With SLO County home prices rising, county supervisors can’t waffle on affordable housing policies

Home construction underway early this year at The Cove at River Oaks in Paso Robles.
Home construction underway early this year at The Cove at River Oaks in Paso Robles.

Home prices are climbing again — good news for sellers, but not so great for buyers.

In September, The Tribune reported, the median home price in San Luis Obispo County was $495,000 — an amount that’s expected to rise rapidly.

By 2018, the county median home price is predicted to reach $638,778, according to the 2015-16 Central Coast Economic Forecast released last week.

2018 is not as far away as it sounds. Yet we’re witnessing a strange complacency about a situation looking more and more like a return to pre-recession days, when only 11 percent of the population could afford a home and we saw a “brain drain” of young professionals leaving the county for more affordable housing markets.

As we’ve said many times, we understand government has a limited role to play in the housing market. It can, however, set and enforce policies that encourage development of homes at the low end of the price range.

Some agencies have been better at this than others.

San Luis Obispo County — which should be a leader — does not have a great track record.

We’ve heard lots of talk about workforce housing from county leaders, but we’ve seen little real progress.

For example, on Tuesday the Board of Supervisors will conduct its annual review of affordable housing fees levied on new homes and commercial developments. If the board follows its staff recommendation, the fees will remain at the same low levels set years ago.

Approved back in 2008, the fees were supposed to steadily increase over five years. However, county supervisors were reluctant to raise them during the recession — a decision we supported — so the fees have remained set at just 20 percent of the full amount.

That works out to 75 cents per square foot for residential development and 68 cents per square foot for commercial. (The full fee is $3.75 for residential, and $3.42 for commercial.)

As a result, little has accumulated in the fund; a paltry $125,268 in fees is available for projects next year.

On top of that, the city was already behind the curve when it adopted the fees; the city of San Luis Obispo had passed a similar ordinance in 1999, and by 2008, more than 100 affordable units had been built as a result.

Seven years later, the county is still dragging its feet.

The county staff report recommends maintaining the status quo when it comes to the fees; it claims the housing market still isn’t strong enough to handle an increase.

The housing market has shown “strong signs of recovery,” the report says, but it’s still not clear whether the construction industry has stabilized.

Interestingly, the same report also points out that, while county housing prices increased 48 percent between 2011 and 2015, median salaries increased by only 3.6 percent.

Yet affordable housing fees that are supposed to help lower-income individuals buy or rent homes remain set artificially low.

We have to ask, why bother collecting fees at all if they’re set so low as to be almost meaningless?

Why does the Board of Supervisors keep this law in play if it’s not going to honor it?

Paying lip service to policies and ordinances that are on the books but are only half-heartedly implemented — if at all — is not constructive.

If the board lacks the political will to enforce the fee ordinance, it should say so, and turn to other methods to encourage development of affordable housing that it can support.