The do-nothing Board of Supervisors refuses to act on affordable housing fees

New homes under construction last year at the Trilogy subdivision in Nipomo.
New homes under construction last year at the Trilogy subdivision in Nipomo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The Board of Supervisors had the chance to fix a key component of the county’s sluggish affordable housing program last week.

Instead, it voted 3-2 to do nothing.

Rather than switch to a more equitable system of collecting affordable housing fees — or just raising the fee by a miniscule amount — the three conservatives on the board decided to stand pat.

The net effect: No boost in funding to build more affordable homes, even though we live in one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation.

In case you missed the story, here are the details: The board was asked to consider some fundamental changes in the way it collects the affordable housing fee levied on new construction.

The county has been charging a standard amount per square foot, but a study recommended switching to a tiered fee structure — a recommendation that had wide support in the home-building community. The proposal called for eliminating or reducing fees for small homes, while charging higher fees for larger, more lavish units.

Another idea on the table: Close the loophole that exempts projects with only one unit — even when that single unit is a mansion-sized custom home.

Those ideas make sense. They ease the burden on first-time homebuyers who are in the market for small starter houses, while generating revenue from high-income buyers of luxury homes.

But rather than explore those ideas, the board’s conservative majority voted to stick with the status quo, which means the affordable housing fee will remain at $1.50 per square foot.

We’re disappointed — though not surprised — the board didn’t act more aggressively by pursuing the suggested changes, or at the very least, raising the fee.

The board is continuing its same old pattern: lots of hand-wringing over the need for affordable housing but little in the way of meaningful action.

Time and again, there have been calls to encourage the construction of lower-cost homes and apartments by streamlining the permitting process; zoning more land for housing; easing certain restrictions; and offering density bonuses and other incentives to developers.

Yet little changes — oftentimes because the board caves to pressure from residents who don’t want density in their neighborhoods.

Even the affordable housing fee program, while better than nothing, has been too little too late.

The county didn’t pass a fee ordinance until 2008 — nearly 10 years after the city of San Luis Obispo adopted one.

By the time the county put fees in place, several large housing projects, especially in the South County, had already been built without any affordable housing requirements whatsoever.

On top of that, shortly after the county ordinance passed, the Great Recession hit, prompting the Board of Supervisors to freeze the fee. Since then, the fee — which was supposed to be increased every year — has been bumped up only once, in 2016.

In the nearly 10 years it’s been in place, the county fee has generated $1.2 million in the county. By comparison, the city of San Luis Obispo has collected nearly $9.5 million that’s been used to finance 295 units. Plus, SLO developers who opted against paying the fee built an additional 260 units to comply with the ordinance. (Typically, developers have the option of paying a fee or including some low-cost units in their projects.)

It’s true the fees in the city of San Luis Obispo are much higher — a 2,100-square-foot house valued at $5,500 would cost $27,175 in affordable housing fees in the city, compared to $3,150 in the county.

We aren’t advocating for the county to raise its fees to that level, but it’s not going to accomplish much if it’s averaging just $110,000 per year.

If the county wants to make real progress on providing more affordable homes, it’s got to act — not only by raising and/or restructuring fees, but also on the other remedies it’s been discussing.

Otherwise, prices will continue to rise as an ineffectual Board of Supervisors wrings its hands — and thousands of county residents continue to lose hope of ever finding affordable housing.

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