Darrell Berkheimer: Isn’t affordable housing key to western Nevada County’s future?
August 4, 2017
Affordable housing may be the key to the best future for Nevada County. And it appears that most local residents are aware of the need.
But I'm wondering if local citizens fully realize the changes that will be needed, and just how much hinges on affordable housing. Let's examine the list:
The lack of affordable housing for young growing families has resulted in a continuing decline in school enrollment. Do we want more of the same?
The lack of affordable housing likely means more coastal area retirees will gobble up many more local homes as they become available — because coastal retirees are among the few segments of the population that can afford many of the homes here. And their continuing influx raises local home prices even more out of reach for middle class and young growing families.
Without affordable housing, this area will fail to attract young entrepreneurs and fledgling new service and product businesses. And those are the employers of the future. They are the employers who matter most — because the small but growing businesses are the real job creators.
That combination of failures — to offer affordable housing and attract growing businesses that will pay decent wages — also means many of the adult children and grandchildren from this area can't afford to return.
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Increased homelessness also is a result. A local survey noted that the numbers of homeless here increased 10 percent in just the last two years.
And finally, local residents must be willing to support higher density housing that will require zoning changes and relaxed restrictions.
Each of these issues are tied to affordable housing. But it should be evident that no single proposal will resolve all of them — and that a combination of concurrent actions is needed.
It also should be obvious that immediate actions are needed to initiate different types of housing, and that the proponents for each type should be giving equal support to the others.
I agree there is an immediate need for temporary 24/7 crisis or emergency housing to provide homeless people with mental health, addiction and other counseling. And it appears the best proposal is one, or maybe two, multi-unit buildings in which a homeless person would have a locked room with access to communal spaces for cooking, showers, laundry and computer use.
But the key word in citing that need is "temporary" — because it is only a temporary solution for most homeless folks. Those who are homeless also need to see that they can graduate to another level — such as a tiny home that does have all of the necessary utilities and amenities.
A third level of affordable housing is needed for young singles and couples. That could be large multi-unit apartments at affordable rates, perhaps tiny or small homes, or maybe small condos.
Nevada City is heading in the direction of small-to-tiny homes with a proposal for cottage homes having a maximum of 800 square feet. That proposal might have the potential to meet the needs of young couples, singles and some of the homeless people.
Even 400 to 500 square feet can provide a nice house for one or two of the homeless, or a pair of young singles. My cat Louie and I lived quite comfortably in a 34-foot trailer with two slide-outs (about 300 square feet) after I sold my Montana home, and before I came to Grass Valley.
Grass Valley and the county also should be looking at similar small and tiny housing.
The fourth need is affordable starter homes with a minimum of two bedrooms and one and one-half baths for couples beginning a family, perhaps with one child already. A minimum of approximately 900 square feet probably would be required for such homes.
Developments similar to The Highlands off East Main Street in Grass Valley and various sizes of manufactured homes should be considered.
And finally, the tiny houses, small family homes, and low-rent multi-unit buildings also could fill a fifth need — when the elderly desire to downsize because they no longer want, or are capable of, the maintenance involved with a larger home.
Diversity in housing is a necessity if this area is going to have the type of growth that some residents appear to want. Ignore any one of the needed housing types and the problems associated with that need will continue.
Nevada County has taken one step in the right direction with the hiring of Brendan Phillips to serve as housing resource manager. The county announced his job will be to focus on affordable housing as well as the prevention and reduction of homelessness, including serving as a liaison with nonprofits aiding homeless people.
The extreme severity of the housing shortage was the subject of an article this past Monday in The Union's Monday Money section, which noted the median price for a house in Nevada County is $380,000, while the median price in California has climbed to $500,000. And California's housing crisis drew the attention of the New York Times, which referred to California's median price as "a staggering $500,000, twice the national cost."
Those figures mean California, in general, and Nevada County, in particular, stand to lose much in the competition to draw young blood into the economy.
The New York Times article gives a good indication of just how tough the job will be for Nevada County's new housing resource manager. He will need to:
Promote joint meetings between Nevada City, Grass Valley and the county on the need to coordinate such actions as relaxing restrictions and adjusting fees and permits to allow higher density housing on smaller lot sizes.
Inform local residents on how the community stands to suffer by continuing protests against higher density housing.
Enlist local developers, contractors, the utility companies and rental property owners into also making some adjustments to provide a better future for this area.
That's a difficult aggregate of assignments — seldom fully accomplished. But if Nevada County is to have the thriving future that I suspect most residents desire, the cooperation of all parties is a necessity.
The key words are: increased densities to provide lower costs.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a biweekly column published Saturdays by The Union. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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