Members of the California Assembly Housing Working Group visited affordable housing sites and homeless shelters in Fresno on Thursday as part of a statewide tour to assess potential solutions for California’s housing crisis.

“In Fresno, we unfortunately see the terrible impacts of the crisis,” said Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno.

A February 2021 report by Apartment List found that Fresno’s housing market witnessed the second-highest rent increase in the nation. The average price of a home in Fresno shot up more than 20% within the past year, according to Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer.

Between January 2019 and January 2020, just prior to the pandemic, homelessness in Fresno County increased 45%, according to the county’s point in time count. The California Housing Partnership 2021 Housing Needs report reported a 36,000-unit shortfall in affordable housing units in the county. Meanwhile, less than half of the city residents are homeowners, and single family homes are often out of the price range of many families in Fresno.

Local leaders also said a lack of affordable housing has created a bottleneck for people in homeless shelters waiting to transition to permanent housing. They cannot find a home they can afford.

“Housing and homelessness together are really the defining issues of our time,” Dyer said.

Within the last 18 months, Fresno has received record amounts of housing-related money from state and federal governments. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed a $22 billion housing and homelessness package that could provide the city with even more funds down the line.

“My hope today is that we’re going to have a frank conversation with our state leaders as the state begins to write the rules on what projects get funded and how they get funded,” District 3 Councilmember Miguel Arias said.

“We currently have about $6 million available … but we got about $20 million in requests from private development to build affordable housing projects. So even though it is a record amount, it still doesn’t come near meet(ing) the demand.”

The Assembly Housing Work Group, a recently formed group of assembly members, began their tour at the historic Hotel Fresno renovation site, then went on to The Monarch construction site, the Poverello House and the Valley Inn, one of the motels purchased by the city for Project Homekey. The group hopes to generate policy ideas to potentially push forward in 2022, according to a news release.

“The members of the Assembly Housing Working Group understand that California’s housing crisis calls for a boots-on-the-ground approach to understand the barriers and find solutions to increased production and affordable housing,” Assemblymember Robert Rivas, D-Salinas, said Sept. 23 in a news release about the group’s statewide tour.

Hotel Fresno project opening pushed back

Hotel Fresno, a 109-year-old building in downtown Fresno that had been vacant for decades, is now being renovated into a 79-unit, mixed-income housing development with retail space on the first floor.

“It is a drop in the bucket of what is needed,” Arias said, prior to the news conference.

The renovation of what Arambula called the “historic, but neglected structure” was initially slated to be completed by the end of 2020; however, COVID-19, permit delays and backorders of supplies — ranging from concrete to appliances — pushed the opening back several times. It is now set to open in early 2022, according to Arias, who represents the district where the project is located.

To date, the project has cost about $38 million — approximately $481,000 per unit — and is about 85% completed.

The city has provided about $1.5 million in gap financing for the project through HOME funds.

“It is extremely expensive to renovate a historical building, but in my view, it’s worth every single penny,” Arias said.

On average, affordable housing development from the ground up costs between $300,000 and $475,000 per unit, in the city of Fresno, Arias said. The Link, an 88 unit development on Blackstone Avenue and McKinley Avenue, cost about $38 million as well.

Arias said that a lot of the cost for affordable housing developments in the city are related to “crumbling infrastructure,” such as sewer and water lines and missing sidewalks, as well as meeting prevailing wages which raises costs by about 30%.

“It’s definitely much cheaper to do single family sprawl development,” Arias said. “But that’s when you don’t account for all the public safety, fire, police, water, sewer, parks that you have to subsidize for that sprawl development,” Arias said.

Once construction is completed within the converted hotel, the city will begin building a five-story market-rate housing complex on the same property.

The Monarch to provide net-zero housing

The Monarch, a 57-unit apartment complex in Chinatown, is set to open in late summer to fall of 2022.

The $32 million project was partially funded by a Transformative Climate Communities grant in partnership with Fresno Housing Authority. According to Michael Duarte, Fresno Housing real estate officer, the construction cost is about $20 million.

“With affordable housing, there is a lot of other (expenses),” Duarte said during the tour.

The project is geared toward low-income families and will be net-zero, meaning that families at the property won’t have to pay for utility bills, Duarte said.

When completed, the complex will offer one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Poverello House pallet shelters provide temporary housing

At the Poverello House, one of the city’s homeless resource centers, the group of Assembly members split in two and visited the Village of Hope and Naomi’s House, respectively.

Village of Hope is made up of 30 pallet-sheds for homeless adults in the city of Fresno. Each 100-square-foot shed can shelter up to four people; however, that number has been reduced by half during the pandemic, according to CEO Zach Darrah.

About 100 individuals have moved on from the pallet shelters to more permanent housing since the village reopened in September 2020, Darrah said, adding that the average stay for individuals seeking shelter in the pallet sheds is around 90 to 120 days.

“Pets, property, partners (are) all allowed here,” Darrah said.

Additionally, the Poverello House provides shelter to single homeless women through Naomi’s House.

Latest converted motel nearly at capacity

Using Project Homekey funds and CARES funds, the city of Fresno acquired six motels and transformed them into shelters for the homeless operated by Fresno Housing. Eventually, they will be converted into permanent affordable housing, according to the city’s plan.

The Valley Inn, which has more than 100 rooms and was the most recently opened, is nearly at capacity, according to Jody Ketcheside, the Regional Director of Turning Point Central California and the Fresno Madera Continuum of Care vice chair.

Dyer said the project has been successful in rehousing more than 450 people who were living on the side of Fresno’s highways, as well as relocating roughly 100 people from encampments around the city.

“We cannot and we will not forget those among us that are the most vulnerable,” Dyer said. “That is our promise to you. That is my promise as the mayor of this city.”

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Cassandra is a housing and engagement reporter with Fresnoland.