2019: The Year of Housing

Photo by Vernon McKnight

By Joe Livernois

The coming year might be remembered as the Year of Housing in California, and advocates for low-income housing on the Central Coast couldn’t be happier.

Gov. Gavin Newsom released a proposed budget last week, a couple of days after he was sworn into office, and the dominant headline of that budget was its unprecedented commitment to housing investments. Newsom has offered promises of tax incentives for low-income housing and a strong suggestion that state officials will no longer accept excuses from cities and counties that continue to shrug off its housing responsibilities.

“No one should live in constant fear of eviction or spend their whole paycheck to keep a roof overhead,” Newsom said. During his campaign for governor last year, Newsom all but promised that up to 3.5 million new housing units would get built in the next seven years.

The timing couldn’t be better for Central Coast housing advocates who have long been frustrated with a pervasive NIMBY attitude among property owners and city leaders, particularly along the coastal sections of the region. Local efforts have also been stymied by a decided lack of appropriate infrastructure — water and roads, to be specific — and an inability to keep down the costs of building, fees and permits.

But a new crop of elected leaders around the Monterey Peninsula campaigned last year on a commitment to new affordable housing. Local housing advocates are becoming better organized and more vocal — promoting not only homeless shelters but new housing units that are affordable to middle-class workers and to renters in the region.

Voters in California in November approved a $4 billion bond to fund new housing, including $300 million dedicated to more farmworker housing.

“I’m encouraged,” said Alfred Diaz-Infante, executive director of the housing agency on the Central Coast known as CHISPA Inc. He said the governor has indicated he is prepared to cajole cities into building new homes by threatening to withhold other state funds if they don’t. “There’s money coming down the pike for new housing,” Diaz-Infante said. “So it’s time for cities to smooth out the application processes.”

Meanwhile, think tank-like organizations are conducting studies and releasing findings that chronicle the dire need for housing in the region.

The Pivot Report

Just last week, for instance, an Oakland-based advocacy group working with the National Center for Youth Law released a report claiming that almost 10 percent of students enrolled in schools throughout Monterey county are homeless — or are living in severely inadequate conditions. That percentage translates to 7,686 “housing insecure” students.

The report, prepared by Pivot Learning, indicates that up to 36 percent of students in some Salinas Valley schools are considered homeless under state Department of Education standards. Its study indicates that the number of homeless in Monterey County far exceeds the numbers in 12 coastal counties ranging from Sonoma to San Luis Obispo.

Pivot Learning describes itself as a nonprofit organization that works with educators “to design and implement solutions to resolve educational challenges.”

Pivot’s report is getting a lot of traction in the San Francisco Bay area, where KQED-FM ran a three-part series that used the report as a jumping-off point for its coverage of the housing crisis on the Central Coast.

The Pivot report notes that rents in the Salinas Valley shot up by 9 percent from 2016 to 2017 while wages remained static, particularly in the agriculture and hospitality industries. The average worker would need to earn more than $27 an hour to afford a market rate, two-bedroom apartment in Salinas. Agricultural workers earn a median wage of $11.64, while food service employees earn $13.74 an hour.

For students, the situation is “stark” and reveals “an alarming achievement gap,” according to the report.

Educational leaders say they aren’t surprised by Pivot’s findings. But some said they were disappointed that Pivot didn’t recommend solutions to the problem.

In fact, Pivot concluded that the region’s housing crisis “should provoke attention and action from government, philanthropy, and the nonprofit community.”

The Salinas Plan

In Salinas, city administrators are working through a housing analysis that addresses how the city might be able to create new affordable housing while dealing with its own “structural budget deficit.” The 213-page report, released in November, is called The Salinas Plan, and addresses the two most pressing issues facing the city: affordable housing and a difficult “structural budget deficit.”

On Jan. 8, the Salinas City Council authorized city officials to look into the creation of a “rental registry” that would help the city learn the “scale” of overcrowding and to make certain that people are living in safe conditions. The council said it considers the rental registry a first step by creating a baseline of housing data.

In the view of consultants that wrote The Salinas Plan, the city’s previous efforts to fix the problems were destined to fail. In prosaic metaphorical terms, the consultant declared that “the ground beneath these past steps continues to erode as the pressures from each major issue continues to create fault lines in the foundation of Salinas’s future.”

In essence, the dual problems feed off and weaken one another: “In something of a vicious cycle, these budget pressures limit the City’s capacity to address its housing needs, while the housing crisis weakens Salinas’s economy and depresses City tax revenues.”

The consultants recommend that city officials gather appropriate leaders with a commitment to build more than 4,000 new affordable units during the next 10 years. They also suggest the city create a trust fund dedicated to affordable housing; revenues for that fund would come from state and federal sources, as well as a commitment from local sources.

The Salinas Plan was written by the National Resource Network, an organization from Washington D.C. that promotes itself as specialists that help city leaders work their way out of tough economic challenges.

Meanwhile, local housing advocates are getting more vocal. On the Monterey Peninsula, there’s talk of creating a YIMBY organization. YIMBY, a budding national organization to counteract the Not-in-My-Backyard attitude in neighborhoods, is an acronym for Yes In My Backyard.

Late last year, a consortium of city officials and housing advocates gathered for a day-long housing conference in Seaside hosted by the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership. The key speaker was state Sen. Scott Weiner, the San Francisco politician who has become the go-to political leader for promoting innovations that cut through development barriers.

The new governor’s ideas

Meanwhile, Newsom’s first proposed budget indicates a statewide commitment to push through the barriers that have stymied housing growth in previous decades. His budget document acknowledges that cities are primarily responsible for the location and zoning of housing projects and, that according to his budget message, is where much of the problem can be found.

“The high cost of development and local decisions are barriers to building more housing,” according to the budget message. The average cost of building a single affordable housing unit is $332,000 in California. Development costs are higher because of “lengthy” review processes by local decision makers. Local governments also impose fees on developers — fees that can be as high as $150,000 for a single-family home.

The proposed budget, which will be bouncing around committees in the coming months, also includes:

  • $500 million for local governments for regional planning and construction of new shelters or supportive housing to reduce homelessness.
  • Another $500 million for low-income housing tax credits, up from $80 million.
  • $500 million for construction of housing affordable to California residents earning middle-income wages.
  • A package of legislation that would accelerate construction of homeless shelters and new supportive housing units by streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act (or CEQA) process and would accelerate the resolution of legal challenges against specific homeless projects.

The effort is likely to run into some difficult-to-avoid barriers. Cities along the coast would prefer new developments that generate sustained tax revenue — developments like hotels and retail centers. And, of course, it’s difficult to overlook the water situation. As it is, Californians are consuming trillions of gallons more water than its systems are designed to handle. Locally, water (and the lack thereof) has been a limiting factor for an entire generation, the cost of water on the Peninsula is among the most expensive in the country, and any new project is bound to cost another fortune.

The governor’s proposals “all make sense,” said Michael DeLapa, executive director of Landwatch Monterey County. “The devil is in the details.” LandWatch promotes effective land-use policies that it believes lead to an improved economy, environmental health and social equity.

Organizations like LandWatch warn that skirting CEQA policies could actually lower the standards of living in areas the new housing are meant to improve.

Diaz-Infante of CHISPA said he is grateful that Newsom has identified housing as a top state priority. The tax credits and the additional funding will help, but he said he believes the not-so-subtle threats to withhold funding from recalcitrant cities will also make a difference.

CHISPA has an application to the county to build more than 200 new housing units in North County, near the intersection of Highway 156 and Castroville Boulevard. The proposal includes a mix of housing — homes affordable to moderate-income professionals and low-income apartments. Diaz-Infante said most of Newsom’s housing package would help finance and streamline the application process for projects like CHISPA’s North County proposal.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

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