Housing prices cause loss of diversity
“How do people live around here?” the young man inquired.
“Good question,” I replied, standing out front of the Holbrooke Hotel last Friday afternoon. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m here with my family and we’re visiting relatives,” said the man, his young son tugging at his pant legs. “We’re from Pennsylvania and the same house we have there for $70,000 is probably worth around $400,000 or so here.”
He said he was an automotive service writer by trade and that he earns around $50,000 per year back home.
“I figure I’d have to make twice that to live the same lifestyle here,” he said. “I just don’t know how you people do it.”
That conversation came on the heels of an article I’d read in the Chronicle about a guy named Nick Lombardo in Carmel, who was embarking on a very ambitious project to build affordable homes in that otherwise unaffordable community. The article was sent to me by my friend, Mike, who wrote in his note that “we could use a couple of Nick Lombardos around here.”
The 76-year-old Lombardo told the Chronicle that he plans to rip up one of his two golf courses and replace it with a 280-unit subdivision, half of which would be affordable for lower-income families.
Lombardo isn’t doing it for the money. He’s had far better offers, according to the story. The money he makes selling half of the homes at market price will help cover the loss of offering the other half at prices as low as $110,000 up to $380,000, according to the Chronicle story. The median home price in Monterey County is about $570,000.
Lombardo says he not getting a single dime in government subsidies.
So why is he doing it? “Isn’t it strange, the people who talk about the quality of life are those in our area who are living in million-dollar homes?” he told the Chronicle. “Why aren’t they talking about the couple that has to commute from Soledad every day?”
Later in the story, Lombardo said something that really hit home. “What creates the strength of a community is investment. The largest and best investment is a home. Keeping prices down means that working people who perform crucial services – teachers, plumbers, bus drivers and grocery clerks – can afford to live in the community they work in.”
Good guy, this Lombardo fellow. As a matter of fact, we do have our Lombardos in Nevada County. There are several significant projects in the wings, and they all include affordable housing elements. Probably the most significant is 452-acre Loma Rica Ranch, which includes 230 to 310 affordable homes south of the Glenbrook Basin.
“The only way to get affordable housing is through the efficient use of land,” said Loma Rica Ranch developer Phil Carville. “What we have is a screwed-up system that is very arduous and costly. And the NIMBYs must be put in their place.”
Unfortunately, it may take another few years before the first affordable home is ready to be purchased in Loma Rica Ranch. Those kinds of projects take years to slog their way through the planning process. Far too many years for our own teachers, plumbers, bus drivers and grocery clerks to wait. Which is why we are losing more of them every day.
Nevada County is becoming an affluent retirement community.
A recent Nevada County Grand Jury report strongly suggested we quit talking about affordable houses and start building them. It pointed out that the 2002 Little Hoover Commission Report titled, “Rebuilding the Dream: Solving California’s Affordable Housing Crisis,” makes this observation: “Two fundamental problems hinder the effectiveness of the housing element law. First, the law requires local governments to plan for housing, but contains no enforcement mechanism. There are few incentives to encourage reluctant communities to adequately plan and no meaningful consequences when they fail to do so.”
The grand jury report was particularly critical of Nevada City and its lack of real movement to provide affordable homes. One of the reasons, according to the report, was the lack of a plan. “Nevada City previously adopted a Housing Element in 1986,” reads the report. “Although the next update was due in 1992, Nevada City did not publish a new Housing Element document until 2003.”
The report also found Nevada City makes it almost impossible for any developer to build affordable homes.
“Although Nevada City considers itself ‘unique’ in many respects, ‘uniqueness’ must not be used to exclude the City from following state requirements (to update its affordable housing plan every five, not 18, years),” read the report.
The report says the Nevada City Housing Element “consistently uses words and phrases that make no clear commitment to take any action, i.e., ‘consider,’ ‘target,’ ‘can,’ ‘proposed.’ The Housing Element clearly makes few promises of actually building affordable housing.”
Perhaps Nevada City’s real plan is to push affordable housing to Grass Valley or Penn Valley.
In the meantime, we are losing what little diversity we have. We are already one of the whitest communities in the state (Nevada City is nearly 100 percent Caucasian). We’ll soon be a community of white, well-to-do baby boomers with no service workers to serve us.
In a review of a book titled, “The Rise of Sprawl Suburban and the Decline of Nation,” the Chronicle’s John King wrote that “America will continue to grow, like it or not. The challenge is to do so in a way that contains sprawl and offers attractive living choices for families of all descriptions and income levels.”
To do that, Nevada County must identify and encourage its own Nick Lombardos.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesday.
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