County should get back to work on affordable housing

letters@thetribunenews.comJuly 7, 2013 

Housing prices have been rebounding in San Luis Obispo County; as reported on the front page of today’s Tribune, the median price for all housing units sold in May was $421,500.

By comparison, the median in January 2011, was $328,000.

We welcome the recovery, but that’s tempered by concern for the future. The last thing we want is a return to pre-recession days when the local housing market was among the least affordable in the nation.

For those who have forgotten, here’s a brief refresher course:

• Fewer than 10 percent of county residents could afford to buy a median-priced home in 2005,

• Many employees, and in some cases entire companies, forsook SLO for more affordable communities,

• School enrollments fell on account of an exodus of young families,

• A county grand jury warned the area was in danger of turning into a “rich retirees’ ghetto.”

That situation prompted many local governments to adopt affordable housing programs that encourage — and in some cases mandate — construction of homes affordable to low- and moderate-income residents.

With housing construction picking up, it’s time to get those programs back on track, starting with the Board of Supervisors.

Some background: In 2008, the board approved an ordinance requiring developers in unincorporated areas to include some affordable homes in their projects. As an alternative, builders could donate land or pay fees that would be used to build affordable housing elsewhere.

The program was supposed to be phased in over five years. By the end of the five years — 2013 — developers would have been required to make at least 20 percent of the units in their subdivisions affordable. For those opting to pay a fee instead, the charge would have been $21,931 for a 2,200-square-foot home.

When the housing market crashed, though, the Board of Supervisors agreed to give homebuilders a break, and chose never to advance beyond Year 1.

As a result, five years later, we’ve made practically no progress toward meeting the goals laid out in 2008.

Instead of being required to make 20 percent of the units in their projects affordable, developers need only meet the Year 1 mandate of 4 percent.

Not only that, the county dramatically reduced the fees to reflect the decline in housing prices. Currently, the Year 1 fee for a 2,200-square-foot home is $1,562 —down from $4,386 in 2008. And the Year 5 fee — which now won’t take effect until 2018 — will be $7,810, compared to nearly $22,000 adopted in 2008.

We don’t disagree with the board’s decision to tie the fees to the current market — that’s only fair.

However, there must be enough flexibility to ensure that fees will be adjusted upward to reflect rapidly escalating prices. If that means revising fees every six months, so be it.

We also urge the board to speed up implementation of the ordinance; we should not have to wait five more years for these requirements to be in full effect. If we do, who knows how many affordable units will be lost.

Granted, there’s only so much that government can do to keep prices affordable.

We live in one of the most desirable places in the nation, and it’s inevitable that housing prices here will be higher — even much higher — than they are in other parts of the nation.

But that’s exacerbated when new subdivisions are filled almost exclusively with higher-end homes with million-dollar price tags, and when “multi-family housing” consists mostly of pricey condos.

If we do not want to be a “ghetto” of rich retirees, we must learn from the past and insist on a mix of housing types for all income levels.

We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to lead by example by re-examining the county’s affordable housing ordinance as soon as possible.

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