No easy answers in Nevada County affordable housing dilemma (PODCAST)
March 21, 2018
Brendan Phillips opened the forum expressing optimism about potential progress with affordable housing, but after listening to his fellow panelists Nevada County's housing resource manager joked that he suddenly didn't feel so hopeful.
Yet, the lack of affordable housing in western county is a serious situation and perhaps no one knows that better than Phillips, still in his first year on the job.
"We need 300 units of low, or very low, income housing by 2019, Phillips said. "That's what our Housing Element says."
That need is outlined in a 2014 update of the state-mandated Housing Element document (see below for full document), which also shows Nevada County saw only 56 such units constructed between 2009-2014.
“It’s virtually impossible to build new housing that’s affordable.”
— Andy Cassano
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And as prices continue to climb, with low inventory of homes for sale, and the rental market following suit, the prospect of finding affordable housing in gold country appears bleak.
A town hall forum Tuesday night at the Nevada Theatre brought the issue front and center, putting it into perspective for the audience attending and those listening live on KVMR community radio.
"It's really a simple issue of supply and demand," Phillips said, "with a lot of complex local factors."
Affordable? For whom?
Mimi Simmons said, as of Tuesday morning, there were 275 homes on the western county market. Just 18 of those homes were priced under $300,000.
"I'm here tonight to tell you some realities of the real estate market … so we understand where that foundation is and where we can work from there," said Simmons, a broker associate for Century 21 Cornerstone Realty.
"The American dream is to buy a home," she said. "… well, the American dream is to just have a home, even if it is to rent."
Simmons said she spoke to several rental property managers in advance of serving as a panelist for the forum. She was told there were about a dozen homes on the market for rent. The average home for rent — a three-bedroom, two-bath with a two-car garage — is $1,800 a month.
"It's very much of a pickle," she said, "to promote Nevada County, to talk about how amazing it is — which we all know and believe — but probably one of our biggest issues is the affordability of being able to live here."
Young families have found that to be particularly difficult, evident in the declining enrollment local schools have experienced over the past decade. From 2000 to 2005, the median price of a home in western county rose form $225,000 to $435,000. However, amid the Great Recession that number fell to $210,000 by 2011.
As of February, according to the Nevada County Association of Realtors, the median sales price of a home has climbed back to $387,500.
Andy Cassano of Nevada City Engineering has more than four decades of experience in local land surveying and planning.
"I've spent a lifetime, really, trying to think about how to solve housing (issues)," Cassano said. "And I'm telling you … it's a very tough issue."
"It's virtually impossible to build new housing that's affordable."
Cassano noted how the Great Recession took housing production offline and said "we're playing catch-up now in a lot of ways, to build houses and find housing opportunities."
He said he's worked on "market rate" projects being built now that are priced in the "high $400's to low $500's."
"Personally, I could not afford that, and I think a lot of people who work in our community could not afford that," Cassano said. "Our prices have always been driven a little bit by the equity immigrant. So, if you sold your cracker-box house in Santa Clara for $1.2 million, why, $500,000 looks pretty cool."
Brian Foss, Nevada County's planning director, has worked here for 13 years, which he said means he's seen the highs and lows presented by a booming economy and the Great Recession.
He's also heard complaints about the cost of county building fees, which can add up to more than $40,000 before a shovel hits the ground. Foss said the county does have policies and programs that allow incentives, such as reduction in fees, for affordable housing if projects meet a certain deed restrictions or certain income levels.
But building in Nevada County also often proves difficult due to the terrain available, he said. Infrastructure needs of rural homes, such as hooking up to water and sewer — where available — or wells and septic tanks, can be costly.
"The county is not a flat piece of land," Foss said. "The comment or joke that we hear from developers and land-use regulators is that all the easy properties have all been developed. So we're stuck with moving into areas with challenges."
New tools, new approaches?
Chuck Durrett has long worked on housing issues, seeking innovative solutions to the issue. He and his partner Kathryn McCamant, of McCamant & Durrett Architects, have designed more than 50 cohousing communities in the U.S. and around the world.
He said the housing dilemma needs new tools and new approaches with a "community first" mindset. He discussed the success of a 30-unit tiny home development in Eugene, Oregon, and the new technology of homes constructed by 3-D printers, as examples of such new approaches, which he said could also be a solution for homeless people.
"It's embarrassing that fellow citizens are sleeping outside on cold, rainy, snowy nights," Durrett said.
Lorraine Larson of Nevada County Habitat for Humanity knows the need for housing. Her organization continues to build a 16-home project in Grass Valley. She said more than 200 people attended a recent discussion on the project, from which 30 to 40 people applied to get into a Habitat home, though two families are chosen for two homes built each year. Because of volunteer labor, and partnerships, Habitat is able to build a home and sell it for $170,000 to $190,000 with mortgages set below 30 percent of the homeowner's income.
"We really need more partners to increase our construction capacity," she said.
Habitat has also shifted its focus to helping local families with maintenance and repairs of homes, as residents are often "house rich, cash poor."
"Preventing people from falling out of their homes is just as important as creating new housing," she said. "And we'd like to get more involved in that.
"Affordable housing is essential to a vibrant economy and California is, I think, now the most expensive state to live in. So we have some challenges, but it's a beautiful place to live. … We love the quality of life here in Nevada County, but we do need to discuss creative ways to increase density here."
Click here to listen to a podcast of Tuesday's forum.
Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4249.