Darrell Berkheimer: Affordable housing needs streamlining
Any housing analysis of Nevada County will quickly reveal that the greatest need is for workforce dwellings and starter homes because that is where a huge void exists.
The Regional Housing Authority, with the county as a cooperating partner, has been moving to establish direly needed subsidized housing for local homeless citizens and low-income senior citizens.
Meanwhile, the only other local housing additions of any significance involve the building of large homes that gobble up too much land. Those are the homes developers are adding because they are the only housing type from which they can pencil out a decent profit.
So both extremes of the housing spectrum are seeing some activity, while the mid-range of housing — where the need is the greatest — is mostly being ignored.
The situation is bluntly summarized in an April report by a local Realtor. It states: “Affordable housing for our first-time buyers and renters has been an issue in Nevada County for some time now, and the problem is getting worse.”
That demand is seeing little action because local officials traditionally have resisted getting involved in housing as they continued to wait for developers to propose affordable housing plans. Only that hasn’t been happening.
Nor is it going to happen. Developers face too many time-consuming and costly obstacles before they can receive a decent return on investment.
So what are those obstacles? They begin with expensive land, continue with zoning and planning rules that are too restrictive, and include enormous up-front permits and fees.
Such are the reasons a regional housing authority had to be formed to drag local officials into housing activities.
Now, after several years of stories about nationwide and local housing shortages, it should be evident that the answers lie in high density housing with smaller interior units.
We have a nation of spoiled citizens who matured during an age of wide-open “empty” land, where homes have grown continually larger and larger — far beyond what we really need. Many of our older citizens can remember growing up with parents and several siblings living in a house of little more than 1,000 square feet, and often less.
The first apartment my ex-wife and I shared when our first daughter was born was less than 250 square feet. For the second daughter, we rented a middle unit of a four-plex in a row-homes subdivision built after World War II. I believe it was about 750 square feet over two floors with a partial basement.
But today, a major part of our complicated housing problems stems from the money crunch younger adults are facing. Their wages and salaries provide considerably less buying power than what their parents had, while the costs of land and building materials have soared.
Does it make any sense to continue building many 2,000-square-foot or larger homes, and assigning as few as two to four per acre when the vast majority of our citizens can’t afford such homes? In addition, entirely too many homes in this county occupy huge lots and multiple acres — a big reason for promoting accessory dwelling units.
Suburban sprawl produces many inefficiencies that raise service expenses for everyone.
At least some of our youngest adults have realized they don’t need all that space and expense as more and more of them are building, or buying, tiny homes.
Many empty-nest parents also are realizing the same thing as they see some of their rooms not being used, while garages are filled with stuff awaiting a yard sale.
Others, meanwhile, have watched their empty-nest situation come to an end as sons or daughters, sometimes with spouses, return home because they can’t afford housing elsewhere.
Like it or not, that’s the local situation everyone must recognize. So what should be done?
I see only four, high-density alternatives:
- Manufactured housing, which still faces the stigma of the mobile homes label.
- Multi-story, multi-household structures.
- Pre-fab modular homes.
- Tiny to small site-built homes of 300 to 900 square feet. (Tiny houses are defined by the 2018 International Residential Code as 400 square feet or less.)
To meet our housing deficit, state officials and President Joe Biden have remarked that cities and counties must revise overly restrictive zoning rules and cut exorbitant permit fees.
The housing element mandated by the state for Nevada County in 2019 is 2,062 units by 2027, of which only 140 were added during the past two years. That leaves nearly 2,000 remaining to be built in six years. And more than one-third of those units (713) have been designated for low- to moderate-income levels.
If that mid-range housing goal is going to be met, one of two scenarios must occur:
In the one scenario, the county as partner with the regional housing authority will need to buy the necessary properties, designate which types of housing will occupy each property, revise zoning restrictions accordingly, and then seek developer or construction bids.
Local officials will need to require more housing units per acre and perhaps establish both lot size and dwelling square footage maximums to provide the density needed for lower, per-unit building costs.
The other scenario will require attractive incentives for developers to provide the land and submit appropriate high-density plans. That also will involve revising permit fees as well as zoning restrictions.
Currently, developers are required to pay up-front permits and land use fees totaling as much as $43,000 per home — including $13,000 if an NID water connection is needed. Those fees need to be reduced for smaller homes on smaller lots sized to accommodate as many as six to eight homes per acre. Many manufactured home developments have five to nine per acre.
Some, perhaps most, of the fees should be delayed until the dwellings are sold. Habitat for Humanity is not required to pay those fees until the house is sold. To meet local affordable housing needs, similar considerations should be offered to developers and builders.
Such up-front decisions would provide a streamlining of site-planning from conception to construction that developers and builders have been seeking for years. It would save them many hours of unpaid time spent attending numerous meetings.
In addition, local officials should be encouraging joint ventures involving non-profits with for-profits so properties can be donated for affordable housing with an appropriate tax write-off.
I believe all these actions will eventually be necessary and that local officials, along with residents, eventually will realize that. Until that realization occurs, we will see the number of homeless citizens continue to grow.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He has eight books available through Amazon. His sixth, “Essays from The Golden Throne,” includes 60 columns published by The Union, plus a dozen western travel and photo essays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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