It’s no secret that California is home to some of the most expensive residences in the United States. But the notion that the state as a whole has an “affordable housing crisis” in terms of home ownership is more myth than reality. Not everyone can afford to live in California, and not everyone who lives in California can afford the best house in the most desirable neighborhood. Those realities don’t mean the housing itself is “unaffordable.”

California has 36 million residents and counting.

It’s no secret that California is home to some of the most expensive residences in the United States. But the notion that the state as a whole has an “affordable housing crisis” in terms of home ownership is more myth than reality. Not everyone can afford to live in California, and not everyone who lives in California can afford the best house in the most desirable neighborhood. Those realities don’t mean the housing itself is “unaffordable.”

California has 36 million residents and counting. The state is so large and has so many housing markets that to describe it as if it were a homogenous whole is almost ludicrous. Yes, the median home price in Burlingame, Los Altos, Saratoga and some other Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay Area cities topped $1 million in August 2004. But the median home price in farm-rich Kern County in August 2004 was $184,000. Fresno County’s median was $200,500, and San Bernardino County’s median was $260,000. (The “median” means of the houses sold in those areas cost more and half cost less than those prices.)

Lower cost housing tends to be located in rural communities or urban areas that have more crime, hotter weather, smoggy air, less-stellar public schools, longer commutes or fewer employment opportunities than the pricier locations do. But millions people live and thrive in communities that have lower housing costs. And they live in housing they can afford to purchase.

Consider Los Angeles County. The August 2004 median home price in Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach was $1.4 million. Palos Verdes Estates clocked in at $1.3 million while Brentwood, Calabasas and the Palos Verdes Peninsula area weren’t far behind at more than $900,000. But Azusa, Baldwin Park, El Monte, Inglewood, La Puente, Lawndale, Montebello, Newhall and South Gate had median prices in the $300,000-to-$350,000 range. Compton, Lynwood, Lancaster, Huntington Park, Palmdale, Panorama City, Paramount and Pomona had median prices less than $300,000. The median home price in Long Beach, an attractive coastal community south of Los Angeles, was $387,400.

Furthermore, condominiums in some of Los Angeles’ priciest neighborhoods cost much less money than single-family houses in the same neighborhoods cost. Houses for sale in hot-property Santa Monica, for instance, start at $700,000 for the tiniest bungalows. But condominiums just blocks from the beach can be bought for less than $500,000. One- and two-bedroom condominiums in the San Fernando Valley start at half that price.

Similar price gaps exist in other counties as well. In Orange County, for instance, median home prices ranged from $355,000 in Stanton to $1.37 million in Laguna Beach. (A complete list of August 2004 median home prices in California counties is on the Internet at the California Association of Realtors’ Web site.)

Naysayers may protest that $300,000 is not “affordable” or that median home prices are out of reach for California’s median-income households. But after all, California is one of the most desirable places to live in the country, judging by population growth and in-migration figures. High demand and a limited supply of land create greater value and, consequently, higher prices. And a median-income household isn’t necessarily in the market for a median-priced home.

The notion that California’s housing is “unaffordable” begs the question: If homes aren’t “affordable,” who bought the 619,300 homes that are expected to be sold this year? Some of those buyers had movie mogul paychecks or used aggressive financing to purchase a home. Others were newlyweds with gifted down payments or seniors who cashed out and downsized. Some were Baby Boomers who used equity to trade up. And still others were immigrant families who pooled their savings to buy a home.

The people who grumble the loudest about California’s “overpriced” housing all too often could buy a home if they were willing to make the sacrifices homeownership requires. They won’t live in a low-rent ZIP code or an older or small house. They insist the Lexus SUV and the annual vacation in Maui are necessities. Or they’re glued to the proverbial fence of indecisiveness while they await the next housing price “crash.”

Two exceptions: An acute shortage of rental housing has pushed apartment rents beyond the means of too many low-income workers in California, and high home prices have put ownership housing out of reach for some school teachers, police officers, hospital nurses and other necessary workers in a well-run community. Those exceptions are serious public policy problems, but they don’t mean housing is overpriced.

Marcie Geffner is a real estate reporter in Los Angeles.

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