Zooming in on California’s Housing Crisis with the Social Progress Index for California Counties

In the 2018 Social Progress Index (SPI): US States California ranked 33rd (45.53/100 points) out of the 50 states. While California is often perceived to be more progressive, this ranking highlights the need to decouple economic indicators from those of social progress. Despite being the fifth largest economy in the world, and the largest state economy in the US, California’s social progress is lagging behind states who perform much worse on traditional economic indicators. More extremely, on the dimension of Basic Human Needs (37.42) the Golden State was ranked second to last, in spite of having the 9th highest median household income ($63,783). Clearly, higher incomes do not guarantee social progress and a deeper dive into California’s Basic Human Needs is necessary for understanding the social progress challenges faced by the state.

Within the dimension of Basic Human Needs, California ranked dead last on the component of Shelter (14.06), with over 47% of households experiencing some type of housing problem. In the SPI for US States, the Shelter dimension was broken down into four indicators: housing problems, availability of affordable housing, homelessness and unsheltered homelessness. Then, in March of 2019, the Social Progress Index (SPI): California Counties was released. The more focused index separates the Shelter component into five indicators—housing overcrowding, housing cost burden for owners, housing cost burden for renters, outstanding regional housing needs allocation (RHNA), and homelessness—based on more specific state data instead of the four broader measures in the SPI for US States. This more distinct breakdown of components provides opportunities for both local and state policymakers to use data to work together and affect social progress. 

Homes densely populate a crowded residential neighborhood in front of the Oakland Bay Bridge.

California has seen housing prices soar as new job growth has lead to a massive influx of workers relative to stagnant new housing construction. Over the past couple years the state legislature has attempted to enact several different proposals that would expand affordable housing opportunities but has experienced significant pushback from proponents of county- and city-level control. Most recently, in May of 2019, the California Senate Appropriations Committee postponed the SB50 Housing Development Bill which would have provided incentives and streamlined approval for multifamily housing projects in close proximity to public transit. While the struggle between local and state control is certainly significant, the SPI for California Counties highlights the urgency of this issue and also provides a more refined way to approach housing reform that takes into account each county and its unique strengths and weaknesses. 

By using the data from the SPI for California Counties, it is possible to see that despite Northern California’s general social progress leadership, five of the worst ten scores on the Basic Human Needs dimension are from counties in that region. Interestingly, three of the top ten counties and two of the bottom ten counties in the state for Shelter are in Northern California. This county-level data allows policymakers to pinpoint specific challenges and make informed decisions.

While California’s rapidly growing economy—spurred by technological innovation stemming from Silicon Valley—may mask the state’s need for affordable housing reform, effectively addressing the housing crisis itself may be more complex than it initially appears. On average, California counties score 51.70 points for the Shelter component, but the Bay Area lags behind with a score of 50.10. Additionally, Santa Cruz, one of ten counties in the Bay Area, has the second lowest ranking for Shelter (32.20) in the whole state. The county struggles on the housing cost burden indicators for both renting and owning, ranking 51st and 52nd respectively. In real terms, Santa Cruz’s median household income is $80,607, but the median home price is $922,000, according to Forbes. Despite the epicenter of growth that Silicon Valley has created in the Bay Area, a strong economy can also yield new social problems that may be hidden by rising incomes. The social progress indexes break through the facade of economic indicators to provide leaders and policymakers with the information that will affect the outputs which matter most to their constituents. 

Santa Cruz County Scorecard from 2019 SPI: California Counties

In a piece about the rapidly escalating housing crisis, the New York Times reported that some Californians endure commutes over two hours and spanning more than 80 miles. The lack of affordable and accessible housing opportunities in California has ramifications for social progress beyond the component of Shelter. The traffic density of commuters can impact air quality. The duration of travel can increase childcare costs and decrease leisure time. The length of a commute can even minimize the time and opportunity available to continue education, conflicting with night classes or time to complete online degrees. 

The best policy interventions must take into account the interaction between each dimension and component of the Social Progress Index, otherwise, the aggregate social progress of a city, state, or country may suffer. The reality is that with most policy decisions, trade-offs do exist, but with the focus of the SPI: California Counties, policymakers can be more aware of where those trade-offs may be and of how to create multi-faceted interventions to minimize them. 

Perhaps California’s housing reform delay provides an opportunity for legislators to look more holistically at problems faced by the Golden State. Targeted and dynamic policy interventions, supported by data on social progress and designed to balance state and local power could have a tremendous influence on the nearly 40 million people in the state. Despite California’s booming economy and rapid job growth, the current housing crisis serves as a reminder that we must move beyond solely defining success through GDP and look to more comprehensive measures that take into account the day to day struggles that are faced by individuals across the world, in the US, and even in the largest US state economy—California.

It’s time to zoom in on social progress; check out the Social Progress Index for California Counties to learn more. 

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