The Cost of Living Affordably

Last month I slipped anonymously into a Huntington Beach TEA community meeting to hear our city attorney Michael Gates discuss his most recent battle with the state of California over housing mandates. Gates filed a lawsuit in federal court regarding the proposed 13,382 units of housing the state is mandating that Huntington Beach build. He’s fought this mandate before and lost.

As a long time resident, I was curious to hear his plans. We bought our home in Surf City almost thirty years ago, at a low point in the real estate market. In those days, Huntington Beach was a beach town that two postal employees could afford.

The TEA community meeting began with the number one song on iTunes that week, our former president’s rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance interspersed with the J-6 Choir singing The Star-Spangled Banner. In case you aren’t familiar, the J-6 choir consists of inmates in a Washington DC prison who sing the national anthem every night. Someone recorded them on a cell phone. You can google the performance if you want.

Our city attorney was introduced next. Gates jumped right into a discussion of his battles with the Golden State. He’s won a few—captured $30 million in redevelopment funds and successfully defended several police shooting lawsuits. The crowd was in his corner, frequently interrupting with applause.

Gates explained that he filed the current law suit in federal court instead of the state court because he believes that approving the California housing mandates is a violation of the First Amendment. Approving the mandates requires that each member of the city council sign a statement that housing needs outweigh environmental concerns. Gates argues that increased housing obviously has environmental issues, so how could anyone sign off on that? He said this should be a non-partisan issue that even Democrats should support. (I’m sure it’s only a coincidence that he looked in my direction at that point in the meeting.)

According to Gates, Huntington Beach is “built out” and has no room for more development. He proposed that if the state believes more housing is needed we should look to the vast undeveloped areas in California, such as San Bernardino Country. This suggestion was met with great applause. There was no discussion of the environmental impacts of building in those remote areas.

Gates did make a compelling argument that all counties in California are not required to meet the same affordable housing standards, for example Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area where Governor Newsom lives. I agree that the standards need to be applied equally. Marin County needs to do its share, as does Orange County. And Huntington Beach.

I wanted to know how “affordable housing” is defined and who is it meant for but it wasn’t the right moment to ask questions. Turns out the meeting was also a celebration of Gates’ birthday. A card was passed around. A cake was presented. Happy Birthday was sung.

I went home and did some research.  California law defines affordable housing costs for lower-income households as not more than 30 percent of gross household income. The average rent cost in Huntington Beach, California is currently well above $2,500 which is at least $30,000 annually. That means that if the total household income is less than $100,000, the occupants qualify for affordable housing.

Who are these “lower-income” people making less than $100,000 a year? Lots of folks, it turns out. The average salary for a postal worker is $59,000. The average public-school teacher salary in California was $62,751 in February 2023. The average police officer salary in California is currently $69,400.  The average paramedic salary in California is currently $53,102.

Affordable housing is a complicated issue and I realize my explanation above is overly simplified. People need to live someplace they can afford though. Will that be in Huntington Beach? Stay tuned for future developments.


4 Responses

  1. Interesting post, Mary. I read about the City Attorney’s lawsuit and wondered how you were feeling about it. It’s such a complicated issue, and I believe it should be addressed on a federal level because I recently heard that 30% of the nation’s homeless are in California. I would guess that a good portion of them are from elsewhere and I don’t blame them for wanting to come here because I certainly love it here. Were you able to verify what Gates said about Marin County? I always take statements with a grain of salt until it’s verified. He may be speaking the truth or he may just be throwing red meat. Thanks for this post.

    1. Hi there! Nice to hear from you. Thanks for reading!!!

      I agree that homelessness should be a national issue but Gates didn’t even want to talk about homelessness that night and his current lawsuit isn’t about homelessness. I’m doubtful his 1st amendment argument is going to work but I guess it depends on the judge. Regarding his Marin County argument here’s what the Voice of OC said recently about the argument

      “HB’s new Republican elected council majority contends that Sacramento’s affordable housing charge isn’t spread all that fairly across California.
      They’ve often pointed to Marin – Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home county in the San Francisco Bay Area – whose suburban-minded residents enjoy less neighbors, despite bordering a major metropolitan hub, due to lower state standards for housing density.

      After a push by residents and local leaders, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed that lower standard into law in 2014, reclassifying the county from ‘metropolitan’ to ‘suburban’ under government planning and land use code. In doing so, Brown lowered the state’s density requirement on future housing projects from 30 units per acre to 20 for the years 2015 to 2023. In 2017, the state legislature approved an extension of that Marin County protection to 2028.

      The SF Chronicle had a similar article recently

      “Nevertheless, buried within Huntington Beach’s ranting and raving is a kernel of truth: California housing law does not treat all local governments equally.The lawsuit slams Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom for giving preferential treatment to “his home county of Marin,” adding, “Some regions, like Marin County, essentially get a pass on producing housing, while cities like Huntington Beach disproportionately shoulder high volumes of high-density mandates.” That’s actually kind of right

      Marin County does enjoy special protections in state housing law, though it has nothing to do with Newsom, who took office in 2019. In 2014, state lawmakers passed, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill — authored by then-Assembly Member Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, and sponsored by Marin County — to classify the county and two of its larger cities as “suburban” rather than “metropolitan,” lowering the default housing density it had to plan for from 30 to 20 units per acre. Those protections were set to expire in 2023. However, at the behest of Levine, in 2017 state lawmakers approved and Brown signed a secretive budget trailer bill that extended Marin County’s “suburban” classification through 2028.”

      Probably more than you wanted to know!

  2. I’m glad you mentioned the housing issue n your article. Fun Fact you didn’t know about your sister-in-law: I’m a geek about watching my city council meetings. Every city in Orange County is supposed to to their share about low income housing. This is always a topic. HB has been fighting in forever. Why does my own city seem so crowded? we do our share to provide low income housing. Some of it is beautiful on the outside, and the grounds are kept well. Other cities as well that of done their part as well are fighting back as HB and a few other South County cities are trying to avoid it, and everyone needs to do their part.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and responding. I agree, every city needs to do their part. HB’s city council’s fight although completely misguided in my opinion, has brought other cities into the limelight. For example, Orange did come up with a plan for affordable housing, but the state of California kicked it back to them because the locations they proposed were completely unworkable. So many cities are doing the same thing, pretending to make a plan with no intention of carrying it through. I just read a story in the LA Times this morning about all these remarkable kids who are the first generation in their families, getting accepted at University of California campuses with full tuition paid, but turning it down and going to community colleges instead because they can’t afford housing.

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