Scuttlebutt: Housing On The South Coast

Scuttlebutt: Housing On The South Coast

     Point Arena city officials were recently presented with a study of the housing situation on the south coast.  It was prepared by graduate students from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.  The 46-page report details the current situation, the challenges facing those who deem to improve the situation and suggestions as to how to help.  The authors emphasize that their report should be considered in conjunction with Point Arena's recently revised Housing Element.   Two of the 14 policy goals of that document are the focus of this report.   Goal 1: Provide housing  to meet the present and future needs of all income groups; and provide a fair share of Mendocino County market area housing needs and Goal 4: Increasing housing opportunities for low-income households.

     The first part of goal #1 is basically the same as goal #4 since virtually all of the people with unmet housing needs are low-income.  Thus, the thorny problem of how to make it possible for low or even moderate income people to afford housing when home building costs are estimated to be $180/sq. ft.  The report calculates that a developer would have to charge $1800/mo for a 1200 sq. ft. house to make it worthwhile.  Meanwhile, the report also states that someone earning the median wage in Point Arena and paying 40% of their income for rent could only afford $930.  Something has got to give.

     Any discussion of Gualala providing some relief in this area is cut short by the fact that there is a building moratorium due to water restrictions.     

     There are 3 actions recommended to help alleviate the housing situation.  One is to fastrack the proposed Cypress Meadows project of David Hillmer across from City Hall (Senior Center).  He has recently applied for permission to erect 8 rental units on 2 parcels:  4 homes with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths and 4 homes with 2 bedrooms and 2 baths.  The houses would be manufactured homes.  They are about one-third less expensive than traditional “stick” houses and, therefore, could rent, it is estimated, for $1300 and $940 respectively.  A developer would not be required to charge these rates, but a profit could be made with these numbers.

  The second recommendation is the one most likely to have a significant impact.  It is designed to meet the requirements of Policy #2 of the Housing Element.  It states, “promote the development of a variety of affordable rental options:  promote second units.” (emphasis is mine).

     Point Arena currently has a so-called “granny” unit ordinance, but the report points out that it is out of date (and, I might add, out of line with current needs).  The term “granny” is used because such homes are restricted for the use of people over 62.  This was done to agree with a state housing law which is no longer in effect; thus it is suggested that Point Arena revise its secondary unit ordinance to broaden its effectiveness.

      The third recommendation endorses the effort by Jeff Hansen and Laura Cover, who are rebuilding the motel in Point Arena.  They wish to provide worker housing for the staff that they will need to run the motel.  This wise and generous idea will not only fill a need locally, but, it is suggested, could serve as a model for development elsewhere.   

     Here comes the libertarian in me.  Two things stuck out to me throughout the report.  One was the repeatedly stated desire for Point Arena to maintain its unique and small town character.  The other was  how the regulatory system stands as a nearly impenetrable wall between problem and solution.  I have long been an opponent of the current building code regime.  I was a test case along with Crispin Hollingshead before the Building Appeals Board in the 70's during the so-called “class K wars”.  My argument then, as it is now, is that I should be able to build any kind of shelter I would like as long as I do not endanger my neighbors.  This means having electrical, gas, and wood stove installations done to the building code.  Septic disposal needs to be done in a safe and contained manner, though not necessarily with a sewer connection or currently established septic systems.

     The aforementioned are perfectly reasonable restrictions, but beyond that it must be admitted that we have created a monster.  Building codes began over concerns of wildly crowded and unsafe tenements in turn-of-the-century Eastern factory cities.  That is not us.  Like all government regulation, there is a ratcheting effect.  Every time there is a problem anywhere a new regulation is promulgated to apply everywhere.  Every builder can tell stories of actions they are required to take that solve a problem they don't have.

     I'm fine with applying the codes to public structures, just not to private ones.  I also agree with some zoning restrictions and the need to get a permit to build.  Such permits should state whether or not the structure was built and inspected according to the Uniform Building Code.

     Speaking of inspections, I would also dispense with the use of the county building inspectors.  There are private inspectors that can be hired where needed, but anyone familiar with real estate knows that financial institutions and insurance companies care far more about the condition of your home than any building inspector.  I once had an insurance inspector insist that I paint my house before they would issue a policy.  If you want a bank loan, chances are you will have to conform to the UBC anyway.

     A point made quite strongly in the report is that townspeople want Point Arena to maintain its unique character and the housing element does call for a variety of housing.  On the other hand, the report suggests that Point Arena follow the example of Ft. Bragg which has pre-approved 3 housing plans that, if used, would lower inspection and permit fees..  Nice try, but that is merely nibbling around the edges of the problem.  And it certainly wouldn't lead to maintaining a “unique” character.

     If someone wants to acquire a manufactured home or build to a pre-approved plan, that's fine, but if Point Arena wants to maintain a unique character and truly accommodate low income people (most all of us), they will have to unleash the unique and creative energies of its people..  Tinkering around the edges of the problem is simply not going to get it done.

     I have been mulling over this issue for 40 years and have plenty more to say on this matter, but time and space require me to shut up.  Go read the report.


Editors Note: The report Mitch cites in this month's column can be found on the City of Point Arena's website. Here's the web address for the report:

We're Throttling Back More

Animal Health & Welfare: Introduction