In a city short on rentals, Cal Poly’s plan for employee housing has merit

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, entrance.
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, entrance. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

For years, there has been a glaring shortage of affordable rentals in much of San Luis Obispo County, especially in the city. And it’s getting worse.

The least-expensive San Luis Obispo rental advertised on the website Zillow right now is a three-bedroom apartment for $1,015 per month. Not bad, right? But there’s a catch: It’s an affordable-housing unit with income restrictions. Other rentals on Zillow range from $1,200 for a one-bedroom townhouse to $5,500 for a five-bedroom house.

Even the low end is a stretch for someone earning an entry-level wage, which means San Luis Obispo workers are forced to commute from less-expensive areas, clogging highways in the process, or they spend as much as half of their incomes on rent.

The lack of decent and affordable rental housing is the major reason we believe Cal Poly should pursue its plan to build up to 420 units of faculty/staff rental housing at the southeast corner of campus, near Grand Avenue and Slack Street.

The density would be relatively high — between 24 and 28 units per acre. It would help keep rents down, according to Cal Poly officials, who say the workforce housing project would also help attract and retain employees.

We have no particular objections to the density or the location, though those are bound to be points of contention. We’ve already heard grumbling about an increase in traffic, as well as skepticism about whether employees would even be interested in renting there, given its proximity to student dorms.

We agree that on-campus rental units will not appeal to everyone. They aren’t meant to. But they could be ideal for faculty and staff who like the idea of walking to work and being close to campus amenities, such as the Performing Arts Center and the fitness center.

Besides, if there isn’t enough demand from faculty and staff, they will be open to non-Cal Poly employees. And given the lack of available rentals and the condition of some of the rentals we’ve seen, we don’t believe there would be a problem filling the units — especially if the university follows through on its promise of affordability.

That’s a concern, because while the term “workforce housing” implies affordability, it’s also vague. For example, we’ve seen single-family homes advertised as “workforce” that sell for more than $500,000.

We strongly urge the administration to commit to making the majority of units affordable to employees at the lower end of the university’s pay scale, which starts at $1,989 per month.

Another recommendation: Find a way to involve Cal Poly architecture students in the design. The university has one of the most-respected architecture schools in the nation, and this is a great opportunity to showcase its talent with a project that’s attractive; energy and water efficient; well suited to the site; and fosters a sense of community among residents.

In other words, create a project that would be a model not only for Cal Poly, but also for the entire city.

To that end, we strongly urge the university to work closely with the city, to respond to its suggestions and concerns and to be willing to compromise when appropriate. While the city does not have jurisdiction over developments on the campus, it does have a huge stake in what takes place there, and some city officials already are weighing in for and against the development.

Be that as it may, the city does have an official position on campus housing for faculty and staff, at least in principle.

Its latest Housing Element includes this policy: “Encourage Cal Poly University to develop and maintain faculty and staff housing, consistent with the General Plan.”

It’s a sensible policy, and we believe the city should honor it.

San Luis Obispo needs more housing for employees — particularly reasonably priced housing. Cal Poly is willing to provide it.

We strongly encourage the university to pursue its vision.