An affordable housing complex in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of CalMatters)

California faces a shortfall of roughly 1.3 million housing units for its lower-income residents. That’s a massive gap to fill even if it was cheap and easy to construct new housing in California.

But low-income housing subsidized by public dollars is especially pricey to build in many parts of the state. How pricey? Well, in the case of the Pearl, a small apartment complex a developer hoped to build in Southern California, each unit would cost $1.1 million to build.

“People have some idea that building affordable housing has some basis in reality. It doesn’t,” said Ginger Hitzke, the Pearl’s developer who now says the project will almost certainly not be built because of the extravagant cost. “Take everything you know about real estate, anything you’ve learned, anything you really know, and now throw it out the window.”

While the Pearl’s price tag may be exorbitant, the factors that inflated its cost are in many ways endemic: community opposition, lawsuits, parking requirements, limits on how densely developers can build, the rising cost of land, labor and raw materials. Meanwhile, experts predict the need for abundant affordable housing will soar as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, wreaks havoc with large swaths of the economy.

On this episode of “Gimme Shelter,” CalMatters housing and data reporter Matt Levin and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon discuss what can and can’t be fixed about building affordable housing in California, and interview Hitzke about her experience. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Matt Levin