Affordable housing: not a handout, essential to our survival |

Affordable housing: not a handout, essential to our survival

Hypothetical letter to a graduating engineer: “We have reviewed your transcripts, and find that your extensive background and your academic achievements more than qualify you for a position with our company in Nevada County. As a leader in our industry, we understand that our continued success depends on our ability to balance our team with both the new ideas brought by those recently completing their education and the experience gained by actual work in the field. We are pleased to offer you an exciting position with XYZ Company, knowing that your energy and fresh outlook will bring a desirable new perspective so necessary to growing companies like ours. We look forward to having you join us.” Signed, John Jones, President, XYZ Company.

Hypothetical response letter from the graduating engineer: “I have visited your beautiful community, and your dynamic company, and feel that my skills would indeed bring significant benefit to your team. I would very much like to accept your offer of employment, but I have one question that I must first ask: Where could I, as a brand-new college grad, live in your community?” Signed, Sally Smith.

Shift to reality. It was one of those times when an abstract issue had a face put on it. It had been my talk, one very similar to the many others that I have given to local service clubs. I could almost give that talk in my sleep – a host of numbers regarding our local job base, recent successes and the challenges facing local economic development, and the need to continue building a strong and diverse economy …

But now, after taking a few questions, I was the one listening … to a mother, a community leader, who had picked up on one of the challenges I had talked about, and was now describing the painful experience of her adult daughter, who had been born and raised here. Quickly, everyone in the room was swept from an intellectual, detached discussion to an emotional, hands-on account of what it really means to have your world torn apart by circumstances beyond your control – circumstances that we, in polite and sterile conversation refer to as “layoff” and “affordable housing.”

Daughter had gone to work for a local employer directly out of high school, and during the next 15-plus years, had performed well enough to command a $22-per-hour wage. Layoff is such an unemotional word, hiding the pain associated with having your income stripped, your identity shattered and your security upended. After an extensive local search, daughter, a single mother of three, was forced to expand her scope to include jobs outside the community.

Mom continued, describing how now, daughter was working, but at a rate of $9 per hour, and in Auburn. A wage of $9 per hour would no longer make the payments on the $159,000 home she had been so proud to purchase a few years back. And as for the future … just how many rentals might be available for under $800?

Years ago, as a councilman and mayor, I found that I, or my colleagues or my city were frequent targets of letters to the editor. Reading those letters would often raise blood pressure and quicken the pulse. As a recovering politician, I find it’s easier now to read the newspaper without becoming personally upset. Even so, I recently felt that old rush toward anger, when reading a couple letters in The Union – mistaken letters that missed the mark in their characterization of “affordable housing” as something that was somehow connected with a subsidy or a handout.

If it is to be productive, our community dialogue must establish terms objectively and consistently. The fact is, the discussion that this community is currently having regarding “workforce housing” has nothing to do with subsidies or handouts. The issue involves finding a way to allow my hypothetical engineer, or a teacher and their family the opportunity to buy a home in the same community in which they provide valuable service.

Far from being a handout, workforce housing – which is being defined as entry-level ($140,000-$200,000) owner-occupied housing that a nurse, a teacher or a police officer might afford – provides the opportunity for persons essential to our community’s health and well-being to build their lives here. Instead of wanting a handout, which the unfortunate letters to The Union erroneously charged, these people are looking for an ownership opportunity with which to make an investment in our community!

It’s time that our community discussion on this topic expanded to recognize one very basic fact. Essential workers like teachers, health care workers and public safety employees don’t have to work in Nevada County. They’re in high demand in most parts of the country. Whether we care to admit it or not, the truth is that we need them a whole lot more than they need us. If they choose to apply their skills in Nevada County, it is the rest of us who are the beneficiaries. And my hypothetical graduate engineer? Her talents are absolutely essential to the continued competitiveness of our employers.

In the end, the mother finished by asking those in the audience whether others in the room had similar stories they could tell. They did.

Larry Burkhardt, president and chief executive officer of the Nevada County Economic Resource Council, writes a monthly column.

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