On June 12, the Board of Supervisors will demonstrate its values and vision for San Luis Obispo County as we begin our annual ritual of setting the budget for the next fiscal year. The choices we make will be telling.
The most pressing issue, of the greatest moral urgency, is housing. Will we actually take action on the housing catastrophe that confronts us? Will the board finally step up and put its money where its mouth is?
We must. And we offer here a specific plan to address this crisis—a $5 million allocation of county funds to jump start the production of affordable housing.
To understand how this gets funded, we must first get our priorities straightened out.
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The playing field for this discussion has been tilted by the board majority, as evidenced by their heedless actions during the first five months of their reign. Already, they have signaled that their spending priorities ignore our most critical issue—the dire unaffordability of housing for wage earners and young families, and the explosion of homelessness—and instead their choices bestow benefits on those who already have homes and property.
The board majority, with almost no substantive public discussion, has prioritized:
▪ Road repair over human services as a top spending goal;
▪ Allocation of $2 million from discretionary funds to solve the groundwater woes of a favored few;
▪ Adoption of housing policies and consultant allocations that benefit market-rate home builders while doing nothing to produce affordable housing.
Simply put, this approach is not just bad policy. It blatantly disregards the people who sustain our communities and drive our local economy—people who already work here and struggle to make ends meet, and the younger generation who want the same chance their elders had to make a life in this county.
If you spend more than 30 percent of household income on rents or mortgage, you may well need assistance to feed your family, pay for healthcare, childcare costs and utilities. Many here already do this, and many more are depleting their savings and going into debt.
This is unacceptable and it damages the larger community, as workers and their employers simply cannot sustain such financial adversity. So our children move away and a new crop of workers cycles through until they must leave, leaving us diminished.
Our county’s budget is a moral document, an instrument that should address some of our most difficult human dilemmas. As such, it’s clear our lack of housing must be a top priority. The societal cost of this problem is economic insecurity among our workforce, leaving an entire swath of our county’s population with little hope for a future here.
This isn’t just immoral, it’s shortsighted and preventable. Local government exists for the very purpose of solving existential threats to the health and wellbeing of our communities. Those solutions are up to us, acting collectively.
As the two senior members of the Board of Supervisors, we’ve wrestled with tough choices, especially during the seven-year “pain plan” that got us through the Great Recession. Working closely with seasoned staff, we balanced our budgets and kept our wide range of public services at high levels, with no employee layoffs.
Our current proposed budget has a new approach, signaling a shift by the board’s majority that might not be immediately evident.
What’s new and revealing about the current majority’s philosophy is how we choose to spend – or not spend – a $13.7 million increase in discretionary revenue this year over last. About two-thirds of the total rightly goes to deferred facility maintenance, cannabis management and capital projects.
However, $1.25 million is allocated to the ill-conceived $2 million giveaway for the board majority’s favored friends’ groundwater management.
Another $3.5 million in one-time money is proposed to go to road maintenance (which already receives $8.1 million annually).
Then there’s $1 million designated for plans—plans, not projects—to increase housing supply. Local home builders talk a lot about affordable housing. But make no mistake: $500,000 for a “housing constraints analysis” is about their development of market rate (read “unaffordable”) houses. The other $500,000 is aimed at redundantly “analyzing” granny units and housing for farmworkers– both already in our General Plan and land use ordinance
All told, we see at least $5 million in these questionable allocations that should be redirected to solving our housing crisis.
We propose an entirely different approach to easing the housing burden of our workers and young families.
▪ Allocate $5 million of this discretionary spending to a non-profit builder, such as People’s Self-Help Housing or Habitat for Humanity.
▪ Require the non-profit to leverage that money to secure state and federal funds and actually build as many desperately needed apartment units, small houses and co-housing complexes as possible—as quickly as possible.
▪ Assure county residents the ability to not just rent, but buy these low-cost homes.
Beyond the money, the county is positioned to do more, as we can already waive fees for guaranteed affordable housing. We can also assign these projects to our Business Action Team, which has previously expedited important commercial projects. Housing is serious business, and this shouldn’t be business as usual.
To make this successful, we will need strong and determined partners beyond the non-profit community. We especially invite our city colleagues and regional agencies to join us, as we work to address regional resource and infrastructure challenges. Such a county-wide approach is long overdue and we firmly believe that connecting housing solutions, infrastructure projects and job creation will increase prosperity in every jurisdiction.
It’s time for the Board of Supervisors to lead on the issue of affordable housing, instead of paying lip-service. Compared to what our communities stand to gain, we would lose nothing by redirecting these $5 million from the benefit of the few to the benefit of our communities and their future.
We ask our board colleagues and the public at large to join us in support of this critical initiative. Success in this endeavor will require concerted effort by many. The payoff would be housing that our community can actually afford.
Embracing this initiative will not only start us down the course of solving our most challenging crisis. It also will demonstrate publicly that despite all rhetoric of politics and the division that comes with it, we can govern in a way that’s both practically and morally responsible.
Bruce Gibson represents the 2nd District and Adam Hill represents the 3rd District On the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.