Long Beach has invested heavily in reducing homelessness and increasing housing affordability. Is it enough?

Mar 13, 2024

By Brian Hendershot, Cal Cities Advocate Managing Editor

If you designed the ideal, city-level response to California's homelessness and housing affordability crisis, it might look a lot like Long Beach’s. Like many cities, Long Beach is trying to roll back ineffective land use policies, mitigate macroeconomic tailwinds, and increase supportive services for people already experiencing homelessness.

It’s a stark difference from previous years. Between 1991 and 2016, Long Beach permitted fewer than 1,000 new homes a year. But recently, the city has permitted so many new homes that the supply boost contributed to a drop in average rent in the city by 5%, according to the Long Beach Business Journal.

Despite this progress, city officials are worried. And the average price of a studio apartment is double what it was ten years ago. “Inflation far exceeds cost adjustments that people receive,” said Paul Duncan, the city’s homeless services bureau manager. “[It is] unlikely in that period of time that most of the people that need affordable housing saw their income double … more and more people are getting closer to that edge.”

A holistic response to housing and homelessness

Long Beach needs to incentivize the construction of a lot of housing — 26,500 units over eight years according to the state — to make lasting progress. To do this, the city has streamlined permitting, rezoned areas for mixed-use and greater density, simplified rules for accessory dwelling unit construction, and reduced certain fees. The city also sets aside 11% of housing units for lower-income households in some areas.

But that’s not all. The city offers low-cost loans for new affordable rental housing, maintains a housing trust fund, and helps subsidize rental housing for low-income families. For its efforts, Long Beach received the state’s prohousing designation in 2023.

“They’ve provided critical funding and streamlined processes that help remove barriers to getting housing built,” said Suny Lay Chang, president and COO of Linc Housing. “Our partnership with Long Beach is a key reason we’ve been able to build three affordable and supportive apartment communities in the city, with four more in our pipeline.”

Long Beach is equally proactive when it comes to providing services for people already experiencing homelessness. The city council proclaimed a state of emergency on homelessness last year, which allowed it to ramp up staffing, resources, and programs for its Homeless Services Bureau.

The city has invested or secured millions of dollars for outreach, encampment resolutions, and a range of rapid and permanent housing options. The city purchased a new interim shelter and is working with developers on transitional tiny homes and a motel conversion project that will provide supportive housing.

Long Beach also diverts nonviolent calls for services to a team of clinicians and social workers and maintains a mobile access center program that provides case management and supportive services.

One of its more successful, long-term partnerships is with Century Housing, which led to Villages at Cabrillo. The 27-acre community provides permanent supportive housing for close to 1,800 people. Nearly all village residents have retained permanent housing after one year.

“For decades, we have worked closely together to provide permanent supportive housing for our neighbors in need — dignified, stable homes and coordinated, onsite services for our residents, many of whom are transitioning out of homelessness,” said Oscar Alvarado, vice president of housing at Century Housing. “The city has been with us every step of the way to ensure the success of our residents through our shared holistic approach.”

City officials are now looking at ways to prevent homelessness altogether. The city is building its first Youth Navigation Center, leveraging regional partnerships, and developing a pilot program to finance accessory dwelling units for homeowners who rent the new units to low-income families.

Despite these efforts, homelessness still increased in 2022. According to the city’s own data, the number of unhoused residents grew by 4.6% — the lowest increase in five years. It’s a grim reminder of both the scale of the crises and the resources needed to end them.

“We are proud of the work Long Beach has done to advance housing production, and we are actively engaged in homeless prevention efforts and policies to help people remain in their homes, including tenant protections, rental assistance, and right to counsel programs,’’ said Mayor Rex Richardson. “But Long Beach cannot address this crisis on our own; no city can. Cities need ongoing, direct funding to provide much-needed homeless services and to expand behavioral health resources for people experiencing homelessness.”

Short-term funding can’t fix long-term problems

Even for a city as large as Long Beach, grant funding is still both limited and highly competitive. There’s not enough funding to go around for affordable housing and crucially, supportive services. The pandemic and high inflation only made things worse.  

“Long Beach was able to house more people in interim housing than ever before, opening nearly 500 new emergency and interim housing units; however, these locations are consistently near capacity,” said Deputy City Manager Teresa Chandler.

The solutions to California’s housing affordability and homelessness crisis are deceptively simple: Build more housing. After all, homelessness programs are only successful if there is a house for people to transition into. And the best way to spur more housing is for all levels of government to share resources — financial or otherwise — and partner with other stakeholders.

But this is not just a city issue. As local leaders remove barriers to housing production, it is critical that the state also provides a sustainable source of funding that developers and cities can leverage. Stop-gap funding only creates short-term solutions.

“While we build new housing opportunities and keep people housed, we need direct funding support for interim housing, recuperative care beds, and step-down beds,” Richardson said. “We have to build more housing and serve our unhoused residents simultaneously.”

The Cal Cities #LocalWorks initiative shines the spotlight on examples of local actions that are making a difference to their communities. Show how #LocalWorks in your community by contacting communications@calcities.org.