Terry Lamphier: Rethinking ‘affordable housing’
It’s easy to be a critic of housing development proposals because most are stuck in 20th century thinking that offer unsatisfactory approaches to modern needs, but the underlying problem — creating housing for our ever-growing population — is real enough.
If one were to cast aside traditional thinking about housing, typified by massive, sterile developments or Soviet-style low-income efficiency boxes that have characterized Nevada County for the last several decades, there are 21st century trends that suggest new approaches which can provide affordable and responsible housing.
Can we house more people in less space with affordable and attractive housing that builders can afford to build? Changing mind sets about housing may provide such opportunities.
For our area, imagine a campus-style development where there are a mix of one and two story buildings based on a modified “townhouse” style (small multi-unit) approach. A campus concept — placement of buildings that blend with existing topography and landscaping rather than typical bulldozing of trees and hills for maximum construction efficiency — might mean sitting buildings to best capture sun, rain, tree cover and common garden areas, as opposed to housing that’s lined up like soldiers with garages facing the street and sterile, tiny manicured lawns.
Design housing to accommodate rooftop solar collectors, gardens and/or water catchment. Network the buildings with distributed solar energy systems and collective recycled water systems for landscaping. A collective campus model may require modifying current energy distribution models, grey water use restraints and other regulations.
Importantly, construct buildings that offer everything from integrated “tiny house” spaces of 200 to 300 square feet to larger square-foot units that can potentially be expanded into adjoining units as needs and budgets grow. Perhaps include some housing with common kitchens and baths, a la variants on co-housing and hostels and maintained by modest housing association fees.
The growing interest in very small affordable stand alone units (“tiny houses”) in some sort of tiny house village indicates changing ideas about home ownership, but they are not an efficient use of land and require disproportionate expenses for utilities, fire safety, waste disposal, etc. Incorporating a range of very small to medium-sized living units into larger buildings — units that can be owned for a fraction of the cost of traditional housing — can provide a crucial first step into home ownership while decreasing land usage and increasing resource use efficiency. There are no doubt many single folks and childless couples who just want an affordable place they can cook, shower and sleep, with a lock on the door and the right to make the interior their own without needing to make $75,000 or more a year in income.
There are major challenges, of course. One is to make the “campus” an attractive and desirable place to live and be acceptable to existing neighborhoods. The small units could conceivably sell for higher square-foot costs that help subsidize beautiful common areas — and still cost much less than traditional housing.
A blended housing project that includes larger units with tasteful architecture attractive to higher income folks can offset the social stigma too often associated with low income housing and has a social benefit of avoiding the typical “ghettos and gates” construction models that only further stratifies and polarizes society. Historically, there have been government monies available to offset low- and moderate-income housing construction costs, but the projects usually don’t get built because of neighborhood resistance to traditional ugly architectural approaches and social stigma associated with creating “poor” neighborhoods.
The county is beginning to recognize and address some construction constraints such as set-backs, density, off-street parking, etc., and it makes sense. For example, in the age of Uber, Lyft, Amazon, etc., does new construction really need two off-street parking spaces per living unit when most young people do not even own a car?
It’s time for “next-generation” thinking. A proposed housing development in Southern California will be the first “carbon-neutral” community in the nation, with electric car charging stations in every home, subsidies to purchase electric cars, an electric school bus program, widespread use of solar, a water reclamation plant, drought tolerant landscape and other innovations.
In that project, water supplies are a challenge but here in Nevada County we have millions of gallons of water in our abandoned mines.
Change is hard and there are many ways that new ideas can fail, but one thing we know is that existing approaches are not working.
Terry Lamphier, a former Nevada County supervisor, lives in Grass Valley.
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