density and height limits. Some cities require lots to be a minimize square footage, or to have a certain distance between homes or from the sidewalk ("setbacks"), or specific design features like garages.
For example, one area of Moorpark is zoned for only three homes per acre. That kind of zoning is a de facto ban on anyone who cannot afford 14,000 square feet of land. It promotes sprawl, segregation, and unaffordability.
How does the housing approval process contribute to the housing crisis?
In most industries, governments define rules and then allow a company to operate if it follows those rules. Housing in California and Ventura County doesn't work that way. To build a home, developers must go through several stages of discretionary review, where a city's Planning Commission, City Council, and other bodies decide subjectively whether to allow the project to proceed, even if the developer follows all written laws.
Each stage of discretionary review is an opportunity for opponents of new housing ("NIMBYs" for "Not In My Back Yard") to speak against a project. These opponents are often unrepresentative of their communities, as most Californians support new housing in their neighborhood. This uncertainty often kills projects, and even when a project makes it through, these discretionary steps have often added months or years to the process, delaying the time until new residents can be housed and adding to the cost of development.
Streamlining the process by guaranteeing approval to projects that comply with state and local rules has grown the housing stock.
Consequences of the housing crisis
How does the housing crisis affect housing costs?
A large and growing academic literature reveals that lack of housing directly causes high housing costs.
A 2016 report from the Obama White House described the problem of high housing costs:
In just the last 10 years, the number of very low-income renters paying more than half their income for rent has increased by almost 2.5 million households, to 7.7 million nationwide, in part because barriers to housing development are limiting housing supply. Since 1960, the share of renters paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent has more than doubled from 24 percent to 49 percent. And over that time, real household income increased by 18 percent, but inflation adjusted rents rose by 64 percent.
The White House continued, citing three academic sources,
Barriers to housing development are exacerbating the housing affordability crisis, particularly in vibrant regions with high job growth and few rental vacancies.
A 2019 study from the Upjohn Institute found that:
...new construction reduces demand and loosens the housing market in low- and middle-income areas, even in the short run.
A 2019 NYU study found that new housing development reduced rents in the immediate vicinity, even as it also attracted new restaurants. Specifically:
...for every 10% increase in the housing stock, rents decrease 1% and sales prices also decrease within 500 feet…Opposing such development may exacerbate the housing affordability crisis and increase housing cost burdens for local renters.
A 2018 Northwestern study also found that:
...on average and in the short-run — new construction lowers rents in gentrifying neighborhoods.
How does the housing crisis affect the environment?
Passenger vehicles are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, representing 28 percent of our total. Per-capita auto emissions in Ventura County have risen 13 percent since 1990, and much of that increase occurred since 2013.
UC Berkeley’s CoolClimate calculator shows that reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and promoting urban infill are two of the most important local policies Ventura County can apply to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
From 2016 to 2018, air pollution in California rose 15.4 percent, more than any other region in the country. Removing the effect of fires, it rose 12.5 percent, still more than any other region. This increase killed over 4,000 people (the equivalent of 80 Ventura County residents) and caused over $35 billion in damages.
Auto emissions have increased 45 percent since 1990, and given the correlation between auto emissions and pollution, Ventura County’s pollution has likely increased at least as much as California’s.
Driving is also polluting our oceans, as tires are the biggest source of microplastics in California’s coastal waters.
What about fires?
Without housing options nearer job centers, workers increasingly have to live farther from their work. Beyond long commutes, this also forces people to live in fire-prone areas with poor electrical infrastructure. Coupled with houses themselves becoming fuel for wildfires and the increased risk of wildfires caused by higher commuting emissions, and sprawl emerges as a major source of fire risk.
Some of our communities, like Oxnard, Port Hueneme, and Camarillo, are among the safest in California in terms of fire risk. Allowing more people to live here will mean fewer people forced into danger.
How does the housing crisis affect the economy?
A 2016 McKinsey report estimated that:
"California loses $140 billion per year in output or 6 percent of state GDP due to the housing shortage."
This would be $3,500 for every California resident, or $4 billion per year for Ventura County.
Economists from the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley estimated in 2015 that the US-wide effects of restrictions on housing supply total $1.6 trillion per year, or about $5,000 per person. Their subsequent 2019 study found that housing supply constraints "lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009." A separate 2019 paper found that lifting these constraints would raise incomes by 26 percent.
Building more housing is particularly important for Ventura County. Cal Lutheran's Center for Economic Research & Forecasting issued a report in 2019 showing that high housing costs resulting from low supply have weakened the county's economy, and projected nearly a decade of stagnation if it is not addressed.
How does the housing crisis affect poverty?
The Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure has consistently listed California as the highest-poverty state. The latest data, from 2016–2018, shows that 18.2 percent of Californians are in poverty, 40 percent above the national average of 13.2 percent.
This impoverishment largely results from California’s high housing costs. California also has the largest gap between the poverty measures that do and do not consider housing costs.
The California Poverty Measure, a poverty measure created by Stanford and PPIC in a similar way to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, estimates that 17.0 percent of Ventura County residents are in poverty as of 2018, nearly double the rate estimated when housing costs are not considered.
What's the link between the housing crisis and segregation / racial justice?
Over 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools in Ventura County remain heavily segregated. These outcomes result from adherence to historical housing inequities, especially the prohibition of apartment construction in wealthy white neighborhoods used to keep minorities out (see Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law).
Oxnard resident and UCLA professor David G. Garcia, in his book Strategies of Segregation, identified four strategies white people historically used to segregate Hispanic children in Oxnard. One was “Building a permanent link between residential and school segregation.” These links persist to this day; for example, Garcia found that a formerly all-white neighborhood is now a historic district, preventing denser housing that would be more accessible to low income families and people of color. Garcia's finding was not an isolated instance: a 2020 report from UC Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute found, "as the proportion of single-family zoning increases, so does its white population, while the Black and Latinx populations decrease."
How does the housing crisis affect homelessness?
Homelessness is rising across many counties in California, including Ventura County.
A 2018 Zillow-commissioned report found that “homelessness rises faster where rent exceeds a third of income.”
A 2018 UCLA report came to the same conclusion that high housing costs are a major factor in predicting homelessness, and both the Obama and Trump administrations released whitepapers demonstrating this link.
How does the housing crisis affect displacement?
In addition to the studies listed above showing that new housing development reduces housing costs in the vicinity, other studies question whether new construction causes displacement, and conclude that it does not.
One example is a 2018 paper from San Francisco’s Planning Department that identified a negative correlation between housing production and legal evictions in San Francisco’s heavily-Latino Mission district.
A related concern is that new high-end housing developments create “induced demand,” in which they attract high income residents and make the neighborhood less affordable. While a 2019 NYU study found some evidence of this in the form of more restaurants, they found that the effect of additional housing supply was greater, so rents fell overall. Another 2019 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that condominium development, rather than generating high-income demand, followed high-income demand. A 2020 study of New York City also found that, "developers are reactive, not proactive, in their investment decisions."
How does the housing crisis affect public health?
By forcing people into longer drives, the housing crisis contributes to motor vehicle deaths and health issues from air and noise pollution. And by forcing people into sharing homes with other people, it raises transmission of infectious diseases like Covid-19.
Motor vehicle fatalities
Higher speed limits make roads more dangerous:
researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that for every 5 mph increase in a highway’s speed limit, roadway fatalities rose 8.5 percent.
Over the past 25 years, the report finds, higher speed limits caused 36,760 deaths.
Motor vehicles are a top cause of death across age groups, especially children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, in 2017, unintentional injuries were the top cause of death for all age groups from age 1 to 44, and motor vehicles were the top cause of unintentional-injury death among the age groups 5 to 9, 10 to 14, and 15 to 24.
Infill mixed-use developments make more excursions walkable, cutting down on the epidemic of vehicle fatalities.
A growing academic literature has identified air pollution as a cause of many public health and social problems, from low birth weight to depression to baldness to childhood stunting to dementia to crime. Reducing pollution by reducing vehicle miles traveled would cut health expenses, improve the economy, and save lives, especially of children.
People aren't loud, vehicles are. Cities with dense development, like Amsterdam, are quieter than many American suburbs, because people walk and bike around, and don't have to travel long distances. Noise pollution created by vehicle traffic causes health problems like cardiovascular disease.
Covid-19 infection rates have been consistently tied to crowding within housing units, and not to density of housing units per acre.
In a peer reviewed study, Johns Hopkins researchers found no link between urban density and Covid-19 infection rates, while they did find that denser areas had lower Covid-19 death rates. NYU's Furman Center and Gothamist/WNYC each found that density did not contribute to transmission, while overcrowded housing units--the direct result of a shortage--was a major factor. A VC Star investigation also found that overcrowded housing is worsening Covid-19 spread, with farmworker housing facilities becoming exceptional hotspots.
It may be too late to build our way out of this public health crisis, but by producing abundant housing such that anyone who wants space can have it, we can be better prepared for the next one, and reduce transmission of evergreen infectious diseases like the flu.