Editorials

Would SLO County voters pass an affordable housing tax? It’s time to find out

Here’s how to find an affordable house in SLO County

Stacy George, a real estate agent for Platinum Properties in Paso Robles, California, talks about how what to consider when buying a house in San Luis Obispo County.
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Stacy George, a real estate agent for Platinum Properties in Paso Robles, California, talks about how what to consider when buying a house in San Luis Obispo County.

Another new tax?

This time for affordable housing projects?

“Hell no!”

“NO NO AND NO!!!”

“Taxed up the wazoo already!”

Those were among the deluge of objections on The Tribune’s Facebook page after we reported that the Board of Supervisors is considering a housing bond measure.

The board took a first step last week, when it unanimously directed county staff to do a feasibility study about putting a countywide tax on the November 2020 ballot.

The was a brave move in itself.

For that, the board — particularly the three conservative members who have traditionally been averse to new taxes — deserves a whole lot of credit.

The new tax under consideration — and to be clear, this is a very early stage of consideration — would be a property tax levied on homeowners. Because it’s a special-purpose tax, it would require a two-thirds majority vote for approval.

County staff is suggesting a 10-year bond that would raise $4 million per year. That would cost homeowners $5 per year for every $100,000 of assessed value, which works out to an annual payment of $20 on a house assessed at $400,000 — the average assessed value in the county.

Longtime residents who have owned their homes for decades, and have even lower assessed values as a result, would pay even less.

That’s $20 per year — give or take — to rein in housing costs for local residents and make it more possible for them to own instead of rent.

A trip to the movies can easily cost way more than that.

So why the early resistance?

There are three major objections:

  1. It’s a matter of principle; I shouldn’t have to help somebody else buy a home when I’m having a tough time myself. “Get the money from someplace else ... get out of my checkbook and off my back,” as one Facebook poster put it.
  2. Government’s rotten! Don’t give it any more money to waste!
  3. It won’t help; or as one Facebook user put it: “Affordable housing is a will ’o the wisp idea.”

Supervisors also expressed some skepticism.

“I don’t believe that in 10 years we’ll be more affordable around here,” Supervisor Lynn Compton said.

She may be right; depending on the economy, the median cost of a home could be even higher in 10 years, especially since the overwhelming majority of units being built continues to be large, expensive, single-family homes.

Bond revenue should help increase the meager supply of apartments and starter homes for young people — the millennials who graduated from local schools and are now joining the work force, and the Gen Z’ers who will soon follow them.

Isn’t it worth investing a modest $20 per year on lower-cost homes, especially in a county with a nationwide reputation of being one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation?

Besides, there are ways to make a tax more palatable.

For one, county residents should be given priority for housing funded with local taxes, which is a step a couple of San Luis Obispo developers are taking.

The county also should be crystal clear on the types of projects that would be funded; we don’t need more “workforce” housing that winds up costing $700,000 or more a unit.

And remember, local voters have been generous in approving bond measures for schools and sales tax increases for roads and public safety and parks.

Some generous souls already are on board with an affordable housing tax.

“$20-$50 a year sounds more than reasonable to help out in a county with a 25% poverty rate,” wrote one Facebook user. “I’d gladly stroke a check for $100. Can I do that? I’m doing it.”

Yes, you can write a check, but the county isn’t accepting payments.

“For now, anyone interested in making donations should reach out to local nonprofit organizations that support this effort,” County Planning Director Trevor Keith advises.

Great idea. Why wait around until November 2020?

Habitat for Humanity for San Luis Obispo County and People’s Self-Help Housing are a couple of local nonprofits accepting donations for affordable housing. (If we’ve left others out, please drop us a letter to the editor.)

Meanwhile, we urge the Board of Supervisors to move ahead in researching a bond measure, along with other revenue options.

A new tax will be a tough sell, but on this critical issue citizens deserve a chance to literally vote with their wallets.

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