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Leaders gather to find solutions to SLO County’s housing crunch

Jim Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward, was the keynote speaker at a half-day summit held Thursday, March 9, 2017, with the goal of supporting the creation of more housing for San Luis Obispo County residents. The Housing Coalition of the Central Coast convened the event, which drew more than 300 people.
Jim Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward, was the keynote speaker at a half-day summit held Thursday, March 9, 2017, with the goal of supporting the creation of more housing for San Luis Obispo County residents. The Housing Coalition of the Central Coast convened the event, which drew more than 300 people. nwilson@thetribunenews.com

The housing crunch in San Luis Obispo County and California won’t be easily solved, but a half-day summit with more than 300 local leaders and community representatives Thursday aimed to set into motion some ways to address a few key problems.

Some of the suggested solutions from participants included recommendations that local governments rezone to increase density in areas of large lot sizes and weigh the need for residential zoning in areas of commercial designation.

Other ideas included forming special districts to help pay for roads and other services when new developments are built and to learn from success stories in communities around the country where housing problems were addressed and solved.

The Housing Coalition of the Central Coast organized the afternoon conference at the Embassy Suites in San Luis Obispo. The event, with working groups and panel speakers, examined the economic, political and environmental policy issues that affect housing.

Attendees included members of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, local city and county government leaders, builders, nonprofit leaders and more.

San Luis Obispo County is not the only area in the state that has housing problems. Virtually every community in the state has problems related to housing.

James Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward

One of the questions posed in the workshop was how to maintain the character of a community while addressing economic vitality and population growth.

“I think you have to keep in mind that in order to add new growth, you have to convince the community that it’s in their best interest,” county Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. “Housing affordability issues are often a symptom, not a cause of bigger problems, such as income inequality.”

Noting that he owns a home in Cayucos, Gibson said that “more than 40 percent of the homes (in Cayucos) are vacant because they’re secondary homes and short-term rentals.”

He added: “You have to look at some of these issues.”

Like much of California, San Luis Obispo is faced with income gaps, a high demand for housing, challenges in balancing new development with community character and preserving open space, panelists said.

Keynote speaker Jim Mayer, a Cal Poly graduate and the CEO and president of California Forward, spoke about the ways his organization strives to tackle housing problems statewide.

I think you have to keep in mind that in order to add new growth, you have to convince the community that it’s in their best interest.

Bruce Gibson, San Luis Obispo County supervisor

The public interest group, launched in 2008, seeks to grow “middle-class jobs, promote cost-effective public services and create accountability for results.”

“San Luis Obispo County is not the only area in the state that has housing problems,” Mayer said. “Virtually every community in the state has problems related to housing. The causations and specific challenges might be different, but much of the problem is the same.”

Mayer cited a study by McKinsey and Co., a global management consulting firm, that identified a need for 3.5 million new homes in California over the next decade.

The consultant said that more than half of all Californians pay too much for housing and if home and rental prices were reduced, residents would have $53 billion more to spend for health care, medications, retirement investments, buying a new home if they’re a renter and personal savings.

The firm estimated lost economic revenue of $85 billion because of how much Californians spend on housing.

Mayer said that discussions at economic summits have led to recommendations for the state — such as the need to provide incentives for local governments to encourage affordable housing. Local governments also need to streamline the development planning process, he said.

Mayer cited 11 actions the San Diego Housing Commission proposed as a plan for housing affordability that could be used as a model statewide, including setting annual housing production goals, reforming the California Environmental Quality Act and reducing commercial space requirements for mixed-use projects.

Participants at the forum Thursday said that exploring those 11 points and how they could benefit San Luis Obispo County could be a useful exercise.

Jim Patterson, a former county supervisor, said in a workshop discussion that forming a special district for new roads and other services could be a challenging yet effective tool to help pay for services.

“Taxes from new housing doesn’t pay for all the services government agencies have to provide,” Patterson said. “Special districts can, but they also can be difficult to form. They’re very difficult to form after housing already has been built. It can be easier to accomplish when new housing is constructed.”

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