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Sacramento needs to stop viewing coloring city maps as the key to affordable housing
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

California is not serious about affordable housing.

That’s because state lawmakers are holding onto the naive and politically convenient position that all you have to do is require cities to set aside land depicted on a map in the right color and you magically will have affordable housing.

It’s been such a winning strategy for the past 40 years. Powerful coastal cities – where liberal leaning power structures talk a good game but when push comes to shove they don’t want affordable housing in their neighborhoods – have managed to shift the burden eastward onto cities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire.

State lawmakers, under pressure to actually finally do something that will produce affordable housing, in 2018 enacted a law to sue cities to make sure they have set aside enough land to meet affordable housing goals.

Keep in mind the city does not have to build affordable housing nor are they expected to control market conditions. They simply have to set aside land for affordable housing so it could be built.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is using that law to sue the City of Huntington Beach for not having enough land set aside for affordable housing.

Huntington Beach’s apparent sin was reducing the amount of planned high-density affordable units and not putting the appropriate zoning color that depicts affordable housing elsewhere on a city map to make up for the reduction in units.

This is where the entire affordable housing argument goes south. 

Does anyone besides government bureaucrats, government lawyers, and politicians really believe high-density housing that is affordable will be built in Huntington Beach or anywhere else for that matter in most of California without a major financial subsidy or a relaxation of state and local requirements for “enhanced” development touches that drive up the cost of housing and makes it unaffordable for many families to rent or own on their own?

The reason why the median price of a home in California is $570,000 as opposed to the national median of $259,100 has everything to do with state decrees that have weaponized the environmental process by turning into a repetitive, cumbersome, lengthy, and expensive review process that gives neighbors and communities the ability to try to stone projects to death.

If you doubt that try to build a barebones, affordable project such as a duplex development with no garages, no fences, narrower streets, and units that are less than 800 square feet. 

Assuming city planners just don’t laugh at you and show you the door, the project will be bludgeoned to death by neighbors using the environmental review process. 

The problem is the state needs to find ways to reduce the cost of constructing housing – rental or otherwise – as opposed to elected leaders sitting around Sacramento making broad policy statements that are the equivalent of sprinkling fairy dust instead of pruning and streamlining expensive state-mandated requirements and regulations.

The state is not only passing the buck on affordable housing after they put tons of conditions on what they want seen done but then they sledge hammers cities for not complying to their whims.

The bottom line of the lawsuit with Huntington Beach is to get the city to essentially zone land for high-density housing, color areas on a map, and submit it to the state.

No affordable housing units may ever be built.

If you ask the state after their legal hatchet job on Huntington Beach is done whether that city is meeting the state affordable housing requirement, state bureaucrats will answer “yes.” Then everyone will say from the state down to the city that Huntington Beach is complying with affordable housing goals without a single affordable housing being built.

This is not conjecture. The state defines cities meeting affordable housing goals as simply listing lofty goals and putting aside an appropriate amount of land — nothing more, and nothing less.

So if market conditions that are directly impacted by state environmental requirements, mandatory fees, and such drive up the cost of housing, wouldn’t it make sense if you want to provide more affordable housing is to reduce costs.

Granted you need land zoned for that purpose but when all of the legal expenditures are done, Huntington Beach will join all of the other cities Sacramento hammered into compliance to set aside land for affordable housing with no mechanisms in place to make sure it is built.

People can’t live in a court decree.

So why not have some moxie at the state level and mandate that 25 percent of all new housing built in a city must be affordable to buy or rent for those making up to 80 percent of a community’s median income?

And to make sure that it can happen allow cities a set of tools to select from that they can use to entice the private sector to do just that.

Those tools could include:

•  Eliminating garages on single family homes and going with either just an off street driveway or a carport.

• Allow all or some of the fees to be reduced with the cost absorbed by at market-housing. Under current state law that can’t happen.

• Giving the developers the option of meeting the affordable housing requirement by building 25 percent of their new homes with either a casita (little home) under the same roof with its own bathroom and small kitchen with its own entrance or as a traditional free standing granny flat. Buyers could rent to relatives or others not just to provide others with affordable housing but to reduce their housing costs as well. It is a much cleaner system that people having to resort to renting living quarters – rooms with kitchen privileges — as a small but growing number of home buyers are now doing to afford a home. 

• Allow developers to meet the affordable goal through exclusionary zoning such as Ripon where duplexes sit on corner lots with front access from opposite streets with a traditional single family neighborhood with smaller footprints although architecture treatment would blend seamless into the neighborhoods.

• Developers being able to get credit for affordable housing on a one-by-one basis by helping existing homeowners build granny flat or do customized garage conversions to create efficiency housing by performing the construction work at cost to the homeowner.

A lot of affordable housing advocates may be cheering Newsom for suing Huntington Beach but when all is said and done it will not result in a guarantee that another affordable housing unit will be built in Surf City USA.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.