Darrell Berkheimer: Different approaches to solve dwelling shortages
January 18, 2019
It appears this area has a terminology problem when the need for affordable housing is cited.
The tendency is to immediately think of single-family homes. But that is only a tiny portion of the local need.
Instead, the topic should be "affordable dwellings" for "households" — because as much as 80 percent of the current need is for rentals. Communities across our nation are realizing the need to approach dwelling shortages by providing affordable multi-unit rentals rather than houses.
The situation here reminds me of the historic problem faced by most communities at the end of World War II. Construction of dwellings was stymied for several years as most work efforts were poured into manufacturing war materials.
The current situation
— with developers concentrating on building houses that only empty-nesters and retirees can afford
— is unsustainable.
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Throughout the war, young couples delayed having children as many wives lived with relatives. When the war ended, and as soldiers and others serving abroad returned to the U.S., they wanted their own homes — so they could provide for the births of the baby boomers.
As a result, many small row houses were built — and veterans were given first choice on occupying those units. They were in duplexes, fourplexes, and even sixplexes. With the passage of time, some occupants bought out their neighbors and became rental owners.
I remember those units quite well, because one of them was the first "house" my young family rented in 1965 after the birth of our first daughter. It was in a development with as many as 20 or two dozen buildings — most of them with four and six dwelling units each. The development probably housed about 100 or more young families, and it included a park green belt.
We were in the second unit of a corner fourplex managed by one owner. So we shared common walls on both sides with other occupants. Each unit had a single off-street concrete parking pad in front, and a small fenced yard in the rear.
It was two floors plus an unfinished half-basement — providing maybe 900 square feet of living space, at most. The entire first floor had only two rooms — a living room and combination kitchen and dining room. The second floor had two bedrooms and one bath, while the unfinished half-basement housed the furnace, water heater and laundry machines.
Those units were built quite quickly because of the demand, because they used a uniform construction plan, and because a ready work force of ex-soldiers was available. But those units were well-built, with brick exteriors.
I tell that story because this community faces a similar need for multi-unit dwellings, including various types of apartment buildings.
Rentals are needed to accommodate single workers; plus both young and retired couples; adults sharing with other adults, and single-parent families. Those categories account for about 80 percent of our nation's households, according to a recent New York Times story.
Our nation faces a somewhat similar circumstance today with that post-war situation, because of all the millennials now in our workforce who are unable to afford suitable dwellings. Most often it's because wages are too low and/or many have high student debts.
Compounding the problem is the apparent lack of interest by developers to build multi-unit dwellings, because there is more profit to be made from building single-family houses. Their number one interest is in making money, not in building what the community really needs.
The county and local cities could take the lead in meeting the local need by adopting incentives and/or restrictions that will promote construction of multi-unit developments. And when communities fail to take such actions, state governments will enact mandates — just as California already has done by mandating high-density zoning.
Local "NIMBY" (not in my back yard) obstructionists must realize they simply can't stop what is inevitable. Their initial successes might only lead to additional incentives and restrictions, some of which might be more expensive to taxpayers and less tolerable to neighbors.
The current situation — with developers concentrating on building houses that only empty-nesters and retirees can afford — is unsustainable. So I asked the fellows at one of my men's meetings what the future would be like for this community if that situation is allowed to continue.
One fellow remarked, "Well, we won't need any schools."
Another noted college graduates won't be able to return here unless they live with parents.
And it was observed that local service businesses would close for lack of workers who can't afford to live here — or even afford to commute from any place where they might find cheaper living. Then the workforce would dwindle to retirees willing to accept service-worker wages to augment their Social Security, or just to occupy some of their time.
I admit those responses provide some exaggeration, but isn't that the direction in which this community is heading without affordable multi-dwelling rental units?
When we consider that the median household income in Grass Valley is a little less than $36,000 annually, it should be evident that multi-unit rental buildings are the greatest need. And to be affordable, many would be efficiency apartments of 800 square feet or less.
California already has the lowest average apartment size in the nation at 837 square feet. And according to RentCafe Blog, the newest ones are 12 percent smaller than 10 years ago.
Obviously that means many units are smaller than 800 square feet. And some innovators are creating efficiency floor plans for even less than 500 square feet.
Local officials could examine some of the creative ideas being developed in other areas— one of which involves nonprofit agencies in construction and management of affordable dwelling units.
Community development nonprofits are involved in the Housing Partnership Network, a business collaborative with 100 member organizations. A main thrust of the network's efforts is helping people with steady jobs, but whose incomes are too high to qualify for housing assistance.
Although the network maintains offices in Boston, it recently convened in San Francisco to launch its latest venture, the Build Opportunity Fund. That fund seeks to provide capital for "high-performing nonprofit developers."
One such agency is MidPen Housing – a leading nonprofit developer operating right here in northern California. Housing Partnership Network reported that MidPen manages 103 properties with a total of 7,207 units, providing homes for more than 16,600 northern California residents. It also invests $6.3 million annually in resident services and partners with nearly 200 service providers.
So rather than waiting for traditional developers to submit plans for potential sites, perhaps local officials could recruit affordable housing proposals from one or more high-performing nonprofit developers.
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He is the author of six books available through Amazon. Contact him at email@example.com.
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