In November, The Tribune took the majority of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to task over not increasing affordable housing fees. Shortly thereafter, John Fowler of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing echoed that criticism. Unfortunately, both missed the point in maligning the board’s action.
Increasing affordable housing fees and driving up the costs of housing for working families and members of the middle class already struggling to own a home is not the answer. In accepting the staff recommendation to keep fees at their present level, the board majority, led by Supervisor Frank Mecham, who stated that the inclusionary housing fees “just aren’t working,” directed staff to come up with a more effective strategy to increase the supply of affordable housing. The board majority of Mecham, Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold did exactly what they should have done.
To his credit, Fowler’s critique stated, “We must all use all of the tools available in the box to face the challenge” of affordable housing. Couldn’t agree more. So why focus exclusively on only one tool: increasing the cost of market-rate housing to fund affordable housing? Meanwhile, fee supporters such as Supervisor Bruce Gibson have been “missing in action” on other initiatives contained within the county’s Housing Element. Where are they on “zoning more land for housing,” “making the permitting process less cumbersome” or “providing incentives to developers to build affordable homes”? These are the initiatives that call for real progress, not lip service.
Affordable housing demands bolder actions. It’s time to assemble a coalition of housing advocates, nonprofit organizations like Fowler’s, public agencies and for-profit builders to think outside the box in devising ways to remove the regulatory and institutional barriers to affordable housing, while incentivizing the private sector to become the willing producer of affordable housing. If we are really serious about increasing affordable housing, such a coalition should consider hard-hitting actions that could dramatically increase the amount of affordable housing, including:
1. Advocating legislation to amend the California Environmental Quality Act to exempt projects containing 20 percent or more of affordable housing from having to prepare environmental impact reports. (With the state exempting football stadiums and basketball arenas from CEQA, why not affordable housing?) There is no single measure that would have a more profound effect in producing affordable housing than this one.
2. Allowing a density bonus equal to the number of affordable units incorporated within a market-rate housing project.
3. Establishing a program with incentives and reduced development standards for generating workforce housing — an initiative that the Home Builders Association and the Economic Vitality Corp. have been pursuing for nearly two years — and exempting future projects that are by definition more affordable from having to pay inclusionary housing fees.
4. Applying for grants through the state Strategic Growth Council’s recently announced affordable housing program funded to the tune of $32 million.
5. Implementing AB 744, recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, to reduce excessive parking requirements for affordable housing projects.
6. Pursuing the rezoning of lands for projects that would include affordable housing and identifying where such rezonings would be appropriate, starting now.
7. Advocating legislation on how to limit liability issues for condominiums and attached townhomes.
8. Developing a countywide infrastructure enhancement program to ensure the county and its cities have appropriate infrastructure to serve housing needs.
9. Reconsidering how expensive all developer fees have become and adjusting them in the interest of providing needed housing, like the city of Paso Robles is doing.
Increasing inclusionary housing fees by 366 percent as planned over the next few years will only add to the costs of housing and create financial barriers that will make it even harder for the middle class to afford to buy homes.
The Board of Supervisors did the right thing in keeping the fees as they are and in calling for bolder action from county staff. When the Planning Department reports back to the board in March 2016, it will be interesting to see what progress it’s made on the these priorities. It’s time to take actions like these and follow through with a strategy for success.
T. Keith Gurnee is a retired planning and urban design consultant and a former member of the San Luis Obispo City Council.