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Compromise on housing best solution for hard issue

The Board of Supervisors found themselves with yet another chance to play Solomon this month, when the thorny issue of second units reared its head once again. The supes were considering implementation of the affordable-housing task force recommendation for a three-year pilot program to allow up to 90 second-housing units to be built on rural properties.

Affordable housing issues are particularly difficult for decision-makers who’ve been elected on quality-of-life platforms. A vote against affordable housing can appear to be a vote against working families and the American way. A vote against affordable housing can make the most reasonable advocate of good planning appear to be a cold, uncaring elitist in the public’s eye, and give an opportunity for property development rights zealots to pose as valiant defenders of the working poor. In other words, for those attempting to undermine our current Board of Supervisors, affordable housing is the perfect election-year issue.



But there are helpful affordable-housing proposals and there are less helpful ones – and the sad truth is, of all the recommendations that were published in the task force’s otherwise excellent report, “The Housing Needs of Nevada County,” the second-unit proposal is clearly the runt of the litter. It’s a Band-Aid that provides the illusion of a quick fix to a painful and vexing social issue. What could be “simpler” than fixing the affordable-housing conundrum by passing out free density bonuses to county landowners? It’s like trying to cure poverty by printing more paper money – anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.




There are a number of reasons why the second-unit proposal is a weak solution to our affordable-housing problem:

1. Second units wreak havoc with the basic tenet of the county’s General Plan, which calls for directing growth to the Community Regions that have the infrastructure and services in place to best accommodate it. A “solution” that includes increasing densities in the resource-rich and infrastructure-poor rural regions of the county runs counter to the most basic principles of smart planning and growth.

2. Second units exacerbate forest fire dangers in the most vulnerable portions of the county, where narrow roads, a very high level of fire danger and many previously approved and ill-advised subdivisions have already placed thousands of county residents in harm’s way.

3. Second units only provide rental units, not the entry-level starter homes needed to give working families an entree to home ownership. And there is no guarantee these second units would provide truly affordable rentals – building individual 1,000-square-foot homes is one of the costliest and least efficient ways imaginable of providing housing, and in the absence of rent controls, there will be no incentive to charge less than market value for the rental.

4. The “quick-fix” provided by second units can only distract from the real work of implementing the more valuable and challenging recommendations of the affordable-housing task force, such as: increasing incentives for builders of affordable housing, and the in-lieu fees of those who don’t; aggressively encouraging mixed-use developments in Community Regions; creation of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund and Housing Authority; and development of the housing potential of areas slated for annexation through zoning and infrastructure, to name a few.

So the supervisors found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place as they considered this feeble solution to a very pressing problem. A lot of concern was expressed by neighborhood advocates concerned with the potential impact of second units, along with equally passionate comments from affordable housing advocates who felt that something had to be done. Fortunately for all of us, our Board of Supervisors showed the “right stuff” in crafting the compromise that appeared to be emerging by the end of the meeting: By keeping second units off of undersized lots and out of areas of very high fire danger, allowing “over-the-counter” approvals for second units in Community Regions, and requiring Planning Commission approval for second units in Rural Regions, this board may have found a way to turn the second-unit pilot program into a small step forward, rather than backwards. But affordable-housing advocates and neighborhood quality-of-life advocates alike need to remember that the real work on affordable-housing remains to be done. And as our county’s population continues to climb and our resources and patience continue to dwindle, the distance between our rocks and our hard places may soon disappear altogether.

Brian Bisnett, a landscape architect and environmental planner living at Higgins Corner, writes a monthly column.


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