Our citizens have spoken and seated a new San Luis Obispo City Council and a new mayor, each of whom has acknowledged the city’s housing shortage. By our vote, we as a community have acknowledged the social, environmental and business detriments to our city caused by our housing limitations.
Fortunately, the city has responsible plans in place for addressing the shortage in ways that will help to reduce traffic, conserve water and improve air quality. These plans are embodied in the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) update, which the prior City Council unanimously adopted in 2014.
Now, with our new council sworn in, it is time to expeditiously implement those plans, which properly recognize the environmental impacts we face and place a priority on housing as a major part of the solution.
Expanding our housing options will do more than alleviate our jobs-housing imbalance. With council’s careful consideration of constituent concerns, implementation of the LUCE will help resolve many of the problems confronting our city, including climate change.
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Let’s review the plans, their context and why, morally and legally, implementation is necessary.
An unhealthy housing mix
Twenty years ago, the city set a goal of 1 percent housing growth per year — a goal not reached for at least a decade.
Right now, the city has a very unhealthy mix of rentals (65 percent) compared with owner-occupied homes, and our neighborhoods are the worse for it. Healthier cities have a reverse proportion, and more housing both in the city and on the Cal Poly campus will help accomplish that.
The lack of workforce housing — and make no mistake, there is a severe imbalance between jobs and housing — takes a toll on all middle-class families. Most of our public employees, including city firefighters and police officers, key city department managers, local teachers and health care workers live outside the city, primarily because of a lack of affordable housing — or any housing, for that matter.
Currently, 30,000 workers commute into San Luis Obispo every day. Many are Los Angeles-style, single-car-occupant commuters.
Currently, 30,000 workers commute into San Luis Obispo every day. Many are Los Angeles-style, single-car-occupant commuters. Beyond the stress of working far from where your children go to school, this commuter pattern causes unnecessary traffic and degrades the environment. It is widely accepted that a singularly effective way to address climate change is to reduce commuter miles, thus reducing tail-pipe emissions.
More housing generates additional economic and social benefits. Residents spend their paychecks where they live, and at a rate far higher than tourists spend. Neighbor referrals boost sales for local merchants. All manner of civic organizations — from schools to nonprofits to nongovernmental service organizations as well as local government itself — gain from the involvement of citizens who live where they work.
No housing, no help with other problems
The LUCE’s provisions for more housing clearly stipulate the kind of housing that residents have repeatedly told the city that they want: Green, walkable, energy- and water-conserving. The city also has stipulated that developers will be required to pay their fair share, not only to help pay for traffic improvements, but also to help pay for more bike paths, more open-space amenities and more water recycling.
Many improvements that would benefit all of us and that we request of our city will not happen without the implementation as contemplated in the LUCE.
Of course, growth is not possible without sufficient water, and residents have been right to demand information about the city’s water planning and supplies. Our water supplies are more than adequate. At the same time, the city will continue to need to demonstrate convincingly to our residents that our water supplies are sufficient.
Let’s pause to connect the statistical dots:
▪ Annual population growth since 2003 has averaged less than 0.3 percent, according to the city’s Housing Element.
▪ The net increase in residential units since 2003 has averaged less than 0.5 percent a year.
▪ And 30,000 workers commute into the city every day.
Clearly, the housing-jobs imbalance is severe.
Each year the city’s housing problem only becomes worse. Traffic has also become worse, needlessly degrading the environment. Our businesses and social fabric aren’t as strong as they could be as our work force leaves town each evening, severing their ties with the community. Fortunately, smart solutions are embedded in the city’s General Plan as exemplified by the LUCE.
We have demanded good development strategies for our city, and we have planned accordingly. Now is the time to move forward with what we as a community are seeking — good, smart, urbanized development that respects our past and our progressive vision of the future.
John Ewan is president and owner of Pacific Energy Co. and a renewable-energy advocate. He also is a former member of the San Luis Obispo City Council and the city Planning Commission.