The 2017 SLO County Housing Summit was hosted by the Housing Collaborative of the Central Coast which is made up of the Economic Vitality Corporation, Home Builders Association of the Central Coast, and the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.
San Luis Obispo County’s housing crisis has long stymied economic development and opportunity in the region, making it difficult for companies to hire, and painful for employees who cannot afford to live where they work, often forcing them to leave the area.
“Everybody that we relocate here, probably 80 to 90 percent of them, leave,” said Kristin Flynn, chief human resources officer at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center speaking as part of a panel during the San Luis Obispo County Housing Summit. “They come here; they love the people, they love the life — I mean what’s not to love, that’s why we’re all here — and then they try to find housing and they get really discouraged.”
On March 9, the Housing Collaborative of the Central Coast hosted the San Luis Obispo County Housing Summit, bringing together top minds from the region and state to discuss the impact the crisis is having on businesses, professionals and families. More importantly, the summit aimed to address the reasons behind the housing crisis and bring community members together to discuss potential solutions and how to move forward.
“This county will change, the cities in the county will change, the real question is: How do you want them to change?”
– James Mayer, California Forward
Designed to support the creation of more housing for San Luis Obispo County residents, the summit examined workable solutions to the region’s housing shortage by focusing on the intersecting economic, political and environmental issues that affect housing.
Several outcomes emerged from the summit including:
- San Luis Obispo County and its communities need to make their needs very clear to state leaders, including help in financing infrastructure upgrades or streamlining regulations;
- Change is inevitable, and communities must plan in order to get the kind of change they desire;
- Look to other communities for examples, such a Santa Barbara housing program supporting the construction of smaller, more affordable units; and
- Local communities and nonprofits need to collaborate to find real solutions to the housing crisis.
Flynn spoke on the opening panel with Ian Ferguson, operations manager at Synergy Manufacturing, Natalie Marinelli, executive assistant to the CEO at TekTegrity; and Kathleen Bellefontaine, chairperson for the San Luis Obispo County Commission on Aging.
Flynn recalled a conversation she had with a co-worker, who recently told her that he had bought a home in Bakersfield and stays at an Airbnb while working in San Luis Obispo County.
“He said, ‘I love working at Sierra Vista, but to me it’s worth it to come here, rent a room for three nights, do my work and then go back for my four days off and live in a home that I can afford and I can be proud of,’” Flynn said.
Marinelli shared a similar story of a friend who had made the decision to put off having children until she and her husband could afford to either buy or rent a larger home.
“People are quite literally deferring life decisions because of the cost of housing,” Marinelli said.
According to James Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward, this issue is not unique to San Luis Obispo and, that with varying complexities and causations, every region in the state has a serious problem.
But the key to changing that dynamic statewide, he said, lies in the ability of communities to identify the problem and clearly communicate what has to be done to address it: “The thing that we think has the greatest potential of changing that dynamic, changing the chemistry in the (Capitol) is that there is more action in communities and regions like this that are articulating very explicitly, here’s the need, here’s the consequences, (and) here’s what we are willing to do.”
During his keynote address, Mayer shared insights from other communities, small and large, throughout the state — including communities that are growing rapidly and some that do not want to grow at all — and he warned against doing nothing.
“It’s really clear that no matter what issue we deal (with), whether it’s housing, whether it’s workforce, whether it’s infrastructure investment, that this idea of stasis is a myth,” Mayer said. “Nothing is going to stay the same. … Everything is connected. This county will change, the cities in the county will change, the real question is: How do you want them to change?”
Last year California Forward released the 2017 Roadmap to Shared Prosperity, which includes a housing action plan that aims to build one million more homes in California in the next 10 years, focusing on increasing affordability by offering incentives to communities that, streamline local regulation and work to expand their supply of housing near transit and jobs.
Mayer also discussed best practices taking place in San Diego aimed at addressing the housing affordability crisis, noting the details of an 11 point action plan.
“This is much more than about CEQA or zoning, or even housing policy,” Mayer said. “It’s about what you want to be as a community, where the jobs are going to come from and then how are you going to support those jobs with an urban footprint that provides the quality of life you want as well as the opportunity you want. The state is never going to do that for you.”
Santa Barbara spent five years working on an update to the city’s general plan. That plan implemented what Peter Brown, a senior planner for the City of Santa Barbara, said has been revolutionary in the city.
The city’s Average Unit-Size Density Incentive Program supports the construction of smaller, more affordable units near public transit and within walking distance to commercial services and parks. The program has allowed for twice as much density, Brown said.
“If Santa Barbara wants workforce housing without traffic increases we have to increase the amount of infill housing and we have to increase our sustainable transportation trips,” Brown said. “The tradeoff is higher density and less parking requirements.”
This all came about as Santa Barbara put more of an emphasis on creating workforce housing, according to Detty Peikert, a principal at RRM Design Group, who worked with the City of Santa Barbara on its general plan update.
Peikert called the AUD program “one of the most successful programs that we have seen of its type,” but explained the work that needs to happen to gain consensus and the need for public officials to back these projects.
“We have to build the public consensus around this vision of providing this housing,” Peikert said. “We have to look at a new way, a new kind of lifestyle that supports higher density housing in urban centers close to transportation services. And then we have to have decision makers that have the courage to follow through and support that vision when it comes up in the face of controversy in our communities.“
The need for collaboration in San Luis Obispo County was a common theme throughout the day with many saying that San Luis Obispo City and county officials could not solve this crisis on their own.
Ryan Hostetter, a supervising planner in the County of San Luis Obispo’s housing and economic development department, said county officials are well aware of the call for more supply and that they have been working closely with the Economic Vitality Corporation, Home Builders Association of the Central Coast and the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce to advance specific policy solutions with the Board of Supervisors. One of the policy solutions she noted was zoning for more land for housing. A study is in the beginning stages, she said.
“We are going to go to our board (to) request funding to undertake a pretty big study countywide looking at constraints and resources, where there’s room, where there’s opportunity,” Hostetter said. “That’s a big undertaking and we’re going to embark on that, and do that environmental review and set the stage: Where can we focus development in the county?”
That project will be brought to the Board of Supervisors for the next budget cycle, Hostetter said.
Another major project being undertaken within the county is the work being done by Peoples’ Self-Help Housing.
“We really wanted to create a model that just wasn’t something Peoples’ did but we could give this model away,” Fowler said. “School districts could do this; for-profit developers could do this. In other words, a way to buy land at the market price, pay fair market price for materials and still deliver something under the market, perpetually affordable.”
So, what’s next?
The housing issue, the causations and the resolutions must continue to be studied, and when solutions are identified, their viability must be tested. Throughout this process, community involvement and continued education on the findings of these studies and the resulting plans, is of the utmost importance. There must be community buy-in and that happens with inclusion, education and transparency.
In the City of San Luis Obispo
During the summit, the Chamber made public its “height for housing” concept that was developed by the Chamber’s Housing Task Force. The model encourages using existing city height regulations to allow more housing density, particularly in the downtown core.
Additionally, the City of San Luis Obispo has begun the long-anticipated process to update its zoning regulations. These updates will allow for continued implementation of its 2035 Land Use and Circulation Element, which include providing more housing density and protecting the city’s greenbelt.
Lastly, the Chamber’s Board of Directors recently approved a recommendation from its Economic Development Committee to support an increase to city appeals fees. The current fee program provides a low cost to file an appeal, creating delays in the review and approvals process that can be costly to project developers and the city, as it significantly increases staff time.
In San Luis Obispo County
The county is continuing to assess a suite of housing policy proposals that were presented to the Board of Supervisors last fall by the SLO Chamber, HBA, and the EVC. County staff is currently developing timelines and work plans for these policy reforms and where necessary, attaching resources for consideration in the their next budget cycle. The Board of Supervisors will be finalizing its new budget in June.
Through it all there must be advocacy. The SLO Chamber will continue to collaborate with our regional partners to advocate on behalf of the business community as well as the residents of the city and county for housing policy reforms, financing mechanisms for infrastructure, and increased certainty through the planning and development processes, in order to unlock opportunities for the creation of more housing.
“These aren’t just fiscal issues,” Mayer said. “The evidence is really clear that this is about the quality of your community, it’s about the well-being of your community. It’s about the ability of this next generation to enjoy the San Luis Obispo, or the Central Valley or the California or the America that we we’re all able to.”
The next summit is planned for March 2018.