Viewpoints

We know housing is a problem. So what do we do?

New homes under construction at Trilogy at Monarch Dunes in Nipomo.
New homes under construction at Trilogy at Monarch Dunes in Nipomo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

I do not need to take a lot of time or space to convince you that housing affordability is an imminent threat to our community. Study after study tells us the Central Coast is one of the most expensive places to live in the country.

The growing housing crises threatens the quality of our health, economy, education and our overall community stability.

However, before we can discuss a fix, we must first identify the obvious problem: California is not building enough housing to keep up with demand. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan government agency, the supply shortage is due to “community resistance to housing, environmental policies, lack of fiscal incentives for local governments to approve housing, and limited land constraints.” The result is a seller’s market where scarcity forces homebuyers and renters to compete against one another, driving prices even further upward.

Fowler John
John Fowler is president/CEO of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing, which is the largest affordable housing developer on the Central Coast.

Expediting the building approval process is one way that policymakers can reduce the risk, time, and cost associated with building housing. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed to provide developers with permits “by right” if a project is compliant with existing zoning and community-planned uses. Locally, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors directed staff to explore ways to reduce the amount of time it takes to receive a building permit. Increasing the supply of housing is one important, common sense, bipartisan solution to the housing crises.

However, simply building more homes does not guarantee relief for everyone, as increases in supply often elude the low-income households that suffer most from the housing market.

A 2016 study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that increases in market-rate housing for low-income renters is canceled out by the number of low-income units lost each year due to property owners rehabilitating units for higher rents. It is rare for the benefits of an increased supply to filter or trickle down to low-income households. It is the mission of nonprofit affordable housing developers, such as Peoples’ Self-Help Housing, to ensure that viable housing options remain available to our vulnerable low-income families, veterans, seniors and people with special needs.

While the demand for affordable housing is growing, resources are shrinking. Federal housing assistance is on track to hit a 40-year low, and in 2012, Gov. Brown dissolved redevelopment agencies (RDA), local development organizations responsible for financing affordable housing projects. Even private market solutions to create affordable housing remain vulnerable, as the prospect of tax reform has caused uncertainty in the market for low-income housing tax credits, the most successful affordable housing producer to date created in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.

With waning support at the federal and state level, as well as the private sector, we must look to our local governments for solutions.

Demand for affordable housing is growing, but resources are shrinking, says the president of Peoples’ Self Help Housing.

One time-tested tool is already available at the local level. The inclusionary housing fee paid by for-profit homebuilders allows affordable housing developers to leverage millions of dollars in private investment for low-income housing. Through this fee, our Board of Supervisors and city councils can serve those our federal and state governments failed. This critical resource makes the difference between the most vulnerable members of our community being sick or healthy, fed or hungry, housed or homeless.

While this fee is important for the development of affordable housing, it is not a fix all. Stakeholders need to come together — the homebuilders association, policymakers and low-income advocates alike — to develop a broad-based, comprehensive solution to the housing crises that will benefit all members of our community. However, until then, we must desperately cling to what works and fight to protect our few remaining housing programs until better solutions are in place. Doing otherwise will quite literally leave people out in the cold — without a home and without hope.

We all want the same thing — safe, stable and affordable housing for all. Although we may sometimes disagree on how to accomplish this goal, let us begin with this sense of mutual understanding. Let us keep solutions that we know work. Most importantly, let us remember that at the center of the housing crisis is not a political or economic issue, but a pressing, moral obligation to ensure that every person has a place to call home.

John Fowler is president/CEO of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing, which is the largest affordable housing developer on the Central Coast.

Natalie Marinelli, 25, a Cal Poly graduate and former Apple employee in the Bay Area, moved back to San Luis Obispo County with her husband for the quality of life, only to discover they can't afford a home here.

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