Soapbox

For affordable housing in Placer, have developers build, not write checks

Christine Grissom and her family, recent transplants from the Bay Area, are among many South Lake Tahoe  workers who struggle to find affordable housing. The Placer County Board of Supervisors debates the issue on Tuesday.
Christine Grissom and her family, recent transplants from the Bay Area, are among many South Lake Tahoe workers who struggle to find affordable housing. The Placer County Board of Supervisors debates the issue on Tuesday. Sacramento Bee

Time is up for Placer County officials to respond to recommendations to address barriers to affordable housing.

The county grand jury’s not-so-shocking report in June highlighted one prominent barrier — the loophole for developers to pay the county a fee rather than build a below market-rate unit. That’s why developers and housing advocates are focusing on what action the county Board of Supervisors will take on the fee-in-lieu issue on Tuesday.

The supervisors’ obligation to respond to the grand jury report brings a refreshing change to the affordable housing debate. Usually, it happens in planning commission meetings and goes like this: Developers present plans with only market-rate housing,advocates criticize in response and both camps get defensive.

Opinion

This funnels the community-wide problem of affordable housing down to the project-by-project level. It’s not fair to developers. It polarizes the players. Nothing gets solved.

Meanwhile, Placer County is the fastest-growing county in California.The high-cost development that has come along with that distinction has saddled the county’s middle class: 42 percent of the workforce is spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and workers face longer and longer commutes because they simply can’t afford to live where they work. Lower income families have it worse, of course, facing severe overcrowding and living paycheck to paycheck to meet rent.

Veronica Blake.jpg
Veronica Blake

In theory, the fees paid by developers go into a county fund to build affordable housing. But the $ 1million collected thus far has yet to produce any units. The county has a responsibility to turn this money into homes, but how? It is set up for public safety and health and human services, not homes.

The county should clear the path for developers to do what they do best: build homes, not write checks.Right now, it’s tough for builders to produce market-rate units, let alone affordable ones. On average, a project is $70,000 per unit in the red due to pre-development fees before even breaking ground. And the permitting and approval process takes years and years. The result: new housing in Placer County is designed for high price points.

The county’s solution to affordable housing will need to include financial incentives and simplified permits for developers. It should be a partnership where planning staff have the flexibility to work with developers and negotiate affordable units as a part of every plan.

The Placer Community Foundation wants to serve the needs of the community today and tomorrow. So we want developers and housing advocates to realize that we all share the same goal— construction not fees. The time is now for county officials to agree and take action.

Veronica Blake is CEO of the Placer Community Foundation. She can be contacted at vblake@placercf.org.

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