Cody Curtis: Nevada City must commit to affordable housing | TheUnion.com
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Molly Debrock, Abigail Dack and Cody Curtis

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Cody Curtis: Nevada City must commit to affordable housing

For many of us who have come to contribute to the life of this place, the cost of housing is draining our energies and driving us away.

On April 20, the Nevada City Planning Commission will review a housing project called "The Grove" which would be the largest development in Nevada City's recent history. This presents a much-needed opportunity to increase the city's housing stock.

But as the price of housing rapidly outpaces the earnings of most working people, we don't want more houses we can't afford. We want homes for local working people, and the tenants of Nevada County are joining together to begin building the transformational change our community needs.

In 2003, Nevada City adopted an ordinance requiring 30 percent of the units in all new housing projects be affordable to those of moderate or low income. For a small rural town, we are lucky to have this forward-thinking mandate in place. With the mounting pressures in housing access and affordability straining our community, now is not the time to retreat from such programs but to fortify them with renewed commitment and innovation.

Affordability is not essentially a design problem but an economic one. A meaningful response to our escalating housing crisis must address the real problem.

Since the ordinance was passed, every new development has managed to offer at least 30 percent of units at an affordable initial sale price and have utilized deed restrictions to assure affordability into the future, as suggested by the ordinance.

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The developers of the Grove, Robert Upton and the NC Tech Center LLC, have asked the city not to invoke deed restriction and have so far resisted any conversation on setting affordable initial sale prices.

Instead, they have proposed an alternative "affordable by design" plan, which makes the dubious claim that the nature of the project they intend to build will assure its affordability. We feel that the content of this plan needs to be more carefully scrutinized.

Ask any tenant or first-time home buyer why housing is unaffordable and they will give you the obvious answer: because rent rates and housing prices are too high. Affordability is not essentially a design problem but an economic one. A meaningful response to our escalating housing crisis must address the real problem.

Upton continues to cite his bottom line in what appears to be a request that Nevada City give him special treatment. And yet the city already has by gifting him R3 (high density) zoning in the hopes of increasing affordable housing. If the developers want the public to accept that their bottom line prevents them from delivering on that, they need to be transparent about what their bottom line is.

The truth is, tenants of Nevada County have a bottom line too, and we're not afraid to share it: transformational change in housing!

We propose that a Limited Equity Housing Cooperative (LEHC) be offered a right of first refusal to buy at least 18 (30 percent) of the units at an affordable initial sale price or, alternatively, to all or a portion of the R-3 zoned land at a fair rate.

We want to make it simple. If The Grove cannot be brought into compliance with the existing ordinance, then we are prepared to take responsibility for producing the affordable housing we need and the rest of the development can move forward as planned.

By forming a Limited Equity Housing Cooperative, tenants would organize themselves to provide their own housing within the framework of a democratic, values-based constitution. There are currently nearly a half million residences organized in this way across the nation. Inspiring and very successful affordable housing programs in rural areas similar to Nevada City have been built around LEHCs, notably, those of the Lopez Community Land Trust. Our proposal is tested, reproducible, effective and transformational.

Besides empowering tenants to take responsibility for their own housing, cooperatives are an efficient way to achieve communities affordable housing goals because they do not require continual state supervision to assure affordability in perpetuity and because they bring down the price by delivering housing at cost.

Stable homes make stable communities. The tenants of Nevada County are realizing our collective agency in order to face this challenge. We have put before Upton and the City of Nevada City a practical and truly innovative housing program that we can all celebrate. We hope they will work with us.

Molly Debrock, Abigail Dack and Cody Curtis are residents of Nevada County.