For decades, California’s housing costs have been racing ahead of incomes, as counties and local governments have imposed restrictive land-use regulations that drove up the price of land and dwellings. This has been documented by both Dartmouth economist William A Fischel and the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Middle income households have been forced to accept lower standards of living while less fortunate have been driven into poverty by the high cost of housing.Housing costs have risen in some markets compared to others that the federal government now publishes alternative poverty estimates (the Supplemental Poverty Measure), because the official poverty measure used for decades does not capture the resulting differentials. The latest figures, for 2013, show California’s housing cost adjusted poverty rate to be 23.4 percent, nearly half again as high as the national average of 15.9 percent.
Back in the years when the nation had a “California Dream,” it would have been inconceivable for things to have gotten so bad — particularly amidst what is widely hailed as a spectacular recovery. The 2013 data shows California to have the worst housing cost adjusted poverty rate among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. But it gets worse. California’s poverty rate is now more than 50 percent higher than Mississippi, which long has set the standard for extreme poverty in the United States (Figure 1).
The size of the geographic samples used to estimate the housing adjusted poverty rates are not sufficient for the Supplemental Poverty Measure to produce local, county level or metropolitan area estimates. However, a new similar measure makes that possible.
The California Poverty Measure
The Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality have collaborated to establish the “California Poverty Measure,” which is similar to the Supplemental Poverty Measure adjusted for housing costs.
The press release announcing release of the first edition (for 2011) said that: “California, often thought of as the land of plenty” in the words Center on Poverty and Inequality director Professor David Grusky, is “in fact the land of poverty.”
The latest California Poverty Measure estimate, for 2012, shows a statewide poverty rate of 21.8 percent, somewhat below the Supplemental Poverty Measure and well above the Official Poverty Measure that does not adjust for housing costs (16.5 percent).
The California Poverty Measure also provides data for most of California’s 58 counties, with some smaller counties combined due to statistical limitations. This makes it possible to estimate the California Poverty Measure for metropolitan areas, using American Community Survey data.
Metropolitan Area Estimates
By far the worst metropolitan area poverty rate was in Los Angeles, at 25.3 percent. The Los Angeles County poverty rate was the highest in the state at 26.1 percent, well above that of Orange County (22.4 percent), which constitutes the balance of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. However, the Orange County rate was higher than that of any other metropolitan area or region in the state (Figure 2). San Diego’s poverty rate was 21.7 percent. Perhaps surprisingly, Riverside-San Bernardino (the Inland Empire), which is generally perceived to have greater poverty, but with lower housing costs, had a rate of 20.9 percent. The two counties, Riverside and San Bernardino had lower poverty rates than all Southern California counties except for Ventura (Oxnard) and Imperial.
The San Francisco metropolitan area had a poverty rate of 19.4 percent, more than one-fifth below that of Los Angeles. San Jose has a somewhat lower poverty rated 18.3 percent (Note 1). The metropolitan areas making constituting the exurbs of the San Francisco Bay Area had a poverty rate of 18.7 percent. This includes Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Stockton and Vallejo. Sacramento had the lowest poverty rate of any major metropolitan area, at 18.2 percent.
The San Joaquin Valley, stretching from Bakersfield through Fresno to Modesto (Stockton is excluded because it is now a San Francisco Bay Area exurb) had a poverty rate of 21.3 percent, slightly below the state wide average of 21.8 percent. The balance of the state, not included in the metropolitan areas and regions described above had a poverty rate of 21.2 percent.
County Poverty Rates
As was noted above, Los Angeles County had the highest 2012 poverty rate in the state (Note 2), according to the California Poverty Measure (26.1 percent). Tulare County, in the San Joaquin Valley had the second-highest rate at 25.2 percent. Somewhat surprisingly, San Francisco County with its reputation for high income had the third worst poverty rate in the state at 23.4 percent. This is driven, at least in part, by San Francisco’s extraordinarily high median house price to household income ratio (median multiple). In this grisly statistic, it trails only Hong Kong, Vancouver and Sydney in the latest Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.Wealthy Santa Barbara County has the fourth worst poverty rate in the state, at 23.8 percent. The fifth highest poverty rate is in Stanislaus County, in the San Joaquin Valley (county seat Modesto), which is already receiving housing refugees from the San Francisco Bay Area, unable to pay the high prices (Figure 3).
The two lowest poverty rates were in suburban Sacramento counties (Note 2). Placer County’s rate was 13.2 percent and El Dorado County’s rate was 13.3 percent. Another surprise is Imperial County, which borders Mexico and has generally lower income. Nonetheless, Imperial County has the third lowest poverty rate at 13.4 percent. Shasta County (county seat Redding), located at the north end of the Sacramento Valley is ranked fourth at 14.8 percent. Two counties are tied for the fifth lowest poverty rate (16.0 percent), Marin County in suburban San Francisco and Napa County, in the exurban San Francisco Bay Area (Figure 4).
Weak Labor Market and Notoriously Expensive Housing
The original Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality press release cited California’s dismal poverty rate as resulting from “a weak labor market and California’s notoriously expensive housing.” These are problems that can be moderated starting at the top, with the Governor and legislature. The notoriously expensive housing could be addressed by loosening regulations that allow more supply to be built at lower cost. True, the new supply would not be built in Santa Monica or Palo Alto. But additional, lower cost housing on the periphery, whether in Riverside County, the High Desert exurbs of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties, the San Francisco Bay Area exurbs or the San Joaquin Valley could begin to remedy the situation.
The improvement in housing affordability could help to strengthen the weak job market, by attracting both new business investment and households moving from other states.
Regrettably, Sacramento does not seem to be paying attention. Liberalizing land use regulations is not only absent from the public agenda, but restrictions are being strengthened (especially under the requirements of Senate Bill 375). In this environment, metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego could become even more grotesquely unaffordable, and the already high price to income ratios in the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley could worsen. All of this could lead to slower economic growth and to even greater poverty, as more lower-middle-income households fall into poverty.
Note 1: San Benito County is excluded from the San Jose metropolitan area data. The California Poverty Measure does not report a separate poverty rate for San Benito County.
Note 2: Among the counties for which specific poverty rates are provided.
Wendell Cox is Chair, Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California) and principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm.
He is co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and author of “Demographia World Urban Areas” and “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.” He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.