Mary Zendejas has resided in a small apartment at 7th Street and Redondo Avenue in Long Beach’s Belmont Heights district for 18 years. Though living with polio since childhood, she was able to manage.
But things changed in 2002 when an accident left her wheelchair-bound and unable to use her own bathroom. Now, her biggest challenge, she says, is finding an affordable place to live that accommodates her disabilities.
“After my accident, I was no longer able to stand up,” said Zendejas, 42, who lives on a fixed income. “So I was thinking about affordable housing for myself that is wheelchair-accessible, and I have had no luck. It’s already been almost 10 years of that.”
Zendejas is one of six people featured in a documentary called The Cost of Living: The Faces of the Housing Crisis in Long Beach. The film, which debuted during a screening at The Art Theatre on Sept. 21, was produced by Housing Long Beach, a nonprofit group that advocates for “equitable housing policies,” according to the organization’s website.
The main goal in producing the 40-minute film is to shed light on how “Long Beach families are challenged to find quality housing that is affordable” in hopes of sparking dialogue about the city’s housing needs.
The film was also released just as Long Beach is updating its Housing Element, a State-mandated planning document that sets guidelines for housing development for the next eight years, from 2014 to 2021. Though the State’s new planning period starts on Oct. 15, Long Beach and other cities have a 120-day grace period, or until February 2014, to approve and submit a final updated Housing Element.
Derek Burnham, Long Beach planning administrator, said dates for the Planning Commission and City Council to vote on approving the 131-page document aren’t scheduled yet, but he expects the City to meet the State’s deadline.
The State-approved Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), which is determined by the Southern California Association of Governments, or SCAG, requires that Long Beach accommodate for at least 7,048 new units during the eight-year planning period. Out of the total, the State requires the City to accommodate: 1,773 units for very low income; 1,066 units for low income; 1,170 units for moderate income; and 3,039 units for above-moderate income.
Each of the four categories is based on how affordable a unit is in relation to household income, from very low income– defined as a unit that is affordable to a household that earns 50 percent or less of the area median income (AMI)– to above-moderate income, a unit affordable to a household that earns above 120 percent of AMI.
Burnham said he expects the City to exceed the State’s housing requirements. Not being in compliance with state law would put the City at a “disadvantage” for securing state grant funding and would deem the City’s General Plan illegally inadequate, he said.
“We are confident we can get the document in compliance with state law, and that certainly is our goal,” Burnham said. “We were able to do that last time and have so in previous documents, so I see no reason why we wouldn’t be able to do so this time. I think we have shown capacity in excess of what the State has required in terms of the aggregate number of units that can be produced.”
Burnham pointed out that the City is only required to provide necessary planning to enable development and the housing isn’t necessarily required to be produced.
“The important thing to understand about the requirements is that they are actual planning requirements rather than production requirements,” he said. “We aren’t required to mandate a certain amount of production of units. We are required to ensure that there are sites available for the production of the number of units that the State sets forward… The City doesn’t control the housing market; we control the regulation surrounding it.”
Housing Long Beach, however, questions whether the City will be able to meet the State’s requirements without implementing new citywide housing policies, especially since the State has abolished redevelopment, which for decades has been the City’s sole source of funding for affordable housing.
The organization notes that Long Beach is required to demonstrate that it has adequate and appropriate sites available to produce 4,009 affordable-housing units through 2021. Affordable housing is defined as “housing that costs no more than 30 percent of one’s income,” according to Housing Long Beach.
For years, redevelopment has “set aside” property-tax-increment funding to give developers an incentive to make a portion of their housing projects affordable. This system was previously carried out through a nonprofit once called the Long Beach Housing Development Company, established by the City in 1989. But now that redevelopment has been wiped out, funding is no longer available to spur affordable housing in the next decade.
“We don’t have a housing budget to move forward and don’t have any money for affordable housing,” said Susanne Browne, senior attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles who works with Housing Long Beach. “Having a local source of revenue is imperative, or we’re going to have a really hard time funding affordable housing in the city.”
Housing Long Beach’s campaign includes four main city policy priorities.
Firstly, the group proposes that Long Beach establish a citywide mixed-income housing ordinance, requiring that developers set aside 10 percent of all new apartments and condominiums as affordable.
Though previous attempts to establish a citywide mixed-income housing ordinance in Long Beach failed to pass, Browne said she is “hopeful” the City Council or the Planning Commission will consider it as the update to the Housing Element comes up for approval. Browne said the policy could be used as a “critical tool” to “desegregate” communities and create a relationship between neighborhoods and developers.
America Aceves, community organizer for Housing Long Beach, said establishing a citywide mixed-income housing ordinance is “completely feasible,” adding that 170 other cities have already implemented such an ordinance. She said, over time, developers would be able to get a “return on their investment,” and the ordinance would provide benefits for the community while addressing the need for affordable housing.
Another policy the organization proposes is to establish permanent local revenue sources by having 20 percent of “boomerang funds,” property-tax revenue the city now receives after being distributed to local taxing entities and following the abolishment of redevelopment, dedicated to affordable-housing projects. The organization estimates that this would provide $7.2 million each year for affordable housing. In addition, the group proposes a commercial linkage fee be imposed on commercial developers to also secure funds for affordable housing.
Housing Long Beach is also calling for the City to identify ways to address “substandard” residences by developing a “Rent Trust Account Program” that would allow tenants to pay their rent or a reduced rent to the City until their homes are repaired. According to the organization, the program would be “at no cost to the City” and would “repair dilapidated units” and “protect tenants from unfair retaliation” from their landlords.
Lastly, Housing Long Beach recommends the City collaborate with community stakeholders to identify “appropriate, healthy sites” for housing development in the new Housing Element plan, adding that housing should be located in “healthy, safe and unsegregated communities with access to parks and public transit.”
Asked how Long Beach would meet the State’s requirements, Burnham said the City is more fortunate than some cities since it is a larger city with downtown and transit-oriented areas that provide for a lot of high-density development.
“Both from a standpoint of size and as far as housing programs, I think we are certainly on the outer edges of doing a lot versus not doing a lot,” he said.
Burnham added that the City is looking at new and existing programs to address the City’s housing needs.
“Certainly, when some of the funding dries up, you have to look at other creative approaches to deal with accommodating housing and making it easier to build housing,” he said. “I think it’s important to note that we’re already doing a lot, and we have a lot of existing programs that are being carried over, particularly when it relates to rehab of existing units, code enforcement and those type of activities that help maintain our existing housing stock.”
Zendejas, who was crowned Ms. Wheelchair California in 2012 and serves as a city commissioner for the Long Beach Citizens Advisory Commission on Disability, said she wanted to share her story in the film to show that not everyone who needs affordable and accessible housing is in the same situation. Though she hasn’t found a suitable place to live yet, Zendejas said she has no intention of leaving Long Beach.
“The Housing Element is only one little piece of the puzzle,” she said. “It’s a big puzzle and ultimately a big picture, and what I think is very important is to know that big picture. We want a better Long Beach. We want a happy Long Beach and a healthy Long Beach. One of the ways to actually have that is to have better affordable housing and accessible housing for all residents of Long Beach.”