Cathedral City works to remain affordable as it lures priced-out homebuyers

Aug 16, 2023

When Cathedral City Mayor Rita Lamb says, “We are hot!” she is not just referring to the searing summer heat in this desert community.

Cathedral City is making a concerted push to permit affordable and market-rate housing. In 2022, the city issued a record 2,495 new building permits.

Sandwiched between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage in the Coachella Valley, Cathedral City is often overlooked for its glitzier neighbors. But with housing prices skyrocketing in other parts of California — particularly coastal Southern California — this community of 51,000 has started to see a trickle of new home seekers from those regions. The new residents are being lured by more reasonable prices and the city’s emphasis on amenities and livability.

“When our city did a strategic planning session in January, we decided we wanted to be a destination with our own identity, not just a city people drove through,” Lamb said. 

But first, it wants to be an attractive and affordable city for its current residents. This year it used $3.7 million to beautify main thoroughfares.

In recent years, Cathedral City has focused on creating affordable housing for veterans and seniors, funded via tax credits, state appropriations, Riverside County, and private development funds. In the past 12 months, developers completed two major projects.

In April, the nonprofit CORE finished a retrofit and rehab of Cathedral Palms, a 60-year-old housing facility for seniors. The new building has 224 affordable apartment units for seniors ages 55 and older earning less than 60% of the area median income. 

Sixty-eight of those are set aside for formerly unhoused seniors, a growing percentage of the city’s population. New amenities include a large community center, two swimming pools, and behavioral health care provided by Riverside University Health System. Residents can also access health and social engagement programs at the center.

Riverside County helped make the project possible through a combination of funding and federal housing vouchers.

Just a few months prior Veterans Village — 60 units for veterans at risk of or experiencing homelessness — opened next to a new Salvation Army store. Cathedral City donated land to the project.

The project started after a conversation between Lori Zito of Urban Housing Communities and the late Mayor Gregory S. Pettis, who both realized that veterans in the Coachella Valley needed housing.

The city contributed $1 million towards the $27 million project. Developers cobbled together additional funding from a variety of local, regional, and state sources.

Veterans Village includes a community center and garden, swimming pool, barbecue area, and bocce ball courts. It also provides a host of supportive services, such as on-site case management and supportive services.

Rick Zausch, who previously lived in his RV and uses braces for walking due to severe rheumatoid arthritis, is effusive in his praise. He says Veterans Village is both beautiful and safe.

“A lot of veterans here truly appreciate what has been done for them,” said the 74-year-old former entertainer who performs periodically at the Veterans Village community center. “If not for Veterans Village, they would have been homeless.

“People don’t realize how easy it is these days to become homeless. It’s not a chosen lifestyle — when things go south, they go south quickly. One day you have a job and some income, then the next you may only have social security and can’t afford the rent.”

City Manager Charles McClendon credits the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG), community groups, and individual cities for uniting to make the project happen. “We couldn’t do this by ourselves, nor can any of these groups operating alone,” he said. “It also takes a willing community like ours. Sometimes when a community proposes affordable housing there is pushback. But not here.”

CVAG is a major driver of projects like these in the region. The association works with cities to assess which of the approximately 1,100 unhoused people in the Valley should be prioritized for temporary or long-term housing.

Community buy-in was so positive that Cathedral City was able to situate the new housing units immediately adjacent to existing single-family neighborhoods. Mayor Lamb credits this to a citywide communications outreach that starts at a project’s conception and lasts through its grand opening.

“Our affordable housing is not shoved into an isolated corner,” she said.

Cathedral City is always looking for ways to increase the housing supply. When it discovered that many homes were being sold to investors — who turned them into short-term vacation rentals — the city assembled a task force, held town halls, and passed a measure to regulate short-term rental properties. It also began permitting more accessible dwelling units.

“We are prioritizing permanent housing solutions for our residents and new residents,” Lamb said.

Lamb says when she recently saw the mayor of neighboring La Quinta, she teased her about La Quinta’s moniker. “They call themselves the gem of the desert,” she says. “I told her that we are the hidden gem. We want to be both a destination for new residents and continue to be a welcoming and affordable place for everyone in our community.” 

To that end, Lamb coined an unofficial slogan for her community.

“All roads lead to Cathedral City!” 

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