Should SLO reevaluate plans to increase work-force housing?
August 7, 2016
OPINION by ALLAN COOPER
Many residents in San Luis Obispo who work to preserve the quality of their environment support increasing the supply of so-called “work force housing.” This is fundamentally good for the environment because it could reduce long commutes in and out of our work centers.
However the SLO City Council holds these same citizens hostage to a pro-ratio allocation system that supplies a paltry number of work force housing units in return for too many high-end housing developments and too many tall buildings housing mixed use commercial development.
The late George Moylan, who served 18 years as the former executive director for the Housing Authority of the City of San Luis Obispo, had correctly said that the private sector could never adequately address San Luis Obispo’s chronic shortage of work force or affordable housing. This shortfall would have to be primarily met through public assistance.
The state – through a state-required regional housing needs allocation process – mandates that we identify and address our existing housing needs through our housing element. In this sense, the state is mandating that we address our jobs-housing imbalance because if we don’t the state will be burdened with increasing transportation infrastructure and air pollution costs associated with urban sprawl.
However, this mandate has become the private sector and the city’s “Trojan Horse” with which they can justify a 25 percent increase in our population from 46,730 to 58,626 by 2035 (and this in comparison to a 10 percent increase in population which took place between 1990 and 2014).
In exchange for providing affordable housing, the developer is exempted or deferred on a per-unit basis all planning, engineering, building review, permit processing, development impact and water/sewer hook-up fees. In exchange for providing affordable housing the developer receives a density bonus, exceptions to development standards, city funded off-site improvements and even direct financial assistance. The developer also receives reductions in parking standards, building setbacks and exceptions to limits on height and lot coverage.
I’ve heard that one council member believes that growing to 58,626 by 2035 will do everything we want it to do: create workforce housing, create affordable housing and reduce commuting.
But with a projected population increase of 11,000 or more people, we will receive a mere 220 low income housing units, a mere 22 percent increase over what we currently have assuming all new development capitalizes on city incentives. And these 220 units will become available to today’s 4,905 working households currently living at or below the poverty level. The wage earners within these households work primarily in the food prep, food servicing, healthcare support, grounds maintenance and personal care employment sectors.
In other words, our government programs that help developers build affordable housing will barely meet a fraction of the need.
Doesn’t this sound like we’re “giving away the store” in the name of inclusionary housing? And given imminent cataclysmic climate change and its impact on future water shortages here in California, should the city now feel it is justified in pushing population growth beyond 1 percent per year between now and 2035 simply because our population growth over the past 24 years has averaged 0.42 percent per year?
Even without considering the “water issue,” San Luis Obispo’s recent history of slow growth has demonstrably enhanced our quality of life through protecting the small town ambience and historical charm that most of us wish to preserve.
Public housing, i.e., housing built by government directly instead of government giving developers incentives, should be the most favored alternative. We should not be dependent on significant population growth in order to provide a modicum of affordable housing.
Instead of allocating $450,000 this year to a rental housing inspection program, this money could have been earmarked for the San Luis Obispo County Housing Trust Fund. Instead, the City should apply for Affordable Housing funds and HOME Investment Partnerships Program grant funds to address our local affordable housing needs. Also, more of the city’s HUD’s Community Development Block Grants monies should be set aside for affordable housing.
The city should put a stop, once and for all, to the conversion of our existing housing stock into commercial properties and explore enacting some form of rent stabilization. About 15 California cities have some form of rent stabilization, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. And instead, the city should increase its in-lieu fee requirement, paid by developers to meet inclusionary housing requirements.
In conclusion, our “carrot” approach of luring developers with financial incentives is insufficient and full of unintended consequences. Our leave-it-up-to-developers policy has failed to produce results because of innumerable imperfections in the “free market” for housing.
Alan Cooper, a long-time San Luis Obispo resident, is the secretary of Save Our Downtown.