The Costs of Not Building Housing

05/29/2015 04:48 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

When we talk about affordable housing, it's easy to get tangled in a debate over what and how much the government should do about the crisis. Certainly, the government can't solve the problem all by itself. It can help, and I've proposed a package of measures that, taken together, will create new housing opportunities for many struggling Californians.

As we discuss these proposals, it's important to keep in mind what's at stake if we don't increase the state's housing stock. The costs of the worsening shortage reach far beyond lack of shelter: A lack of housing is linked to every imaginable area of society -- the economy, criminal justice, education, social services, mental and physical health, roads and highways and even the changing climate. The consequences of doing nothing are dire.

As demand for housing rises, the price rises. Already, Californians devote more of their income to housing than do people elsewhere in the United States. The lower your income, the larger the portion of your pay goes to housing, topping out at two-thirds of income for the 25 percent of Californians on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Unless incomes rise for all workers, the portion of pay going to housing will continue to increase as the shortage worsens. Though the California economy is in recovery, family income is lagging.

If more of our pay goes to housing, we have less to spend on other goods and services, the economy becomes less diverse, personal debt rises and saving for the future becomes an unattainable dream for more residents. As housing costs rise, homeownership falls, meaning a smaller percentage of Californians is able to build financial equity and experience the pride of owning a house.

Already, California has the highest poverty rate in the country when cost of living is factored in, and skyrocketing housing costs will push even more residents into the margins. Poverty destabilizes families, potentially for generations, and does damage to the economic vitality of whole neighborhoods.

Rising housing costs means more homelessness. One in every five homeless people in the United States lives in California, and nearly 11 percent of people who are members of homeless families nationwide live in California. Families that are at risk of situational homelessness--for example, becoming homeless because they can no longer afford rent--are consequently at risk of physical- and mental-health problems. Once homeless, it becomes much harder to maintain or get a job.

One way many people avoid homelessness is by crowding under one roof, and California already experiences an alarming rate of crowded housing. People who live in crowded houses are more vulnerable to stress-related mental-health problems, are less educated and have weakened relationships with their children, who themselves do worse in school than other children and are more susceptible to health problems.

You might not become homeless, and you might not be moving in with your sister's family, but there's an increasing chance that you're going be living farther from your job. There are direct links between rising housing costs and longer commutes, which means parents have less time with their children, weakening their bonds and decreasing the chances that those kids will do well in school.

The state Legislative Analyst's Office recently said California would essentially have to double the number of new housing units being created each year just to avoid falling further behind the demand and stop housing costs from rising further. Local and state government, private builders, community leaders and residents must work together to break down the barriers that get in the way of smart, sustainable housing growth. But those barriers are complex, and solving them will take time. As we navigate these challenges, there are things we can do now to create affordable housing for struggling families.

I recently proposed creating a stable, permanent source of funding for affordable housing through a small fee on real-estate transactions, not including residential or commercial property sales (AB 1335). This will generate hundreds of millions of dollars every year for needed housing.

Along with Assembly Member David Chiu, I've proposed increasing to $300 million the amount of money the state can allocate for its Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (AB 35). I've proposed using revenues from the new Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund to reduce both homelessness and recidivism (AB 1056). And, I've proposed a bill (AB 90) that will help California tap into federal low-income-housing dollars.

We must begin solving the problem now, because it impacts all of us.

Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) represents the 78th District. This article was originally published by the Los Angeles News Group.