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A safe, stable, and affordable home is the foundation for all people to prosper. Yet ongoing housing affordability challenges mean that many California renters – especially Californians of color and those with low incomes – are struggling to meet housing costs.

Renters of color, especially Black renters, are more likely to be behind on rent. These disparities are intrinsically linked with racist housing, employment, and education policies that have blocked Californians of color from opportunities to achieve housing and economic stability. In addition, about 1 in 6 California renters with incomes less than $50,000 reported being late on rent in recent months.

By removing barriers to affordable housing development and prioritizing meaningful funding to expand the supply of these homes, policymakers can ensure everyone has access to an affordable home. Doing so allows Californians the opportunity to build economic security and avoid the devastating effects of eviction or homelessness.

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Introduction

All Californians deserve a safe and stable place to call home – a home that is affordable, located near their work and communities. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s serious housing affordability challenges threatened the well-being of families and communities and the future growth of the state. Throughout the pandemic, job losses have hit low-wage workers hardest, and hundreds of thousands of renters with low incomes have sought assistance as they are strained to pay rent.1Alissa Anderson, California Low-Paid Workers & Their Families Struggle as Jobs Decline Again (California Budget & Policy Center, February 2021), https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/california-low-paid-workers-their-families-struggle-as-jobs-decline-again/. Enrique Lopezlira, et al., California’s Labor Market in the Time of COVID-19: 2021 Chartbook, February 2022 (UC Berkeley Labor Center, February 1, 2022), https://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/californias-labor-market-in-the-time-of-covid-19-2021-chartbook/.  “California COVID-19 Rent Relief Program Dashboard,” State of California Business, Consumer Services, and Housing Agency, Housing Is Key Rental Assistance (webpage), accessed April 19, 2022, https://housing.ca.gov/covid_rr/dashboard.html. As the pandemic moves into a new stage and many emergency protections are lifted, millions of Californians continue to live in a state of emergency, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

About 2.1 million California households were facing housing hardship in the first months of 2022, meaning people were already late on rent or mortgage payments and/or had low confidence in their ability to make their next payment.2Except where otherwise noted, results cited are from Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey public-use microdata, representing multiweek averages for Week 41 (data collected December 29, 2021 to January 10, 2022), Week 42 (January 26 to February 7, 2022), Week 43 (March 2 to March 14, 2022), and Week 44 (March 30 to April 11, 2022). Without support, these households risk housing instability, evictions, and in the worst case, homelessness.

Who are the Californians currently struggling to afford their housing? Understanding who is experiencing housing hardship can help state leaders target policies and funding to ensure families and individuals receive the support they need to remain in stable housing and thrive.

1. Renters Are Much More Likely to Face Housing Hardship Than Homeowners

Access to an affordable home is the foundation for a healthy life, especially for the more than 40% of Californians who live in rented homes. Californians with low incomes, and Black, Pacific Islander, and Latinx Californians are especially likely to rent – reflecting racist and discriminatory policies and practices in housing, employment, and education that have blocked millions of Californians from homeownership.3Monica Davalos, Sara Kimberlin, and Aureo Mesquita, California’s 17 Million Renters Face Housing Instability and Inequity Before and After COVID-19  (California Budget & Policy Center, February 2021), https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/renters-face-housing-instability-and-inequity-before-and-after-covid-19/.

Renters are especially likely to be struggling to afford their housing. From January to April 2022, California renters were twice as likely as homeowners with mortgages to report housing hardship. About 33% of renter households reported being late on housing payments or having low confidence in their ability to meet the next month’s payments, compared to 15% of homeowners with mortgages.

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 2 renter households paid more than 30% of income toward housing and 1 in 4 spent more than half their income on housing.4Davalos, Kimberlin, and Mesquita, California’s 17 Million Renters. Hundreds of thousands of applications for rental assistance during the pandemic show that renters continue to struggle with housing costs.5California COVID-19 Rent Relief Program Dashboard.”

2. About Half of Renters with Low Incomes Are Struggling to Afford Housing Costs

All Californians, regardless of income, deserve a safe and stable place to live. Yet many Californians particularly struggle to pay for housing when their incomes are low because their work is undervalued, they do not receive fair wages, they have lost jobs, or they depend on retirement or disability benefits that are set below the cost of living. All of these conditions reflect the effects of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and ableist policies and practices in workplaces and housing.

Californians with low incomes are especially likely to rent, and renters with low incomes report the most difficulty paying for housing. About half of renter households with incomes below $50,000 reported housing hardship from January to April 2022.

Californians with low incomes have been hit hardest by pandemic job losses.6Alissa Anderson, California Low-Paid Workers. Enrique Lopezlira, et al., California’s Labor Market. They have also suffered the most as inflation has pushed up prices for food, energy, and other necessities, as well as rent.7Michael Weber, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Olivier Coibion, “The Expected, Perceived, and Realized Inflation of US Households Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, NBER Working Paper 29640, (January 2022), https://www.nber.org/papers/w29640.

3. Racial Disparities in Rent Hardship Are Severe

Race or ethnicity should not affect one’s access to stable and affordable housing. Yet racial inequities are severe in Californians’ housing experiences. Californians of color are most likely to live in renter households and were most likely to have unaffordable housing costs even before the COVID-19 pandemic.8Davalos, Kimberlin, and Mesquita, California’s 17 Million Renters. Black Californians disproportionately experience homelessness, as do American Indian or Alaska Native and Pacific Islander Californians.9Monica Davalos and Sara Kimberlin, Who is Experiencing Homelessness in California? Tailored Housing Interventions are Needed for California’s Diverse Unhoused Population (California Budget & Policy Center, February 2022), https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/who-is-experiencing-homelessness-in-california/. These patterns reflect effects of racist housing, education, and employment policies and practices that have blocked Californians of color from opportunities to achieve housing security.

While housing hardship is being felt across renters of all races and ethnicities in California, Black and Latinx renters are especially likely to report being late or lacking confidence in their ability to make rent payments. About 4 in 10 Black or Latinx renter households reported housing hardship from January to April of 2022. About 3 in 10 Asian renters and about 2 in 10 white renters reported hardship.

These inequitable housing experiences reflect and add to racial inequities in other pandemic hardships. Black and Latinx workers have been most likely to lose employment and slowest to recover from high unemployment rates.10Alissa Anderson, Inequitable Job Gains: Unemployment Is Twice as High for Black Californians as for White Californians (California Budget & Policy Center, August 2021), https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/inequitable-job-gains-covid19/. Pacific Islander, Latinx, and Black Californians have also experienced the highest age-adjusted rates of COVID-19 death.11Adriana Ramos-Yamamoto and Monica Davalos, Confronting Racism, Overcoming COVID-19, and Advancing Health Equity (California Budget & Policy Center, February 2021), https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/confronting-racism-overcoming-covid19-advancing-health-equity/.

more in this series

Read our 5Facts: Who is Experiencing Homelessness in California? to learn more about California’s diverse unhoused population.

4. Housing Hardship Affects California Low-Income Renters in All Types of Families

Across all stages of life, families of all types need affordable and stable housing in order to thrive. Housing security is vital for children because housing instability and homelessness can severely negatively impact children’s health and development. For adults, a stable home is the basic foundation required to maintain health, work, and dignified living conditions throughout all ages of life.

Struggling California renters include both families with children and adult-only households. From January to April 2022, about half of renter households with incomes under $50,000 reporting housing hardship were families with children (51%). About half included only adults (49%), including senior households.

5. Even Before COVID-19, Undocumented and Mixed-Status Renters Had Unaffordable Rents

All Californians, regardless of where they are born, should be able to count on having safe and stable housing. Even before the pandemic, Californians who were undocumented immigrants or in mixed-status families faced higher rates of poverty due to discriminatory barriers to meeting basic needs, including worker exploitation and inequitable access to safety net supports.12Sara Kimberlin, Aureo Mesquita, and Kristin Schumachher, Undocumented & Mixed-Status Families Are Blocked From Food Support (California Budget & Policy Center, May 2022), https://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/undocumented-mixed-status-families-are-blocked-from-food-support/.

Among renter households that include undocumented Californians, an estimated 58% were paying unaffordable rents before the pandemic, and about an estimated one-third were severely housing cost-burdened, paying more than half of their income toward rent.13Budget Center analysis of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey public-use microdata for 2019, using undocumented status imputation developed for the California Poverty Measure. See Figure 5. These high rates of unaffordable housing put these households at risk of housing instability and eviction.

Estimates of current housing hardship among undocumented and mixed-status renters are not available, but the pandemic has likely increased hardship for these Californians. While millions of California workers who lost jobs during the pandemic turned to unemployment benefits for support, workers who are undocumented were blocked from accessing this aid. Undocumented and mixed-status households have also been excluded from other COVID-19 relief and from many ongoing supports that help families meet basic needs like housing.

Conclusion

Every California family and individual deserves a place to live, to thrive, to share moments with their loved ones – a place to call home. Despite much wealth in our state, driving strong growth in state revenues even during the pandemic, millions of Californians continue to live in a state of emergency, struggling to keep up with housing payments and at risk of losing their homes. 

Yet policymakers can act on proven policies and invest in support especially for California’s renters, who are most likely to be facing housing hardship – particularly renters with low incomes and those who are Black and Latinx, as well as undocumented and mixed-status households. Strategies can include:

  • Direct resources to emergency rental assistance, legal aid, and eviction protections that have helped keep Californians housed during the pandemic. State leaders can build on these protections and supports to ensure California’s renters can stay in their homes.
  • Increase the supply of affordable rental housing to ensure that all Californians have access to an affordable home – and make sure the housing is designed to meet the needs of diverse types of households, including older adults, single workers, households that include people with disabilities, and working families with children.
  • Expand and target additional financial support to Californians with low incomes through taxpayer rebates, refundable tax credits, and safety net supports like CalWORKs, Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment and General Assistance.
  • Design, implement, and evaluate housing policies with a racial equity lens, ensuring fair access and outcomes for communities historically excluded from housing security and opportunities.
  • Ensure emergency housing supports and affordable housing are accessible to all Californians in need regardless of immigration status so that undocumented individuals and mixed-status families have the security of a stable home.

As the COVID-19 pandemic moves onto a new stage, leaving many emergency measures behind, policymakers must ensure no Californian is left without a safe and stable home. Strong state revenues present opportunities to keep Californians housed now and to invest in the state’s long-term housing affordability challenges. California’s state of emergency only truly ends when all Californians have a safe, stable, and affordable place to call home.


Support for this report was provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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Safe and stable housing is a fundamental need for every child and adult. Yet state legal protections that have kept California renters with low incomes housed throughout the pandemic expire at the end of March 2022. Applications for emergency rental assistance will close at the same time.

Half of California renters with low incomes report facing housing hardship. While thousands of California households have been helped by emergency rental assistance as of mid-March 2022, other families and adults are still waiting for the state to process their applications and have not yet received payments.

State policymakers can extend legal protections for California renters, provide opportunities to still apply for emergency rental assistance, and help people avoid the devastating effects of eviction and potential homelessness. The health and economic effects of COVID-19 are not over for families and individuals — rental support must continue to keep Californians housed.


Support for this report was provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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Introduction

Every Californian needs a home to access basic life sustaining resources and ultimately have the opportunity to live a dignified and healthy life. Unfortunately, over 161,000 Californians were counted as experiencing homelessness in early 2020. These Californians were either residing in shelters or transitional housing — or considered unsheltered, residing on the street, in encampments, vehicles, or other places not meant for habitation. Over the same year, local homeless service providers made contact with over 246,000 individuals needing to find a home or search for other life-sustaining services.1This publication utilizes two separate sources of data for our analysis: 1) US Housing and Urban Development Point-in-Time Count which provides the number of unhoused people counted on a single night in January, and 2) the California Homeless Data Integration System through which local Continuums of Care report data to the state collected by homeless service providers throughout a year. The terms homeless and unhoused are also used interchangeably.

As people of all ages and backgrounds are pushed into homelessness for a variety of complex reasons, understanding their diverse characteristics is fundamental to effectively address their housing needs. Unhoused individuals require interventions of different types and at different scales to become and stay housed. Californians who are unhoused are more than their current living situation, and state policymakers have a responsibility to support all Californians and end homelessness across the state.

1. Homelessness is temporary for most who experience it, but some face long-term, chronic homelessness

Most unhoused individuals experience relatively short-term homelessness (68%). But nearly a third (32%) experience chronic homelessness exacerbated by a disability. Generally, families and individuals are considered unhoused if they do not have a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence — for example, if they are living in a shelter or places not meant for habitation. Unhoused individuals are considered chronically homeless if they have a long-standing disability that significantly impedes their ability to live independently and have been unhoused continuously for a year or on at least four occasions within a three-year period. Evidence-based effective strategies, such as supportive housing that combines robust housing interventions with wrap-around supportive services, are needed to help people who are chronically homeless. As for the majority of unhoused Californians who experience short-term homelessness and have extremely low incomes, deeply affordable permanent housing is needed.

2. Unhoused Californians are primarily single adults, with a smaller share of families with children and unaccompanied youth

Adults not with children make up 77% of the people experiencing homelessness in California at a point in time, followed by families with children (14%) and unaccompanied youth (9%, including parenting youth and their children). Adults (aged 25 and over) in households not with children include sole individuals, couples, and groups of adults.2In the data presented here, “adults not with children” excludes young adults aged 18 to 24 who are only with other individuals under age 25 (and so are considered “unaccompanied youth”). “Adults not with children” includes a small number of young people aged 18 to 24 who are accompanied by adults aged 25 or older. They are particularly vulnerable to experiencing severe housing insecurity since they do not often qualify for many social safety net programs or are only eligible for short-term, small sum assistance. Unhoused families with children often fall into homelessness because of the lack of affordable housing and compounding economic challenges. Unaccompanied youth, aged 24 and younger, include youth that left home often due to neglectful or unsafe family dynamics, including many LGBTQ+ youth and some parenting youth. Experiencing homelessness at any age causes trauma and negative health, educational, and economic outcomes, and these are especially exacerbated in children and youth.

Close attention should be placed on how many unhoused Californians fall into each of these three subpopulations of people experiencing homelessness — single adults, families with children, and unaccompanied youth — to appropriately build the capacity of housing and service system needs, especially for adults without children who represent the vast majority of individuals experiencing homelessness.

3. Racial disparities are stark within California’s homeless population

Black Californians are disproportionately represented in the unhoused population, as are American Indian or Alaska Native and Pacific Islander Californians. While Black non-Latinx Californians are only 5.5% of the state’s population, they comprised over 1 in 4 unhoused people who made contact with a homelessness service provider in the 2020-21 fiscal year. These racial disparities are linked to current and past racist policies that have created educational, housing, economic, and health barriers for people of color. Californians of color also face higher risk of housing instability and are more likely to pay unaffordable portions of their income towards rent. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, people of color were concentrated in undervalued workplaces, increasing their economic instability. This includes being pushed into lower-paying occupations, being first to lose their jobs during economic downturns, and experiencing the highest rates of unemployment. Racist policies and practices have also placed Black and other communities of color at highest risk of justice system-involvement, which can cause and exacerbate the length of homelessness. Even a one-night stay in jail or prison can cause individuals to lose their employment and place their financial and housing security at risk.

More in this series

See our Q&A: Understanding Homelessness in California & What Can Be Done to learn how California can leverage its resources to ensure all Californians have a home.

4. Californians experience homelessness in every county throughout the state, with the most residing in Los Angeles County

Homelessness is a statewide problem that affects Californians in every county throughout the state — rural, suburban, and urban alike. In January 2020, the Los Angeles and South Coast region (51.3%) and the San Francisco Bay Area (21.7%) had the highest shares of unhoused individuals, followed by the Central Valley (7.4%). Los Angeles County specifically is home to more than 40% of unhoused Californians, based on point-in-time data. This is in part due to its dense population, high housing costs, and general lack of affordable housing. Understanding the geographic distribution of where people experiencing homelessness reside is needed to appropriately design the allocation of state funding in ways that account for the proportional share of the homeless population in each local area.

5. California’s unhoused population is aging and increasingly composed of older adults

Roughly 45% of unhoused Californians in adult-only households who came in contact with the homelessness response system in the 2020-21 fiscal year were aged 50 and older.3Data point from custom tabulations from the California Homeless Data Integration System. Financial and medical emergencies later in life can push those who were already struggling to make ends meet into homelessness. Challenges in accessing support and social safety net programs for older adults in crisis and inadequate benefit amounts are also a driving factor. Older adults are more likely to have underlying health conditions and disabilities that may be exacerbated by the additional stressors of being unhoused. Experiencing homelessness is already tied to severe health declines as research shows unhoused adults develop similar rates of geriatric conditions as housed adults who are 20 years older. The distinctive circumstances older adults face will require more assistive services to obtain and maintain housing. Due to this, these Californians have significant implications for current homeless intervention practices as specific service needs should be integrated with other service systems and funding sources.

Conclusion

Lifting all Californians out of homelessness is possible. However, this cannot be done without understanding the diverse needs and housing support required for each distinct group of Californians who are unhoused. Interventions must also focus on overrepresented Californians, including people of color and single adults who comprise the majority of the homeless population. The challenges unhoused individuals face are not theirs alone as severe shortages of affordable housing, stagnating wages, disinvestment in mental health services, and historical and current racist policies and practices that touch on every aspect of life in California further exacerbate homelessness across communities. And while recent state budgets have included significant funding for various homeless-related services and programs, there is still a need for more investments, capacity building, and tailored interventions.

Ending homelessness through effective and respectful practices has proven to be possible through evidence-based approaches supported by sufficient ongoing funding, and it fundamentally begins with housing. By understanding the needs of unhoused Californians and focusing on solutions that work, state policymakers have the opportunity to leverage our resources to ensure all Californians have access to a home.


Support for this report was provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

  • 1
    This publication utilizes two separate sources of data for our analysis: 1) US Housing and Urban Development Point-in-Time Count which provides the number of unhoused people counted on a single night in January, and 2) the California Homeless Data Integration System through which local Continuums of Care report data to the state collected by homeless service providers throughout a year. The terms homeless and unhoused are also used interchangeably.
  • 2
    In the data presented here, “adults not with children” excludes young adults aged 18 to 24 who are only with other individuals under age 25 (and so are considered “unaccompanied youth”). “Adults not with children” includes a small number of young people aged 18 to 24 who are accompanied by adults aged 25 or older.
  • 3
    Data point from custom tabulations from the California Homeless Data Integration System.

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