Crunch time

Chico’s housing shortage reminds the author that she was lucky to buy when she did

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly six years since my husband and I bought our first home, a 1950s California rancher with a big backyard and a lot of deferred maintenance awaiting us. It was definitely a fixer-upper.

I remember how nervous we were about such a huge purchase. With all the money in our savings, including money we’d received a few years earlier when we got hitched and didn’t take a honeymoon, along with a gift of some additional cash from my folks, we were able to come up with a down payment.

The house was bank-owned, and since we were first-time buyers, we qualified for a program that required us to put only 3.5 percent down. Julie Rolls, our real estate agent, deftly walked us newbies through what seemed like a daunting process. I was very pregnant at the time and working full-time as CN&R’s news editor, meaning two huge life changes were happening in a short period of time. We moved into the place a couple of weeks before my son was born.

Just a few years earlier, we’d been priced out of the market. I clearly remember having a conversation with my then-fiancé in which I’d posited that we likely would be renters forever. At that point, the forthcoming economic crisis wasn’t on my radar.

Ultimately, the bleak economy gave us an opportunity to become homeowners. Simply put, we got in during a buyer’s market—near the low point of the Great Recession—when there were plenty of homes on the market and little competition from other buyers.

The opposite appears to be true these days in Chico, as Howard Hardee reports in this week’s cover story. There’s little inventory and a lot of would-be buyers. As Hardee describes, there’s also a contracted rental market. In other words, people are having trouble finding housing in general.

The folks really getting squeezed out, of course, are low-income residents.

The dissolution of redevelopment agencies in 2012 was a huge hit to efforts to build affordable housing. Chico simply doesn’t have the resources these days to substantively address the issue, and the state budget includes no new funding for low-income housing subsidies. Meanwhile, rents have gone up 6 percent in the last year alone and a third of renters spend more than 50 percent of their household income on housing. The latter statistic makes the saying “one emergency away from financial ruin” hit home.

Chico obviously needs more housing—both rentals and single-family homes—to ease the pressure on this market. I hope in the meantime that residents aren’t overextending themselves financially. That, you’ll recall, is one of the factors that led to the last housing bubble and the market’s collapse.

In other news I recently dropped off the cache of personal hygiene products gathered through CN&R’s annual toiletries drive to the Torres Community Shelter. Once again this winter, readers dropped off hundreds of products—from shampoo and toothbrushes to hair brushes and deodorant—to our downtown office.

We chose the Torres Shelter as the recipient this year because the local nonprofit served a record number of clients, at one point even adding beds to meet demand. Thank you to everyone who took the time to drop off donations. All of the goodies will be put to good use.