Change is difficult for almost every human being. For that reason, I understand why some opponents of the housing and commercial projects now on the drawing boards are concerned that growth could harm the “character” of the city of San Luis Obispo.
Under the pretense of preserving an undefined value — “character” — we have held fast to policies over the last half century that have traded off the opportunity and prosperity of this and future generations to protect what only a few are able to afford and enjoy. Tragically, the trade-off has been a lose-lose outcome, because anti-growth sentiment has failed to preserve the small town, live-where-you-work place.
Instead, SLO is plagued by high housing costs, relatively few head-of-household jobs, a diminished small-town, live-where-you-work feel, congested corridors unnecessarily increasing greenhouse gas emissions from people commuting long distances from outside the city to their jobs, and too many households struggling to juggle commuting with family activities because housing near their jobs is out of reach.
While we might have preserved the “character” of a city scape, the overall impact has been detrimental to the moral character of our community. Our attempt to preserve character has turned out to be a misguided embalming of what should be a living thing — a vibrant community.
I respectfully suggest it might be a good time to start building a different kind of character — a character that values community, facilitates opportunity and prosperity for everyone, and doesn’t merely protect the character that only a fortunate few now enjoy.
I also urge those who would like a shot at greater opportunity and prosperity to be sure to vote this fall for candidates who realize that a thriving community constantly seeks to ensure that opportunity and prosperity are broadly accessible, and not just for the fortunate few.
If you’re wondering, here’s the most common argument advanced by opponents of growth, whether it’s housing or other projects: SLO is a beautiful city with a rich history, nestled in a unique stretch of the Central Coast. Allowing buildings that are too high and too large can block scenic views; new housing — however badly needed — will create too much traffic. This development will destroy SLO’s character, or so the argument goes. Essentially, this is the argument — very shortsighted, in my view — that has shaped planning policy for decades.
Clearly, a vocal contingent likes San Luis Obispo the way it is, and doesn’t care whether other people can participate in the life of the community.
Fortunately, the current City Council has shifted direction and has taken meaningful steps to improve the housing situation. But there is more to be done to ensure that we, as a community, are far more mindful of the need to allow a more balanced approach to growth and, ultimately, greater prosperity for all.
This is a moral issue, not merely an economic issue. Consider the fact that our policies over the last half century have created a de facto discrimination against all but the wealthiest among us. Far too many of the very people who make up vital components of our community’s “character” — teachers, police officers, fire fighters, hospitality/service workers, nurses, social workers, software engineers, professors, and even young doctors and lawyers — cannot afford to live where they work, and are on the outside looking in.
Bluntly, we have ignored or forgotten the people in our community. Even for baby boomers buying a house in the 1980s or early ‘90s, it was a stretch. For the children of baby boomers, it is an Olympic-level hurdle, and for the grandchildren of baby boomers, well, they better inherit a lot of money.
Indeed, if you don’t have an annual household income of more than $124,000, you cannot afford SLO’s median-priced home, now pegged at more than $630,000. Fewer than 20 percent of households have that level of income. In other words, a whopping 80 percent are on the wrong side of this ledger. This is the direct result of decades of anti-growth policy.
Are we really OK excluding from our city the core workforce essential to the character of a cohesive, creative and thriving community?
That’s why I believe we need a new definition of “character’’ — a definition that promotes opportunity and prosperity for everyone.
If you are among the more than 80 percent; if you are on the outside looking in; if you are seeking opportunity to enjoy a greater level of prosperity, it’s entirely in your hands. Vote for candidates this November who are committed to creating the future character of SLO that works for you.
Andrew S. Hackleman is executive director of the Home Builders Association.