BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
In Long Beach, thousands of families spend so much of their income on rent that they barely have enough to pay for the other necessities of life. Last Saturday, the League of Women voters hosted a panel discussion that focused on the complexities of solving the extreme shortage of housing that is affordable to low- and very low-income families.
Only about 16 people attended the meeting, which took place at the Los Altos branch library. Panelists included representatives of nonprofit groups, private industry and one Long Beach city official.
Suzanne Brown, senior attorney at the Long Beach office of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, spoke first. Brown works in the Foundation’s Housing Unit, where she specializes in the preservation and creation of affordable housing.
Brown, who is also a member of a nonprofit group called Housing Long Beach, noted that the organization is especially interested in obtaining affordable housing for extremely low-income (ELI) households. “They are the city’s neediest residents and historically the city has not built enough housing for them,” she said, adding that an ELI household earns only 30 percent of the area’s median annual income. She explained that median annual income for a family of four in this region is about $59,000. “An ELI household earns $22,000 per year for a family of four,” she said. “These are folks who are working, but they are not making enough to afford housing.” She stressed that currently there are nearly 35,000 ELI households in the city. “This makes up 19 percent of the city’s population,” she said. “We are very, very focused on getting more attention to this group.”
According to Brown, Housing Long Beach is pushing for a city ordinance that would establish an affordable housing fee for developments. The fee would go into the city’s housing trust fund, which was created to help pay for affordable housing in Long Beach. Brown said the proposed ordinance could allow developers to increase density and reduce parking, thus enabling them to recoup the cost of the fee.
Michael Wylie, vice president of the Park Bixby Tower, Inc., spoke next. Wylie noted that his company’s primary affordable senior housing property is the Park Pacific Tower in downtown Long Beach “We have about 220 very-low-income senior citizens who live there,” he said. “We are subsidized by the HUD Section 8.” He stressed that there is no such thing as a stereotypical very-low-income senior. “There are about 15 different languages spoken in the tower,” he said. “Eighty percent of the people in our building have a college degree, forty percent have a masters degree and 15 percent have doctoral degrees, and they are living on government handouts.”
After Wylie’s presentation, Ellie Tolentino, manager of the City of Long Beach’s Housing Services Bureau, took the microphone. Tolentino is also the vice president of the Long Beach Housing Development Company. She noted that many people believe that affordable housing is for people who do not work at all. “I want to dispel that misconception,” she said, explaining that many working families can barely afford to help rent.
Tolentino explained that while the city works hard to develop affordable housing, much of the funding for such projects comes from the federal government. She noted that each funding source used by the city carries its own restrictions, making the development process slow and cumbersome.
Tolentino added that the city does have programs to assist the homeless and low-income households. Information about those programs is available at www.LBHDC.org.
John Castillo, senior manager of acquisitions for Advanced Development and Investments, Inc. (a private, for-profit development firm), spoke next. He agreed there was a need to develop housing for low and very-low income households. “But the government’s system is not necessarily the best way to go forward in this process,” he said. Castillo insisted that governmental fees and regulations have added tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of every residential unit whether it’s a house or an apartment. He said those fees and regulations are largely responsible for making housing unaffordable to working families.
“Subsidized housing also encourages people to remain dependent on the government,” he said. “I know of HUD-subsidized housing where three generations of the same families are presently living in different apartments in the same building.”
The next speaker was Sindy Guzman, case analyst for the Long Beach Fair Housing Foundation. She gave a brief description of how her organization works to eliminate discrimination in housing.
The final speaker, Chas Belknap, blasted the Long Beach City Council for what he said was its resistance to the development of housing affordable to the poor residents of Long Beach. Belknap started the Mental Health Association’s Housing and Real Estate Department (also known as Community Development) in 1988. Since then he has butted heads with city officials on numerous occasions over his organization’s efforts to develop housing for the mentally-ill poor in Long Beach. He explained that the policy and funding two key components in developing affordable housing in the city. “Both of those things are controlled by the city council,” he said, adding that council members want to be popular in their districts but have little regard for Long Beach’s most needy residents.
After Belknap’s presentation, the speakers fielded questions from the audience and respectfully disagreed with some of the statements made by their fellow panelists.
Jessica Quintana, executive director of the Community Hispanic Association, was the discussion facilitator. She urged audience members to become active in the affordable-housing decision-making process and to make their views known to the city council. “We are the leaders in our city and we need to get involved in this quality-of-life issue,” she said.