A Drop in the Bucket With water scarce, Monterey invests what it has for housing

By Joe Livernois

In a world of drought and privation, the use of a mere 233,000 gallons of water doesn’t amount to much.

Except, of course, in Monterey.

That’s how much available water the city has to allocate this year. It’s a piddling amount, to be sure, a veritable drop in the bucket. Yet the issue of how to distribute that water encapsulates every major issue faced by the city of Monterey these days — water, affordable housing and economic development.

The grubbing for these slim water pickings came to a head on Tuesday, when the City Council agreed that the water should be used for affordable housing.

City officials, aware that Monterey suffers from a housing crunch that is driving residents out of the city, would like to bank the water (it translates to .715 acre feet) for use in any potential affordable housing project that might come forward. The city’s housing goals are 650 new units for low, very low or moderate-income units and it doesn’t have near enough water to meet that goal.

But Anthony Davi, who owns property on Alvarado Street, asked for some of the water the city allocated on Tuesday. He said he’s got a potential tenant who would like to open a juice bar in a storefront on the street. It would be a shame if that property remained vacant, he said, creating a blight on an important commercial section of Monterey.

Just in the past year, Davi said he’s rejected offers from potential operators of a hookah smoke shop, a tattoo parlor and a thrift shop because he doesn’t believe those types of commercial ventures would be appropriate on Alvarado. In an email sent to city staff in December, Davi wrote that he is trying to maintain a certain commercial standard on Alvarado, but would like the city’s help. The property does not have a water allocation, and Davi asked the city to grant it some of the .715 acre feet.

But housing advocates say affordable homes should get the priority.

“We can’t have a viable downtown if the people who are working the juice bar have to drive miles and miles to get to work,” said Fatima Dias, a Monterey resident.

Dias works for United Way Monterey County, which has prioritized housing as a primary need that the agency will address in coming years. She joined about a dozen other housing advocates who urged the council not to bend to commercial ventures at the expense of housing needs.

Kimberly Cole, the city’s acting community development director, said the .715 acre feet of water could service 10 modest housing units in Monterey. It’s also enough water to service a 35-seat restaurant.

“There is a compelling argument that can be made to try to make sure our existing commercial businesses are vibrant and we do not have empty commercial spaces,” Cole says. On the other hand, she points out that the city’s general plan clearly states that the city “shall give preference to projects meeting fair-share housing goals” when new water is available.

The heart of the issue — throughout the Monterey Peninsula — is a shortage of available water. Put simply by Cole, “water has been identified as a significant constraint to new housing development.”

And what water the California American Water Co. provides to its Peninsula customers is under attack by state regulators, who say the company is taking water from the Carmel River illegally. The state Water Resources Control Board ordered Cal Am to reduce diversions from the Carmel River in 1995, but Cal Am has yet to provide new water.

Meanwhile, officials in local cities on the Peninsula find themselves spending a lot of their time trying to allocate a scant amount of water. In the end, the Monterey City Council on Tuesday unanimously agreed to allocate what water it had to affordable housing.

The action did not necessarily rule out proposals like Davi’s juice shop. If, for instance, a commercial property owner who also happened to own an apartment building in town needed water for the commercial building, the council made clear it would look kindly on the proposal if the property owner agreed to convert the apartment complex to affordable housing.

City officials said they’ve managed to squeeze out enough water to allow construction of about 36 units of low-cost housing in Monterey in the past year, including an 18-unit senior housing project behind the Police Department that will open later this year. But they also acknowledged that they have a long way to go if the city hopes to meet its housing goals.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.