SLO’s population looks poor on paper. But college students may be skewing the data

In an effort to spur construction of more housing like this project in San Luis Obispo, the state can now penalize cities that fall behind in meeting housing goals.
In an effort to spur construction of more housing like this project in San Luis Obispo, the state can now penalize cities that fall behind in meeting housing goals.

The recent passage of state Senate Bill 35 — along with other housing legislation — means heightened penalties for cities that fail to meet state-mandated housing goals.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development has set San Luis Obispo County’s goal for new housing unit at 4,090.

The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments is responsible for determining each city’s share based on extrapolated growth projections and income levels.

For the city of San Luis Obispo, the goal is 1,143 units, of which 464 units must be for very low- and low-income residents. The city must show that it has zoned enough land to accommodate housing units for the various income categories.

Under SB 35, any California city unable to meet its target will be subjected to a streamlined, ministerial entitlement process for certain multi-family, urban-infill projects consistent with “objective” planning and zoning standards.

“Objective” means all discretionary environmental, design and planning reviews involving advisory bodies and public testimony will be waived. In a addition to this, Assembly Bill 879 will require local governments to include an expanded analysis of constraints on the production of housing in their housing elements.

The city of San Luis Obispo is falling far short in providing the required number of housing units for residents earning below moderate income.

Though poverty does indeed exist within the county, I would like SLOCOG, the county Board of Supervisors and the San Luis Obispo City Council to address an inherent structural flaw built into both the county’s and city’s housing targets. This flaw originates from the fact that the current and projected poverty level within the city and county is unfairly skewed upward by the presence of 22,096 off-campus Cal Poly and Cuesta College students, most of whom are bringing in poverty-level incomes working in service sector jobs. In 2015, the largest groups living in poverty in SLO County were young men (8,162) and young women (6,161) between the ages of 18 and 24.

San Luis Obispo County's median home price rose to $530,000 in April 2017, up 3.9 percent from April 2016, according to CoreLogic. Here's a closer look at San Luis Obispo's housing market, by the numbers.

However, Cal Poly’s student population comes from the most affluent households in the nation with a median parental income of $152,900, according to a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project. All these comparatively affluent kids living away from home have to do is pull in a little bit of cash as a barista, report it to the IRS and they're marked down as a poverty-level household.

As a result of this, according to the U.S. Census Bureau our city’s poverty rate — 33.4 percent — is reportedly the highest in the county, far higher than the national average of 13.5 percent that the county average of 14.4 percent. It’s even comparable to Detroit's average, 39.8 percent.

From this specious bit of data, we're obligated to provide a pro-rata share of very low-income housing for a population that neither needs it nor wants it.

The housing market has little incentive to build below-median-income student rental housing within the city of San Luis Obispo (even after the city grants these projects streamlined, ministerial approvals) because the market knows college students have an unreported source of funds sufficient to pay the higher rents charged in San Luis Obispo.

Moreover, housing developers know there are enormous profits to be made by convincing county and city officials (backed up with state-mandated Regional Housing Need Allocations) that in order to underwrite the costs of providing the mandatory 5 percent pro rata share of very low-income housing (which would supposedly address the unmet housing needs of this fictitious low-income population), they must be allowed to build fast-tracked, overly-dense, cheaply-constructed and poorly designed housing. Once this substandard housing is infilled into our existing neighborhoods, the developer will then proceed to charge the exorbitant rents on the remaining 95 percent of the units that only a captive, affluent population of college students can afford.

But let’s look into the future. Assuming Cuesta and Cal Poly decide to stop growing their enrollments (which is highly unlikely) and assuming more Cal Poly students will be forced to live in newly constructed on-campus housing, our city will be left with an enormous inventory of dormitory-style housing located in deteriorated neighborhoods that nobody will want to live in.

Some of us who’ve lived through the ’60s have been here before and it’s called the creation of “instant slums.”

Allan Cooper is an architect, retired professor and community activist. He has served on the SLO Architectural Review Commission and the Planning Commission. He is a member of Save Our Downtown.