ACLU: The High Price of Rising County Revenues in OC

The good times have returned for Orange County’s housing market.

And that means bad times for people without homes.

Housing costs in Orange County—some of the highest in the nation—make difficult lives even tougher for people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

When housing costs are factored in, the poverty rate in Orange County nearly doubles from the official figure of 12.8 percent to a whopping 24.3 percent, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. That means nearly a quarter of people in Orange County are living in poverty, much of it caused by the cost of housing. And that lack of affordable housing is the driving force behind homelessness and poverty.

Spiraling housing costs have meant a windfall for the county’s proposed $5.8 billion budget —the biggest increase in revenues and expenditures since the Great Recession. Some of the $340 million hike in revenues over the current budget is propelled by property tax revenues, an upsurge resulting from the county’s pricey property values.

Property tax revenues are projected to grow by 6.8 percent for a nearly $41 million increase in the budget, according to county officials. The county’s discretionary funding, which relies heavily on property tax revenues, will increase from the current $672 million to an estimated $723 million next fiscal year.

Of course, Orange County could offset the negative consequences of its high housing costs by using some of its expanded budget to build permanent, affordable housing for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The county’s approximately 800 chronically homeless people—those who have long or frequent bouts of homelessness along with mental or physical disabilities—desperately need permanent affordable housing with appropriate supportive services. Able bodied homeless people, as well as those living on the brink of homelessness, simply need permanent housing they can afford.

Yet so far the county has been unwilling to address the issue of homelessness in a serious way. Its proposed budget devotes only $6.7 million in County reserves toward getting homeless people off the streets—less than 1 percent of discretionary funding. Those funds will pay for year round emergency shelter. Although it will provide protection from the elements, that money will do nothing to permanently house people.

Instead of devoting its own resources to ending homelessness, the county relies on shrinking or stagnant federal and state funds, ensuring that progress will be incremental at best. Meanwhile, in a self-defeating political maneuver, the Orange County Board of Supervisors recently voted to oppose AB 1335, the Building Homes and Jobs Act, a bill that would provide funding to increase the stock of affordable housing in California.

The most vulnerable county residents pay a high price for out-of-control housing costs in the form of continued homelessness, economic deprivation and suffering. The county should acknowledge this price by using its expanding resources to permanently house its most vulnerable residents and ensure that affordable housing is available for low-income people and their families.

Eve Garrow is a community engagement and policy advocate and Heather Maria Johnson is a staff attorney in the Orange County office of the ACLU of Southern California.