SLO County considers new tax to pay for affordable housing. But voters would have final say

San Luis Obispo County voters could consider a bond measure to fund affordable housing as soon as next year — part of an ongoing effort to pour millions more dollars into the low-income and workforce market.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to direct staff to conduct a feasibility study for a bond measure that would go on the ballot in November 2020.

A county staff report suggested a $40 million bond could raise $4 million per year for 10 years. It would collect $5 for every $100,000 in assessed home value from existing homeowners.

The average assessed value of a county property is about $400,000, meaning a bond of this amount would require an additional property tax of $20 per year, said Airlin Singewald, supervising county planner.

If voters approved a bond, the county would join Alameda and Santa Clara counties, both of which passed similar measures to fund housing in 2016. San Jose and Santa Rosa voters rejected housing bonds in November 2018.

Funding affordable housing

The measure was one of a handful of fundraising options put forward in December by the Coalition of Housing Partners, a group of nonprofits and industry organizations that banded together to push for affordable housing policies.

The coalition wants to see the county generate $2 million to $4 million per year to help leverage funds from state and federal grants, which would go toward affordable housing developments.

One of the coalition’s accomplishments was helping to craft an overhaul of the county’s inclusionary housing ordinance, which requires that developers build affordable units or pay fees to fund their construction.

The updated policy — which took effect this month — requires developers to make 8% of their units affordable or pay tiered in-lieu fees based on a home’s square footage.

The previous policy generated an average of $25,000 per year — the new ordinance will bring in $500,000 to $1 million.

In addition to beginning the process of exploring a bond measure, the board directed staff to continue making improvements to the county’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance process, which can sometimes be lengthy and delay developments.

Supervisors also requested a more detailed plan for using general fund dollars and the county’s share of the $85 million Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant closure settlement to fund affordable housing.

County staff is also studying vacation rental impact fees as another potential long-term funding source for housing.

Will housing ever be more affordable?

Supervisors all acknowledged the need for more affordable housing, but some were doubtful homeowners will want to pick up the tab for it. Others were less than optimistic that additional funds for more housing will help create a cheaper market.

“The public generally supports affordable housing, as long as they don’t specifically have to support affordable housing,” Supervisor Adam Hill said.

Even so, Hill said a “massive subsidy” is the only way to create housing that is affordable for residents who aren’t wealthy or have inherited money.

Supervisor Lynn Compton agreed homeowners may not want to put their money toward affordable housing, even though it’s a countywide problem.

“I just am concerned that you could put something in place for, say, $4 million a year for 10 years, and I do not believe that in 10 years, we will be more affordable around here,” Compton said. “I just don’t believe that will happen.”

Supervisor Bruce Gibson pointed out other California counties’ success with housing bond measures and said it would be a “promising approach” to getting needed funds.

“I reject the idea that we’re paying for something transitory,” Gibson said. “We’re investing in housing, and investing in housing is key to improving our economy.”

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.