The Other California is still facing a housing crisis

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Odest Riley Jr.

By Odest Riley Jr., Guest Columnist

(Editor’s note: Odest Riley Jr. is substituting this month for our regular columnist, Starlett Quarles.)

Fifty-two years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech entitled “The Other America,” where he addressed the civil rights issues of this country. The speech addressed how we would not be able to grow as a nation until we learned to grow as a people.

The speech is generally overshadowed by his “I Have a Dream” speech that some would consider warm hearted and easier to digest. In both speeches, he addresses coming together as one nation and working toward a utopia of equality.

However, the guiding principle in “The Other America” revolved around economic disparity; and the inability of a man or woman to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. However, if that American has no money to even afford those boots; this feat can be even more difficult.

Fifty years later, we are still dealing with the same issues that remain prevalent in the California I was born and raised in.

Racism has been repackaged and hidden in a tried and true centuries old gift we call “classism.” Classism has been around as long as there have been villages, towns, cities, states and countries.

Classism’s major effect on Southern California has been spotlighted in our housing market. The market has been so hot over the past decade, that it’s become unaffordable for a hard-working, middle-class family earning $100,000 a year to but a house.

As of January 2020, the average Los Angeles County home is now valued at $615,000. That breaks down to roughly a $3,500 to $4,000 monthly mortgage payment. When you factor in a car payment, food, gas and general living expenses; a family earning $100,000 a year is left without the ability to save or invest anything for their future.

This lack of saving leaves those in this market exposed to all the financial risks the world can throw at them. Many Angelenos are one illness and medical bill away from a debt spiral that can leave them homeless. In addition, homelessness has become so prevalent in California that we are now racing to build new affordable housing units and communities as a remedy to this crisis.

As we reflect on the death of George Floyd and remember King’s legacy, please also reflect on the tragic history of the past, and take the time to think about our children’s and neighbor’s futures.

Because the future we are looking for is in our own backyards and local communities. That future lies in the form of selling homes; such as downsizing into smaller homes or condos as our children move away, and we no longer need the space. It also lays in building “granny flats” and small apartment complexes that we have consistently fought to keep out of affluent neighborhoods.

In addition, our future also lies in the knowledge we spread and in knowing that every law we create to enforce the building of new homes essentially contributes to the lack of housing and unaffordable rents.

We create the market for unaffordable homes by keeping the inventory so low. This fact is shown in the shortage of between 350,000 and 600,000 housing units (depending on what survey you read); which should offer some perspective on how much building we need to do.

While some of you will say, “the city is overcrowded and people should move elsewhere,” I ask you to take a moment and ponder whether this is the attitude you want directed at your children and grandchildren as they graduate from high school and college only to realize they will never be able to afford to live anywhere near the neighborhoods they grew up in. The communities that raised them are being gentrified at such a staggering rate its unlikely inner-city kids will have any past to share with their children.

Next time you say that you support homeless housing, ask yourself if you only support the initiative as long as it means not building it in your community. Or if it only means: “I support people having housing if it doesn’t affect my property values, or changes the demographics in my neighborhood.”

As our country burns, we have to figure out will it be another 50 years before we really see any change in this country when it comes to racial disparity in housing? More specifically, will we continue to de displaced by the original form of redlining of neighborhoods (not allowing minorities to get mortgages in certain areas); or by the modern-day redlining, where investors buy up all the housing in low-income areas, redevelop it and put the property back on the market at a price only the upper middle class can afford?

As we move forward through a 2020 none of us are soon to forget and into 2021, will we continue asking questions about why things are this way? Or will we get together as a people, use all of our collective brain power, and figure out how to make the next 50 years of housing disparity better than the last 50?

Odest Riley Jr. is CEO of WLM Financial, a privately held, full-service real estate firm; and the author of “The ABCs of Real Estate Success.”