Are we making housing even less affordable in Merced?

Construction crews work on houses going up in a subdivision near Cardella Road and G Street in December, 2018.
Construction crews work on houses going up in a subdivision near Cardella Road and G Street in December, 2018. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Welcome to Merced … the newest part of the Bay Area.

A recent commentary in the Merced Sun-Star (“Bay Area growth means new opportunities for Valley,” Dec. 8, Page 3B) stated the San Joaquin Valley, and Merced in particular, is poised to benefit from Bay Area growth, which seems to present some excellent economic opportunities, ranging from more jobs to a significant boost in enrollment at UC Merced.

Of course, this would be welcome news for any region. Economic expansion that benefits all communities should always be a leading priority of any elected official. Herein lies the catch – all communities.

The Sun-Star’s story reports that, “A newly constructed, four-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot home in Merced is currently listed for $275,000. That same type of home in Pleasanton would sell for more than $1 million.” Given that wages in the Bay Area are much higher than in the Central Valley, this is a major bargain for Bay Area families. But what about current Merced residents?

The widely held view that the Central Valley is one of California’s last bastions of affordability is only true for those who already possess some personal capital. In other words, the Valley isn’t affordable for thousands of families who already live here.

The Valley is a society of renters, and renters generally have lower incomes than homeowners. Renters can’t buy because rent takes up the majority of their household budget and there’s little left to save toward a substantial down payment.

In September, the Sun-Star reported “the number of people spending half of their income on rent in Merced has grown by close to 4,000 in the past decade.”

Meanwhile, Merced housing prices are the fastest rising in the Valley. The influx of Bay Area affluence will have an enormous impact on those families who already must decide between paying the rent or buying food. These families will be pushed even further away from the dream of home ownership.

These are families of color who will continue to lose out on an economic opportunity. Home ownership is a key way to create wealth. In particular, homeownership and renting opportunities for many undocumented folks are very difficult. Multiple barriers – credit reports, double-income requirements, etc. – make it difficult for current Merced residents with undocumented status.

Given entrenched poverty and barriers to healthy and affordable housing, any planning effort must start by addressing needs and opportunities in historically underserved communities.

These neighborhoods must be beneficiaries – not losers – in the process. Residents need to be included in the planning process from the start, making sure the jobs that are created provide a worthwhile wage and easing – not exacerbating – Merced’s housing situation. This will require a proactive policy, shaped and driven by resident voices aimed at preserving and expanding the region’s affordable housing opportunities.

Many parts of the Valley have not recovered from the housing collapse of 10 years ago.

“We saw families – especially families of color – who lost all of their family wealth (due to the housing crisis),” said Rob Wiener, director of the California Coalition for Rural Housing. “There may (be) a whole generation of households in the San Joaquin Valley for whom homeownership is not going to be a possibility, at least not for some time to come.”

Let’s keep in mind what happened to several families who had been living at Merced’s Gateway Hotel. The hotel was deemed unsafe for habitation and they were forced to leave with no place to go. The real problem is that they were living in a hotel in the first place.

“Growth” can’t come at the expense of communities of color. Any plan must put Merced families first.

Abigail Ramirez is a policy advocate for the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.