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Lack of affordable housing a primary driver of homelessness

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Like thousands of others throughout Kern County, Gordon Meier knows the struggles of homelessness all too well.

“I never thought that that would ever happen to me. You never, you never think that that kind of thing could happen to you,” Meier said.

He lives in a low-income apartment now, but back in 2014, the local veteran lost his home due to financial difficulties.

Unable to find an alternative, he ended up on the streets for several weeks.

“You don’t know what to do. Because you’ve always had something, you know, like a house or somewhere to go and then all of a sudden you got nowhere to go,” Meier said.

And Meier isn’t alone.

Heather Kimmel works for the Housing Authority of the County of Kern.

She says the lack of affordable housing, which is generally open to those making less than around $33,500 a year, is one of the primary drivers of homelessness in our community.

“If a homeless individual is just going out onto the private market to try and secure housing on their own, it’s going to be nearly impossible for them,” Kimmel said.

According to Kimmel, nearly 98 percent of all rental properties, both public and private, in Kern County are currently occupied.

Given such a tight market, even if they find a unit they can afford, most homeless people simply get overlooked.

“Everybody views Kern County as being an affordable place to live, which is true, but that doesn’t mean that our vacancy rate is, is greater than any other part of the state. So, when you think of California being an affordable place to live, there has to be units to live in,” she said.

In addition to competing for only two percent of the rental supply, Kimmel says that most homeless folks also face challenges that others don't.

On top of going up against people with more income and better credit ratings, stigmas and stereotypes often prove difficult to break.

“A lot of misconceptions about the homeless population is that all of them, if you move them into housing, they're just going to destroy the unit or they're going to disrupt the neighbors. And what we've found is that it's not, it's not actually true,” Kimmel said.

So why do we have so little affordable housing?

The problem has been ongoing for decades and can be attributed to many different factors including high costs and stringent regulations.

But Kimmel says it got really bad after 2012, when Sacramento essentially got rid of rural development agencies- organizations that helped to build low-income housing in places like Kern County.

“Became much more difficult for developers to build affordable housing in California,” she said.

And the effect was almost immediate, with the number of new units being built plummeting from 314 in 2007 to just 15 in 2017.

With the lack of new housing worsening the already intense problem, the strain on existing resources exploded.

“We have 14,000 people on a waiting list for our low income public housing units and we only have 865 units,” Kimmel said.

To put that number into context, that's about 16 people waiting for every unit.

Given so few options, many people end up on the streets for weeks or even years at a time.

That’s why Gordon Meier considers himself one of the lucky ones.

And until we can adequately fix the problem, Meier says he just hopes that we can all show each other a little compassion.

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“That’s what you do in the military too, you take care of your own. You know, and it should be the same way for everybody.”

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