Terry Lamphier: ‘Affordable Housing?’ It’s a myth, folks
For those who still believe facts “‘trump” rhetoric, note that current political candidates touting affordable housing “solutions” while ignoring facts are either ignorant, ill-informed or ill-intentioned.
November election candidates, ranging from our local Nevada County Contractor’s Association Political Action Committee-endorsed Grass Valley City Councilmember Ben Aguilar to state governor candidate Republican John Cox, as well as City Council candidate Hilary Hodge, are all making “affordable housing” a major part of their campaign pitches.
While this is, indeed, an important issue for Californians, this issue has been simmering for years, and defies simple remedies. Vague rhetoric promising solutions may get candidates elected but will result in few changes.
Here’s why: Current U.S. Census data and multiple websites that calculate income levels needed to purchase homes point out the severity of the problem in real dollar terms: the vast majority of California (and the nation’s) workforce cannot financially qualify to purchase most housing on the market at current prices.
What has not been stated is that, even cutting mitigation fees, taxes, and regulations to the bone or going for massive build-outs to flood the market, etc. will still keep homes unaffordable. It’s a mathematical impossibility.
Looking at Grass Valley, most current developments plan to market their homes at $400,000 and up. Mortgage calculators show that this would require a household income of about $78,000 per year. Recent census data shows that almost two thirds of households in California make less than $78,000 and in Grass Valley the statistics are particularly grim. Median Grass Valley household incomes are about $35,524 annually, which will only buy a house in the $129,000 to $134,000 range. Further, the per capita income of Grass Valley residents averages $25,402 annually (so much for a single person’s hopes to buy a home!). Further, Grass Valley’s household income is lower than the national average, with 25.5 percent officially living in poverty, according to the Census.
Candidate Hodge correctly challenged candidate Aguilar’s “trickle down” theory that Grass Valley homeowners need more expensive housing to move up into. Any honest analysis of who buys half-million dollar homes in Grass Valley would likely reveal they are being built primarily for and sold to wealthy retirees and commuters from urban areas.
How about candidate Cox’s claims that reducing regulations and fees would result in affordable housing? While no doubt that could expand affordability for a few, let’s go deeper into this. Undocumented claims have stated that fees add about $48,000 to the cost of local housing. Let’s assume cutting regulations requiring sidewalks, fire suppression systems, insulated glass, smoke detectors, etc. knock off another $50,000. So now we’re in the neighborhood of $350,000, not enough to make homes affordable for our workforce. Even if we eliminated minimum wage requirements and employed child or slave labor, the local cost of land and building materials alone can easily result in hard costs of $100,000 to $125,000 before labor costs are added.
Meanwhile, insurers would likely not offer insurance and our police, fire, public works, schools and others would suffer revenue loss, requiring service and/or wage cut-backs or raised taxes — and have the ultimate effect of making housing even more unaffordable for our service workers.
Redefining “affordable housing” as townhouses and condominiums for sale or rent gets us much closer to the goal, but too often these come with a bad reputation for ugly design, poor management and maintenance and/or troublesome occupants. That said, the cost burden of doing a better job of mitigating these issues would likely keep this multi-unit approach closer to affordable than the current practice of building large, single family homes, especially in light of the city-sanctioned economic study in 2006 illustrating that single family homes cost more in tax-supported public services than multi-family housing.
Offering well-managed multi-unit housing with a mix of very small units paid for by public bonds, as recently proposed in Truckee for a project, would have the least impact on our community’s infrastructure and provide the only realistic approach to providing affordable housing.
Unfortunately, local “free market” construction lobbyists know too well that builders make bigger profits on expensive, single family homes and seem to have no problem with urbanizing our community by clear-cutting trees, congesting intersections, supplanting small business owners with big box businesses (with low wage employees) and otherwise chipping away our “quality of life.” Sad!
Terry Lamphier is a former Nevada County supervisor who lives in Grass Valley.
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