The last year saw impactful progress on bringing more housing to the region, with nearly 1,400 homes made possible in the city of San Luis Obispo alone, thanks to an outpouring of advocacy by Chamber volunteers, staff and the community as well as developers and city officials.

But there’s still a long way to go to relieve an affordable housing crisis that has stunted economic growth and left companies struggling to hire and employees struggling to live near where they work.

“It’s going to take imagination, determination and out-of-the-box thinking to get housing built,” said Dave Mullinax, the region’s public affairs manager for the League of California Cities. “It’s going to take all of us working together to meet this challenge.”

Such collaborative and creative approaches were the focus of the 2018 San Luis Obispo County Housing Summit, “Gaining Momentum: Reflection and Envisioning the Future.” The half-day session on March 22 built upon last year’s inaugural housing summit, with both events bringing together top minds from around the region and state to explore solutions to San Luis Obispo’s housing challenges.

“It’s going to take imagination, determination and out-of-the-box thinking to get housing built. It’s going to take all of us working together to meet this challenge.”
– Dave Mullinax, League of California Cities

Mullinax, as opening speaker, underscored that communities must take the reins on getting affordable housing built; they can’t rely on state or federal programs. They can certainly advocate to reinstate funding from HUD, community development block grants and state redevelopment agencies, he said, but should pursue other strategies.

Going from NIMBY to YIMBY

Morro Bay’s new city manager, Scott Collins, came from Santa Cruz, where NIMBY politics defeated most every project that came along. Spurred by one of the worst affordability crises in the country, diverse groups came together to support one another’s projects, rather than just their own.

“It changed the narrative,” Collins said. “Building was no longer this evil thing—it was a necessity, and that change gave officials the backing they needed to approve projects.”

Getting supporters’ voices out in meetings and beyond was also key in getting the 700-home Avila Ranch development approved last year, said Steve Peck, president of Peck Planning & Development, which is managing the project.

It’s not just about mobilizing supporters, Grover Beach City Manager Matt Bronson said, it’s about creating them, too. That means demystifying terms like density and multi-family and engaging in legitimate conversations about the future of housing.

“True public engagement goes out where people are,” Bronson said, noting efforts including town hall meetings and and “Taste and Talk” events in his former home of San Mateo where people break bread and broach hot topics.

Fostering YIMBY converts is the focus of keynote speaker Sonja Trauss’ work. When people bring up downsides to building more, she counters with the downsides of not building.

“You’re polluting the environment with long commutes, aggravating climate change. People don’t get to see their kids at night,” she said. “The benefits (of building more) outweigh the costs.”

“Building was no longer this evil thing—it was a necessity, and that change gave officials the backing they needed to approve projects.”
– Scott Collins, City of Morro Bay

To those who still aren’t convinced, Trauss echoes a sentiment shared by program emcee Ron Yukelson about his own family: “Where are your kids going to live?”

People often oppose new housing projects by saying the parks and transportation aren’t there to support it. Trauss argues that should be treated not as opposition to housing, but as a request for more public transportation or open space.

An area like San Luis Obispo County, she said, should look to slowly densify rather than building up or out.

“The character of our neighborhoods is going to change” if we want more housing, Trauss said, recommending that people start accepting that notion sooner rather than later. “It’s not going to be easy but it’s going to be worth it.

Affordable by design

Smaller lots, smaller homes and reduced occupancy expenses can all help bring down the cost of housing, several panelists said.

Keeping units to 1,500 square feet, just a bit smaller than the city average of about 1,750 square feet, helped bring down the price point at Avila Ranch, Peck said. Built-in solar energy, low-maintenance landscaping and water conservation features could shave another $250 to $500 off a family’s monthly expenses.

Housing-summit-3But while smaller can be better, tiny is not necessarily best: tiny homes may be part of a bigger housing solution, but they aren’t the answer, participants said.

“So much of the cost is land and infrastructure,” Peck said. “You can scale down unit size and still only save 10 percent.”

Trauss underscored that point in her keynote, noting that per square foot, smaller units are often more expensive than larger ones. “Don’t go too far with this idea that smaller is more affordable,” she cautioned.

Three-story buildings comprising three condos on lots currently used for single-family houses is the sweet spot of affordable by design, Trauss asserted. Building higher involves higher building costs, she said, while in-fill type projects take advantage of existing infrastructure.

Eric Meyer, a businessman and former county planning commissioner, advocated for a small-lot subdivision ordinance with lower fees and parking requirements to pave the way for forthcoming easy-build innovations that he described as “house in a box.”

Current zoning regulations “prioritize cars over people,” he said, arguing that that region is missing “the lowest rungs on the housing ladder.”

What’s a government to do?

Local governments don’t build homes, speakers pointed out, but they do create the zoning and policies that govern building.

Ryan Hostetter has witnessed first hand the effect that local policies have on homebuilding: after working in SLO County’s planning department for 15 years, she recently became planning manager for the City of Santa Maria, which built more than 500 homes in the last year .

“The city is pro-development, there’s no inclusionary ordinances,” she said. “It’s set up for developers to come right in and build projects.”

Housing-summit2As Santa Maria embarks on updating its general plan, officials will be looking at possibilities for in-fill development, annexing land and repurposing abundant commercial space as ways to increase its housing stock.

The City of San Luis Obispo is also gearing up to update its zoning as well as the fees developers pay on new projects to fund infrastructure and other needs. Chamber task forces continue months of work to advocate for regulations that best meet the needs of the city, its residents and business community.

Paso Robles recently made several moves to ease development in the city, according to North Coast Engineering’s Larry Werner, who served on the Housing Constraints and Opportunities Committee spurred by Paso Robles’ own planning commission.

“One of these groups alone would not be able to do this.”
-Ken Trigueiro, Peoples’ Self-Help Housing

The measures included slashing fees for apartment projects, significantly reducing water and sewer connect fees for multi-family developments, streamlining the permitting process and speeding plan checks.

Public-private partnerships were lauded throughout the summit as a promising path to progress.

Peoples’ Self-Help Housing collaborates with with five to eight other groups at any given time on affordable housing projects, Executive Vice President and CFO Ken Trigueiro said. “One of these groups alone would not be able to do this,” he said.

The organization is hoping to get some money from the state’s recently passed Building Homes and Jobs Act (S.B. 2) to leverage future projects but said that will likely take several years.

No saviors from the state

Reacting to other recently passed state measures on affordable housing, summit participants were appreciative of the efforts but dubious of the bottom-line effects.

a $4 billion bond on the 2018 state ballot to finance low-income home building and provide home loans to military veterans — is a one-time measure that won’t be sufficient to address the housing gap, participants said.

“We need to look at the housing problem collectively, the county working with the cities and with developers. We need to look at pooling resources to get things done.”
– Wade Horton, County of San Luis Obispo

S.B. 35 aims to spur building by easing local restrictions and streamlining processes. But the measure’s many conditions led Jon Ansolabehere, San Luis Obispo’s assistant city attorney, to liken it to holidays with the in-laws: “It sounds like a good idea until it actually happens.”

“It’s pretty useless, at least in our community,” Ansolabehere said of the measure. “If those (conditions) weren’t in it, then it would be significant.”

Collaboration and persistence

3-D printed houses, “house in a box” and other innovative products were floated as creative solutions coming down the pike.

But no matter the format, housing, like drought, is a collective problem that needs a collective response, County Administrative Officer Wade Horton argued.

“We need to look at the housing problem collectively, the county working with the cities and with developers,” Horton said. “We need to look at pooling resources to get things done.”

Ultimately, it’s the power of collaboration that will move the needle on housing, panel participants agreed.

“It takes common objectives to move forward,” Werner said. “It takes an open mind and flexibility. It takes persistence and collaboration.”

The 2018 Housing Summit was held March 22 by the Housing Collaborative of the Central Coast, which is made up of the Economic Vitality Corportation, the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast and the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.

2018 SLO County Housing Summit