Home should be where the heart is, providing comfort and a sense of belonging that cannot be found elsewhere—but in recent years, homes may feel more like a drain on your wallet than a safe place to wash your worries away. As the housing market in California tries to dig itself out of an affordability crisis, recent studies show that policymakers have been asking the wrong question, and it is making a huge difference.

According to a new study from UC Berkeley, published last Thursday by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, researchers draw attention to the classic question: “Is this affordable?” The study argues that a reframing of this common question is needed if policymakers want to implement change that will effectively address the affordable housing crisis, suggesting policymakers should instead ask the question: “Who can afford this place?”

At first glance, this change of verbiage may seem subtle, raising questions on how such a change could help many California residents find more affordable housing. Issi Romem, co-author and founder of economics research firm, MetroSight, argues that this reframing of the classic question has enormous implications. Romem went on to state, “The differences are just really stark… We have been, on a grand scale, misleading ourselves with our current metrics to think they are much more affordable than they are.”

The heart of the issue, which the proposed new question would be better to address, is that California residents are not living in areas they cannot afford. It is fairly simple logic. If you cannot afford the rent or mortgage of a home in a certain area, you find somewhere else to live. Unfortunately, the metrics current policymakers and other housing experts are relying on do not take that information into account when asking themselves: “Is this affordable?”

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Current metrics are designed to consider who is living in a given county and what their median household is, and then questioning if the housing prices are affordable for those individuals. Housing is considered affordable if the household’s earners are paying no more than 30% of their income on housing. They are not looking at California residents on a much larger scale. 

The study argues that a new definition of affordability needs to be crafted, with researchers looking at responses to a Census questionnaire that asked whether residents felt they could afford their expenses after paying housing costs, with the choices being: we’re doing okay, just getting by, or having difficulty. Diving deeper, researchers then looked more broadly at respondents’ income and housing costs, using that as the basis for determining the affordability of each county for all Californians. 

As an example of this new definition of affordability, San Francisco had a median household income close to $137,000 in 2022, and under the current definition, 67% of renters are “comfortable” or are “doing okay.” But Romem and his colleagues’ new definition shows that only 23% of Californians would actually be able to live in the Bay City either “comfortably” or “okay.”

While this study provides valuable information and arguments that could help California policymakers on a pathway to affordable housing for state residents, challenges such as the costs of building new developments and addressing the housing needs of residents at all income levels also need to be factored in. With this new information, California policymakers can hopefully start asking the right questions that will lead Californians on a more affordable and secure path.