It’s no mystery that housing in SLO is an ongoing community challenge. But what to do about it can seem like one.

You’d like to join the conversation but aren’t sure where to start. The tangle of local, state and federal bureaucracy is dizzying and arcane terms like CEQA, RHNA and LUCE leave you scratching your head.

No worries, this handy primer will get you up to speed and tossing out acronyms like an old pro.

More voices are needed to make progress and find solutions, so arm yourself with some basics and jump into the fray.

Know the lingo

Affordable housing. Duh, you may be thinking, that just means a house I can afford. Sure, but for the average resident in SLO County, that just won’t happen under market conditions. So officials use deed restrictions (read on to see what that means) to make some houses affordable, then adopt scales for qualifying based on median household income levels and bedroom count. See the FAQ below for what that mean$ in SLO County.

Area Median Income. Back to grade-school math class for this one: this is the midpoint of a region’s income distribution, often referred to as AMI. That means half of families in that area earn more than the median number, and half earn less.

Deed-restricted. This could refer to any manner of limits on what you can do with your property. But in the context of affordable housing, it typically means a home must be owner-occupied, restricts what you can sell it for and to whom and can impose other measures to preserve affordability. 

General Plan. Think of this as a blueprint for the future, laying out goals and guidelines for housing, transportation, open space and more at the city or county level.

LUCE (say “loose”). Shorthand for the Land Use and Circulation Elements, the parts of the General Plan that designate where and how many homes and businesses can go and how people and goods move around. Planes, trains and automobiles and the sequel, bike, bus and foot.

Zoning. Don’t zone out here; this is how the General Plan comes to life, with all the nitty-gritty details of what gets built where, how high, how dense and so on. SLO City regulations were updated last year, with significant input from the SLO Chamber.

Housing Element. Another part of the general plan that details the community’s needs for housing for all income levels, as well as strategies for meeting those needs.

RHNA (say “ree-nah”). Stands for Regional Housing Needs Allocation, part of an environmentally minded state initiative to build more housing near job centers in order to reduce vehicle emissions. The RHNA mandates how many housing units must be planned for in the housing element to meet the future housing needs of anyone in the community. To date, most jurisdictions do not meet these goals, though Gov. Newsom is seeking carrot-and-stick approaches to change that. 

Entitlement. No, not a bratty notion that you deserve an affordable house in SLO, but part of the city approval/building process for larger development projects. Last year, for example, almost 1,400 homes were entitled in SLO with the approval of the San Luis Ranch, Avila Ranch and other projects.

CEQA (say “see-kwah”). The cool-crowd way to refer to the California Environmental Quality Act, a broad environmental law that requires any new project to disclose environmental impacts. Those impacts may then need to be avoided or mitigated. There’s been much talk of CEQA reform, with some circles arguing that it has been misused to thwart new development.

EIR (say “E.I.R.”). An initial CEQA review may call for an Environmental Impact Report, a comprehensive analysis of a project’s expected environmental effects. 

Impact fees. Totally separate from environmental impacts, these are fees that developers pay the city to cover some or all the costs of providing public services to new projects, including transportation, public safety, parks and water. The SLO Chamber pushed for changes to make the fees more feasible, some of which were enacted last year.

Inclusionary housing. Translates roughly to: Don’t leave out affordable housing. This requires new projects either to include affordable (aka deed-restricted) housing or to pay a fee that goes toward building affordable housing elsewhere. In the City of SLO, the provision applies to housing developments with five or more units and commercial developments over 2,500 square feet.

Affordable by design. Housing that is less expensive due its size, construction and design; that is, smaller units at higher densities. SLO City is working to incentivize this type of project over inclusionary housing.

Workforce housing. Housing that’s attainable by above-moderate earners. SLO City does not use this designation, but SLO County defines workforce incomes as 120 to 160 percent of the median. See the FAQ below for what that mean$.

Section 8. Not where the aliens landed. A federal program providing rental assistance to very low income people, also known as the Housing Choice voucher program.

Mixed-use. Development projects that throw it all into one pot, combining living, working and retail space, often in central, walkable locations.

Get the FAQs

What does the term “affordable housing” actually mean? Affordable to whom? 

On its own, the term is rather vague. What’s affordable to one family may be out of reach for another. So in areas where market conditions don’t provide housing for these folks, jurisdictions use incentives and deed restrictions to increase the stock of affordable homes.

The county’s Area Median Income  is used to define who qualifies for such housing (see the chart below for 2018 figures; updated 2019 figures are coming out soon), based on the four federal standard percentages (extremely low, very low, low and moderate). SLO County adds provisions for a fifth category: workforce.

Each jurisdiction also defines a scale of rental and purchase costs for each of those levels. The SLO County standards are listed below; SLO City standards can be found here.

In SLO County, for example, if a household of three people makes less than $89,850 annually, they would qualify for moderate-income housing. A qualifying two-bedroom, deed-restricted home at that level would cost a maximum of $334,000 to buy, or $2,060 per month to rent.

I’ve seen lots of construction around – will that fix the problem?

Even with a few new projects around town, the amount of housing still falls far short of the job growth in San Luis Obispo. You can see the gap in the graph below.

To make matters worse, much of the housing that is being built is above what moderate and workforce incomes can afford, leaving a gap in the market you can see below.

I’ve heard complaints that the city is growing too fast – what’s the deal?

Perception can be misleading. There may be a vocal minority complaining of out-of-control growth, but the city caps annual growth at 1 percent — and hasn’t even hit that figure for 15 years, since 2004. The five-year average residential growth rate is under half a percent, with commercial growth just over that.

The city projects reaching full build-out in 2035, with just 4,476 new housing units added to the current 21,286. Its water supply is adequate to cover this growth, and open space will be preserved through an aggressive greenbelt protection program.

Dive in deeper

Get thee to our housing page, jam packed with background info, innovative ideas, ways to stay informed and get involved.

Then dip into highlights of the 2020 SLO County Housing Summit to hear top ideas from leading voices on the issue from around the state. Or check out a recap of the 2019 summit. But don’t stop there – take what you learn and make your voice heard.

Shout out to Stacey White and Steve Peck for their Chamber presentation on housing basics, and SLO City Community Development Director Michael Codron for his valuable input.