More urgency needed on county affordable housing

With the cost of housing steadily rising — the median price in October was $487,500 — San Luis Obispo County again has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation.

It’s no surprise, then, that a recent survey commissioned by the Economic Vitality Corp. found that a lack of affordable housing is a major concern for both employers and employees. In fact, 27 percent of the 354 employees surveyed said they’re likely to move out of the county in the near future, primarily on account of high housing prices.

As a follow-up to the survey, an EVC subcommittee is developing a list of recommended ways to encourage development of more affordable homes, particularly workforce housing.

What, exactly, is workforce housing?

It’s an amorphous term; in some areas, it’s used as a synonym for affordable housing projects aimed at low- and very low-income buyers.

But in areas of high housing costs such as ours, it’s often applied to middle-income families caught in the middle, earning too much to qualify for traditional affordable housing built with the help of government subsidies, but not enough to afford a typical market-rate home. Housing that is in their price range often is in outlying areas far from their workplaces — lengthening their commutes and increasing congestion and pollution.

We applaud efforts to shine a light on this particular housing shortage. More must be done to help families in the middle-income category, and it must move beyond the usual talk of making homes “affordable by design” — i.e., smaller and slightly less fancy than the behemoths built during the height of the boom.

We welcome a discussion, whether by the EVC, the Home Builders Association, the Workforce Housing Coalition , the Board of Supervisors or, even better, all of those groups, to explore developing incentives to encourage more workforce housing.

Some ideas were raised last month when the Board of Supervisors conducted its annual review of affordable housing fees. (Under the county’s inclusionary housing ordinance, developers have the option of building low-cost units in their subdivisions, or paying “en lieu” fees that help finance affordable housing projects elsewhere in the community.)

There was talk, for example, of streamlining the permitting process for workforce homes; relaxing building requirements; and reducing or eliminating certain fees, including the affordable housing fee.

That makes perfect sense. If we’re trying to make housing more affordable for families struggling to buy a market-rate home, we shouldn’t saddle those buyers with fees in order to help families that may earn only slightly less than they do.

The Board of Supervisors agreed to consider adjusting affordable housing fees to give a break to smaller workforce units — that’s good. But in the meantime, affordable housing fees — which were supposed to steadily increase over a period of five years — will remain at a low level that was set during the recession, as a help to homebuilders.

We can live with that, though we would rather not have to wait an entire year to see those fees adjusted.

We urge the county to move forward with a sense of urgency in developing and implementing a strategy to increase the supply of workforce housing.

Talk alone is not enough — not when prices are escalating at such a rapid rate. We encourage the county Board of Supervisors to set a timetable for development of specific strategies and to issue progress reports on a regular basis. If we don’t want to see the county creep ever higher on the list of least affordable communities, we must act now.