Workforce housing is a major problem in Orange County. It is essential to a sustainable, functional local economy. Just ask the Orange County Business Council.
Earlier this month, the community center in San Juan Capistrano served as the venue for a public community dialog about housing organized by The South Orange County Alliance for Housing Our Communities, with the woefully brutal acronym SOCAHOC, which, the emcee soon told the audience, was pronounced “Sok-a-whok.” Like I said: brutal. But that’s neither here nor there.
The point was to host a public discussion of “cities’ legal responsibilities to develop affordable homes in response to economic, environmental, transportation and social demand.” The format of the event started with a few minutes of open conversation at each of the 15 or so round tables in the room, with the objective of having each table write down questions for the panel. Then came some opening remarks, a moderator and a panel of four presenters.
The mayor of San Juan Capistrano, Mark Nielsen, gave opening remarks and offered some context for the day’s discussion. Some highlights:
- Orange County income threshold for affordable housing: $65k per year for a family of 4
- Housing isn’t just a policy “issue,” it is at the base of Maslow’s pyramid of needs: shelter
- There are inherent problems with in-lieu fees as an alternative to fulfulling regulatory housing requirements
- Renovating a neighborhood with fair housing covenants is an idea whose time has come because it can:
- uplift existing neighborhoods
- provide economic stimulus for local tradesmen
- increase affordable workforce housing
- meet regulatory and social responsibilities
Bring Your Company to OC. Leave Your Employees Behind
The moderator was Michelle Hart, Director of External Affairs at the Orange County Business Council. In her initial remarks Ms. Hart commented that her organization gets several inquiries each week from companies who are interested in relocating their businesses to Orange County. The conversation invariably crescendos with excitement as they talk about all the advantages OC has, until they learn the overall housing costs. Then those conversations crash and burn.
The lack of workforce housing options in Orange County is an obstacle to economic growth in Orange County.
Dr. Victoria Basolo, Associate Professor, UCI Dept. of Planning, Policy and Design, discussed how affordable housing fits into the overall process of community revitalization. In very general terms, these factors tend to generate “positive effects:”
- Projects of under 200 units (larger tend toward negative effect)
- Higher quality design and management
- Structures not heavily concentrated in one location
- Structures designed to fit in the character of an existing area
Another question is: How do we define “positive or negative effects” of affordable housing? Almost exclusively, studies of this question have measured only property values in the surrounding area. Are there other ways to measure the “effect” of inclusionary housing on the neighborhoods where they are created? How do surrounding residents feel about workforce housing some time after they are lived in, for example? Dr. Basolo had some interesting things to say about that question.
Also, there are some policy problems with the government programs that fund inclusionary housing, namely that most programs require a project to include a large number of units in order to qualify for funding, despite the fact that the data show high concentrations of these units tend not to benefit overall revitalization.
David Barquist presented an overview of the regulations currently in place regarding housing and sketched out the landscape of new and pending legislation, largely focusing on SB375 and regional planning initiatives. This will have an impact on local governments in ways that are not yet clear and are causing a lot of debate. The undeniable fact that workforce housing is a regional issue (not just a city-by-city issue) and therefore should be addressed on a regional level adds complexity to the effort to implement solutions.
Green Building Practices
Phyllis Alzamora, Executive Director of the Urban Land Institute, spoke about the costs of not doing environmentally sensitive development, and the benefits of doing so? Here is a video clip of her presentation (sorry, don’t have her slides).
The costs of continuing to develop housing with no regard for sustainability include obesity and losses because of climate change. Building healthy communities means connecting people to jobs, promoting walking and biking, and creating opportunities for people to connect and fortify a sense of community.
- A Center for Housing Policy study from 2006 figures that for working families earning $20-50k/yr in the Los Angeles area, 59% is spent on housing and transportation. That leaves only 40% for food, clothing, healthcare, and everything else in life.
- Every dollar saved by working families through finding lower cost housing, .79 is added in transportation cost
- “Drive until you qualify” is not a viable approach to a live/work balanced life.
“Housing has always been this competitive sport and there has always been a negative connotation to being small.” There is a movement afoot now to live in smaller homes as a response to the credit crunch, rising energy prices, and global warming. “The small house movement and small house blogs are teaching people to live with less. Many are being built with vintage or salvage materials,” which might last longer and definitely have less overall environmental impact.
Benefits of building green?
- 40% of raw materials humans consume are used in construction
- 40% of builders say green building helps them market their homes in a down market
- Smaller, taller homes built closer to transit sources preserve more open space and wildlife habitat
Ms. Alzamora also reported that Met Life built some market rate rental apartments in Irvine which include a community garden, gourmet cooking classes, a dog park, community room and fitness centers. A number of builders are looking at community gardens as a way to eat and live healthy, “but it isn’t enough to just have some garden space, because many of us don’t even know how to cook them anymore.”
A quiet chuckle slowly rolled through the room. She paused and said, “I know, it’s a nervous laugh, isn’t it?”