Who suffers the most from California’s high rents? It’s not the middle class

California’s middle-class families are facing a rising rent crisis, a reality that prompted a flurry of new state laws to make housing more affordable.

But that problem isn’t nearly as pervasive in the state as the challenges low-income families face in finding housing, according to a new study published Wednesday.

The study’s authors argue most median rents in the state are affordable on a median salary, but low-income households need more help from Gov. Gavin Newsom to make ends meet.

Only 4 percent of median income families in the state are “severely” burdened by housing costs, meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing costs, the study says.

Meanwhile, 76 percent of low-income households are strained by housing costs. The study defines those households as ones whose income is 30 percent or less of their community’s median income. In Sacramento, that’s $22,600.

Matt Schwartz, president and CEO of the California Housing Partnership, an advocacy group for affordable housing, said the data conflicts with a common perception that middle class Californians cannot afford to live in the state.

“There is some need for missing middle help, but it’s geographically isolated and small,” Schwartz said. “It’s not as bad as the need to help people who are one bad break away from homelessness.”

Median rent was calculated based on Craigslist listings in late 2018, while median income in each county was based on calculations from California Tax Credit Allocation Committee.

The report’s authors assumed housing costs should only comprise 30 percent of income to be considered affordable.

In Sacramento, the report showed the median income per household was $75,300, and residents needed to make 77 percent of that — about $58,000 — to comfortably afford rent on a two-bedroom apartment.

In Fresno, median income was $58,400 and households needed about $46,000 to comfortably afford a two-bedroom apartment.

But those living on significantly less than median income struggle to afford rent, Schwartz and other authors argue.

“While there are middle- and moderate-income households who struggle to afford typical rents in some higher cost, coastal counties, the needs of these households pale in comparison with the affordability challenges facing the lowest income households in every part of the State,” the study says.

Extremely low-income households earning less than a third of their community’s median income can’t afford median rent in any part of California, according to the study. Those earning half of median income or less can only afford housing in one California county: Modoc in the northeastern corner.

Those earning less than 60 percent of median income can afford median rent in 11 counties in the state.

In more than half the state, people need to make at least 80 percent of their community’s median income to afford median rent, according to the study.

Schwartz said the findings reinforce a need for state subsidies for both building and preserving more low-income housing. The study argues that state rental subsidies are not a cost-effective way of dealing with the problem.

“The state is best suited to invest in the out front investment in bricks and mortar, which has a greater return on investment for everyone,” Schwartz said. “The $500 million in new state tax credits is a good step, but we need to multiply it by five or 10 to make good progress here.”

The study acknowledges that middle income families struggle to afford median rents in parts of several coastal counties, including Los Angeles, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Median income households in inland San Bernardino County also can struggle to afford median rent in their community.

Newsom this year signed a number of laws intended to protect to advance affordable housing options and protections for Californians.

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Legislators also wrote a law to block cities from imposing additional building standards that drive up construction costs and made it easier to build so-called “granny flats.”

“This is a crisis in the state of California, the crisis of affordability,” Newsom said when signing bills on Oct. 9. “This issue of affordability must be addressed head on and we need to call local government out for not building enough housing.”

Newsom also signed an executive order in January to create an inventory of state lands that could be used for development. Construction for a Sacramento affordable housing complex is scheduled to begin in December 2020 as one of the first projects.

The state’s budget also includes half a billion dollars to expand loan opportunities for mixed-income developments, and allocates another half a billion to expand the state tax credit for affordable housing projects.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.