In search of the impossible: The affordable home. |

In search of the impossible: The affordable home.

Residents of western Nevada County have long balked at the area’s rising home prices, which can make it prohibitive to live in the same community where they work.

Their cries ” which are resounding louder each year on The Union’s editorial pages ” coupled with looming state requirements that force local governments to satisfy citizens’ affordable housing needs, have set off a flurry of debates over how best to cope with the problem.

And it seems that Grass Valley, a city of 12,000, is the jurisdiction most often pegged with finding the solution.

“We have the infrastructure that would handle it; it has forced us into this situation to build all this housing,” said Mayor Gerard Tassone, adding, “it is not that it is a bad thing, it is just the way it is.”

Two years ago, Grass Valley was presented with two impending projects ” the Whiting Street Project, which proposed 67 units, and the Highlands Project, which slated to build 39 units. Both received approval from the city council in April 2004 and, for the first time ever, were required to price 20 percent of the homes at “affordable” rates, a calculation based on income and current housing prices and which came strapped with restrictions.

It marked the beginning of Grass Valley’s new “20 percent policy,” which is now applied to all larger projects. Similar policies were also adopted by Nevada City and Nevada County at varying levels ” 30 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The idea was that it would edge each of them closer to the state’s requirement for affordable ” or workforce ” housing, while also easing some of the burden of rising home prices. In December 2005, the median home price tag hit $475,000, according to, a real estate data tracking Web site.

Now, with the Highlands Project on Catalpa Lane just nearing completion and other projects in the works, it is time to take a look at how Grass Valley has fared in meeting these needs; whether it will comply with state laws; and what opportunities to break into the market will become available for workers like teachers and police officers in the years to come.

State guidelines set by the Housing Element ” a plan that must be adopted by each local jurisdiction ” say that between 2003 and 2009, a total of 868 homes should be built for low- to moderate-income residents ” or a home that is affordable for a person who earns less than $44,500. That salary level qualifies an individual as a moderate-income earner and is Nevada County’s median income, according to the 2000 United States Census. (Grass Valley’s median income is $28,000, but the numbers are based on the county-wide data.)

At first glance of a Sept. 14 report, however, it appears the city is falling quickly behind its requirements.

Records show that since 2000, less than one-fifth of homes ” or 133 of nearly 700 ” that were built, are priced at what is considered affordable rates. And if you count all the residential projects that have been either approved or are currently awaiting the city’s approval, Grass Valley is still 654 affordable homes shy of reaching its 2009 goal.

The Housing Element also decrees that 1,448 homes be built by 2009. In the past five years, 679 homes have been built, 279 have been approved, and 259 are awaiting city action. That puts Grass Valley just 231 homes shy of its overall housing goal. This is because Grass Valley is still approving several small projects or homes that are built one at a time and therefore elude the 20 percent rule.

How do you fix that? The four proposed special development areas could be one way to provide a quick fix, says Mayor Tassone.

“If they are approved, we could meet those numbers,” Tassone said. Otherwise, the city will have to wait for additional projects. “Everything is there to do it, it is whether the projects come forth. You try and promote some densities types that will allow those types of developments to come in.”

If the city doesn’t meet the requirements, however, it receives little more than a mild reprimand from the state and a threat to potentially withhold housing funds.

“It’s a goal to work for,” said Dan Chance, a city planner, explaining that if the city appears to be making a good-faith effort, its progress will be considered.

“If you compare (Grass Valley) with Nevada City and the county, we are very, very progressive,” he said.

The news, however, isn’t as grim as it might at first seem, some officials say.

Tassone said he prefers the term, “workforce housing,” because it also encompasses units that are not specifically labeled “affordable” by the city (and which are laced with restrictions, such as how much it can be re-sold for, and how long it must remain affordable), but are still priced for the area’s workforce.

Encouraging the building of smaller homes on cozier lot sizes is one way to ensure prices remain lower ” a plan adopted by the 39-unit Highlands Project, which is just now nearing completion.

The Whiting Street Project has yet to break ground, however. Progress has been delayed because it was sold by its initial developer, Rick Kerr, to Roseville-based Dunmore Properties. It was also renamed “Victoria Grove.”

“Many times, once a project is entitled the project will be sold. (The owners) aren’t necessarily home builders,” said Craig Hoffman, the new project manager. The project must still stay within the limits of its approval, which it will, Hoffman said. They are now working out the engineering and infrastructure details and plan to begin construction this spring.

Several other projects have been approved, but are yet to be built, including a few that predate the 20 percent policy. Still others are awaiting city action for approval.

Grass Valley has also succeeded in getting a few affordable apartment complexes built ” the Cedar Park and Glenbrook apartment complexes in the Glenbrook Basin ” but Community Development Director Joe Heckel says the city has put a priority on home ownership.

Statistics from a 2000 Economic Resource Council report ” the most recent available ” show that only 43 percent of the city’s approximately 12,000 residents live in homes they own, which means a clear majority are renters.

Heckel said that since renters have a higher tendency to leave if the local economy sours, a healthier balance would be just the opposite ” with at least 60 percent homeowners.

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