By Joe Livernois
Sonia Villalobos greeted her favorite school teacher Wednesday afternoon. That teacher, Clyde Roberson, is the mayor of Monterey, and Villalobos wanted to tell him and the rest of the City Council about the nearly impossible housing situation she and others are dealing with in the city.
Raised in the Spaghetti Hill neighborhood and a student at the old Bay View School, Villalobos is a mother of six who is now “couch-surfing” at her parents’ home, trying to find a landlord who will accept her Section 8 voucher. “It’s hard,” she said.
“I’ve called everywhere,” she said. “I’ve called everyone. I’ve had people laugh at me when I tell them I have a voucher.” If that doesn’t work out for her, she might end up back in Bakersfield, where she said she lived for several years because she couldn’t afford the rents on the Monterey Peninsula. (She returned to the area to tend to her sick mother.)
The Monterey City Council opened City Hall on Wednesday for a study session about the city’s homeless issues. Everyone in the place agreed that the problem is severe, that rents are too high and the solutions would require the sort of bold actions that will likely get councilmembers thrown out of office by the landed gentry in the city.
High-rise densities and intense infill development might seem unpopular right now, said Kevin Dayton, the government affairs director for the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and a renter on Spaghetti Hill. “But you might be surprised,” he said. “People might like it.”
During the two-hour session, city residents by turn shared their housing horror stories or suggested some of the bold ideas to which Dayton was referring.
Monterey has become a gentrified community, one of the richest cities in the county despite its dwindling population. About 28,000 people live in the city, but most of the 25,000 jobs in town are filled by people who have to commute in from elsewhere. Rentals are abundant — the percentage of rentals units in Monterey far exceed any other city in the county — but a recent analysis indicated that the median rents in the city now exceed $3,000 a month.
“What I’m facing is quite frightening,” said Cynthia Tiberend, a Monterey renter who was recently given a 60-day notice on the home she’s lived in for 23 years. She doesn’t have the savings for first and last month’s rent, so she recently posted a GoFundMe video asking for help.
City officials said Monterey is under the gun to come up with new housing units. The state set a goal of 650 new units in Monterey in 2015, but the city has only built 80. City Manager Hans Uslar said the cities everywhere were hurt by the 2008 recession and are only now starting to recover. The state also pulled redevelopment funding. And, specific to Monterey, a migration of older and well-to-do immigrants from the Bay Area are scooping up Monterey homes for their retirement, boosting housing values to a point that younger families are unable to afford a home, Uslar said.
City officials acknowledged that water availability is the primary factor preventing the sort of growth that could help the housing issue. But Councilman Alan Haffa told his colleagues Wednesday that city officials should no longer fall back on excuses. “We simply have to do something,” he said. “We can’t continue to say not today, not now, not this, not here. We have to do better than we have done.”
Residents who spoke on Wednesday had solutions to offer.
Julie Engell of Monterey said the city should look to leaders within the hospitality industry to increase hotel bed taxes to pay for housing programs. She said that low-income housing throughout the entire region has been an afterthought. Cities might require developers to set aside 20 percent of new housing units to affordable homes, she said, but the percentage should be reversed. “We build what we don’t need against what we do need and we’ve allocated all the water to what we don’t need,” she said.
Several residents suggested the city provide incentives to existing homeowners to allow the construction of smaller units on their property, increasing the housing stock with affordable units.
A developer said he’d be willing to add three stories atop an existing parking lot on Calle Principal that would add 50 affordable rentals to the city, but the proposal would require water credits and a willingness from the city to deed him the property.
And Bill McCrone, a city resident and former mayoral candidate, noted that proposed state legislation would practically require cities to increase densities near urban transit centers. He suggested the city consider working with property owners east of downtown Monterey to promote more high-density apartments, which would be located near the transit center and close to convenient services.
Meanwhile, Sonia Villalobos said she would prefer to remain in the Monterey Peninsula, where she has established a ballet folklorico and where her family still lives. And her favorite teacher said he understands what she’s going through.
Roberson said he was lucky to purchase a small house for his family when he was a young teacher in Monterey. “That was on a teacher’s salary,” he said. “That’s impossible now.”
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.