Affordable housing: What does it mean?
On the heels of the recent Angora fire, we have a renewed opportunity to look at affordable housing. What kind of a community do we want? As you look around the Lake Tahoe region, it becomes clear that South Lake Tahoe is the last stand for a working-class, affordable community. In Squaw Valley for example, buyers are purchasing and tearing down $600,000 and $700,000 homes to make way for massive estates. Incline Village and the surrounding communities are already the home of the rich and famous. Even as close as our own state line, wealth has settled, some permanently but mostly it is a second home, the escape from day-to-day living as we know it.
While the population of the city of South Lake has not changed a great deal over the past few years, the demographics have. Fewer children, fewer families, smaller households and more retirees. The result has been the closing of schools and a change in purchasing habits and needs. Every major employer — the hospital, the college and city government itself — share a common problem: recruiting and retaining qualified employees who will live and work in our town. The reason is simple: We have an inadequate supply of a quality workforce because of the lack of affordable housing to support them.
Once the decline of the middle class begins, it is very difficult to reverse it without some government intervention, done inside the forces of the normal, economically driven market place. Let me illustrate: What do you lose when you force the working middle class out of your town with high housing costs? First are schools and then local shopping opportunities and jobs, as well as that “community” feeling. As more homes become second homes or retiree homes, the neighborhoods have fewer children and less need for family facilities.
If you are trying to restore a middle class to the community, what do new, potential working families look for in selecting a place to live? The same things you have lost. They want to know how good the schools are, the shopping and the community opportunities, the very things we are losing. Thus the new home seekers move on to other more affordable, community-oriented places with growing schools. There is a big difference between wanting to vacation here and begin able to live and work here.
Lake Tahoe’s South Shore is still, in my view, a hidden asset in the resort buyer’s market. Think of it, the average home price in Aspen is over $6 million and they have no lake. A wealth buyer can come here for skiing, boating, hiking, everything they might want. Buy say, six adjoining houses in the Sierra tract, for about $350,000 each or about $2 million; tear them down and invest another $1 million in a new home and live in paradise for half the cost of Aspen. This new owner has no need for schools or numerous shopping opportunities. He raises his family and shops elsewhere or simply is older and has no family to educate or to shop for.
To maintain a middle class, you must make available the “American dream,” the opportunity for home ownership. Yet we live in an area that is very highly regulated and with limited land available for new housing. It is estimated that after you have acquired a $150,000 lot to build on, you must then get an allotment to build and pay the various regional and local planning and mitigation fees, in many cases adding another $150,000 to your cost. With an estimated $300,000 invested before you begin any construction, how are you supposed to build a house that will sell for $280,000? Silly question, you cannot, so none are being built.
What then can be done? Positive government intervention or a sizable charitable donation must intervene. Charity is highly unlikely on a large scale, but government intervention is possible. First the very fees from the various layers of government that can run up the cost can be waived for an affordable project. Antiquated laws that limit coverage and height limits, imposed regardless of location and actual impact on the lake’s clarity, can be rewritten to allow well-designed projects to work. We can do this without damage to the environment. In fact, in many case we can lessen the impact and improve the environmental impact. We have these opportunities available now, but the appropriate state and regional governmental agencies will not or have not yielded to this housing crises.
There is a major opportunity here at South Shore. It’s referred to as the “Barbara Avenue project,” a site I stumbled on while trying to make another project idea work. Barbara Avenue is land owned by the state of California, in an ideal location for a sizeable work-force housing project. A project that would include the addition of bike baths, open space and even a park and real drainage solutions rather than the one-size-fits-all mentality of existing BMP requirements.
On the Barbara Avenue property, we could build at least 100, maybe 150, affordable homes. Deed restricted, homes sold to working families. Homes for hospital workers, teachers, firemen and others. Homes that would welcome families with children — the real ingredients that make a community. Homes that would bring to our town people who actually want to live and work here, not just vacation. People who would shop and play baseball here — what a concept.
Everywhere I go, the message is the same,”communities must build affordable housing.” The legislature of the state of California demands it or penalties are to be paid, yet when we come to them with a real project such as Barbara Avenue they say no. They say the land was acquired as environmentally sensitive. Yes, that is true, but the land is not sensitive. It was acquired as part of a “package purchase” that did include sensitive land but the owner, in order to sell that land, insist all his land be bought.
Barbara Avenue is attached to the Sierra Tract. Water, sewers, and electric are all installed the street is paved it. This is an ideal project, a model for the nation, except that state red tape will try to stop it. It’s time we demanded that those who make the laws, support the laws, and this property be freed to house a work force. To complete such a project may require state legislation, but after all isn’t the legislature very anxious to solve the affordable housing crisis, or so I am told? Stay tuned.
— Ted Long is a member of the South Lake Tahoe City Council.