RMS_Titanic_3

 Our Housing Shortage: Rearranging Deck Chairs While the Titanic Sinks

I recently attended several meetings that made me shake my head in disbelief. It was akin to watching people rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic while the ocean rushes in.

At these meetings, people discussed how to provide rental housing for displaced fire victims. Their recommendation was to put fire victims at the top of the list for newly available rentals. I have two problems with this. First, why should fire victims be put above others who need housing? Why, for example, should a doctor or teacher or other person coming to the area to help our community be put at the bottom of the list? Second, we have almost no rentals to offer these people, so no matter who gets priority, we simply don’t have enough housing to go around. Why are we talking about priority instead of how to increase the housing supply?

We have had a housing shortage in this valley for at least 15 years, and last fall’s wildfires made the shortage much worse. If we want to address housing, our local leaders need to recognize how supply and demand influence people’s behaviors and then make policy based on these well-established norms.

In the past 30 years, we’ve had no new market-rate apartment complexes of any consequence. Since 2010, only 92 residential building permits have been pulled in the greater Ukiah Valley. During that time, if we were simply to keep up with population growth, 420 new housing units should have been built, whether they were single family homes, duplexes or apartment buildings.

Clearly, we need more market-rate housing—housing that people who live and work in Ukiah can afford with salaries they earn from legitimate local employment. Although local government doesn’t have complete control over the housing market, they can influence the cost of development. Right now, their influence is going the wrong way.

In 2009, the county implemented an inclusionary housing ordinance. Inclusionary zoning requires real estate developers to give the county a certain percentage of the lots they develop or pay a fee in lieu of the “gift”. In our county, developers can either include low-income units as part of their development or build low-income housing in a different location as a condition of approval for their main development. This fee makes it prohibitively expensive to build market-rate housing in many cases. For the Lover’s Lane development in Ukiah, the inclusionary fee demanded by the county is $1.7 million, which makes any hope of a profit on the project pretty slim. If developers cannot make a profit, they will not build here. Would you go to work every day if your employer didn’t pay you? I didn’t think so.

In the meetings I attended, our county supervisors were getting bullied to make poor economic decisions. A lawyer associated with Legal Aid said the county could expect to be sued if the county removed the inclusionary housing ordinance. This is crazy.

If the only housing we build is subsidized for low-income residents, it will change our community. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have a mix of housing. We should. But the inclusionary housing ordinance is preventing market-rate housing from being built—housing for our fire victims, housing for incoming professionals who will enrich our community.

We have an opportunity to change course. We need to revoke the inclusionary housing ordinance and make it easier to build new subdivisions in the Ukiah Valley. If profit margins are thin in Ukiah and thick elsewhere, developers will go elsewhere. That’s just plain common sense. If you could do the same job in two equally great places and one place paid twice as much, where would you go?

If this matters to you, I strongly encourage you to call your county supervisor. Let him or her know you value market-rate housing and you hope they will stand up to the bullies.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.