Making housing more affordable in our county | By ZACH FRIEND SANTA CRUZ COUNTY SUPERVISOR

With median home prices in the county currently hovering around $850,000, it’s easy to see why many in our community find it difficult to afford to live there. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that one would have to earn $35/hour (or over $70,000/year) to afford a two-bedroom apartment in our county.

Many of us fortunate enough to own our own home wouldn’t be able to afford our home if we had to repurchase it today and I often hear stories about children moving away for cheaper housing and even people working longer than originally planned because of a high mortgage.

Given these challenges, what can we do to make housing more affordable for our residents?

It takes a multifaceted approach that include local and state regulatory, political and economic changes.

At the local level the county has taken significant steps toward modernizing and improving affordable housing regulations to help encourage the creation of affordable housing. New county policies encourage smaller unit sizes (which are often more affordable), reduces fees, and makes it easier for builders to construct more sustainable housing along urban transportation corridors. It also provides fee incentives for property owners wanting to build deed-restricted Accessary Dwelling Units (as many have children, parents or more wanting to live on the property).

But affordable housing policy can’t occur in a vacuum. It requires reviews and policy changes in zoning and even economic development regulations, after all, no matter how affordable a house is it won’t be affordable if there aren’t jobs in an area to allow someone to pay for it in the first place. As a result, the affordable housing changes have been occurring in tandem with reviews in zoning and economic development regulations to encourage more job creation in our area — all while respecting long-term established land use protections that ensure environmental priorities are maintained. Additionally, the county has created regulations around vacation rentals to preserve current rental and owner-occupied housing stock and is looking toward regulations on single room short term rentals in the unincorporated area. While this isn’t a comprehensive list of things the county has done it provides a general overview.

At the state level a number of affordable housing and regulatory streamlining bills have been proposed to help spur the creation of housing. One of the most notable is Senate Bill 35, from San Francisco area Senator Scott Wiener. SB 35 works to ensure that all communities in the state create housing (sharing the responsibility throughout the state) by streamlining the approval process for specific housing types. The housing types are for income-based criteria. For example, if a county is meeting its state goals for housing development for above moderate-income housing but not its low-income housing goals, streamlining would apply to projects that focus on lower-income units.

Why does it matter to address these housing costs?

The high housing costs have real social, environmental and economic costs. High housing costs lead to displacement and even changes in community diversity as working families are forced to live further away from their jobs. According to a study done by McKinsey Global Institute, California’s housing shortage costs the state more than $140 billion per year in lost economic output, including lost construction investment as well as foregone consumption of goods and services. Given that Californians pay $50 billion more for housing than they are able to afford, the report concludes, there is a significant reduction in the ability to support our local businesses and economy.

We know we can’t simply “build our way” out of the problem — and that is not being proposed. We recognize that realistically some of our local residents will still be priced out of the rental and ownership market.

But we also know that we need to do something.

It took years for our county to be faced with the housing issues we have today so there will be no quick or immediate fix. However, I believe the policies the Board has adopted, both directly for affordable housing and more broadly for job growth, are an important first step toward putting us on a path toward improved options for future generations. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to call at 454-2200.