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Breaking ground: SLO City Council candidates talk about the city's housing crunch

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a hotter topic in San Luis Obispo than housing.

While the crux of SLO’s housing crisis is more or less undisputed—intense competition for a limited supply is pushing prices and rents up while bringing the vacancy rate down to an unhealthy low—the strategies and solutions to help alleviate the problem are up for debate.

Should the city boost its housing supply, and if so, where should housing go? How can affordability be achieved? Is there adequate water for more housing?

Nobody in town is debating these questions more right now than the eight candidates running for SLO City Council. With three of the five council seats up for grabs this November, the future direction of the city’s housing policies hangs in the balance.

New Times caught up with the eight candidates this week to ask about their thoughts on the housing crunch, and how they would try to solve it if elected.

A matter of supply

The candidates are somewhat divided by their enthusiasm for housing developments.

Council candidates Aaron Gomez, Andrea “Andy” Pease, Brett Strickland, and Christopher Lopez were the strongest supporters of getting more housing built in the city, while Mila Vojavich-La Barre and Mike Clark have concerns about compromising city character and question the availability of water resources. 

In the mayoral race, incumbent Jan Marx and challenger Heidi Harmon differ on where to emphasize housing development.

Gomez, owner of the Gold Concept Jewelry store downtown, is a supporter of getting more “workforce” housing built in the city. He looks at the “missing middle” of the housing market, or $300,000 to $450,000 homes. If more first-time homebuyers are able to afford houses in SLO, Gomez argues, that will bring balance to what is now a 61 percent rental dominated market.

“We don’t need more rentals, we need owners in homes,” Gomez said. “We’re literally 15 percent over the national average. A decade ago that wasn’t the case. We’ve seen that changed based on an extremely slow growth process.”

Brett Strickland, who oversees projects for GP Strategies, wants to look at ways the city can encourage the construction of smaller units that are “affordable by design.”

“We need more housing, but not the 3,000/4,000 square-foot homes that are typically built around here,” Strickland said. “One way to do that is incentivizing developers to build smaller. Right now, developers are incentivized to build bigger because there’s a fixed set of fees. We need to get fees to be lower on smaller-scale construction.”

Pease, a green building architect, also discussed the ways the city can craft policy to stimulate the production of different types of housing, which will provide more options for renters and ease the crunch.

“We can adjust our zoning, our fees, and our processes to encourage smaller housing—infill, multi-story, mixed-use,” Pease said. “There’s a lot of interest in having that more urban, small-scale lifestyle.”

“Tiny homes” was one idea frequently brought up by the candidates. Many of them, including Lopez, a senior at Cal Poly, are on board with unorthodox forms of housing that could help the market.

“The city could explore those options,” Lopez said. “I have an open mind and want to look at it from multiple perspectives.”

Marx, the incumbent mayor, is no stranger to grappling with housing issues on the City Council. She’s mostly focused on tackling workforce housing, which she noted doesn’t have an official definition, as “affordable housing” does.

“Experts are starting to come up with a definition of workforce housing to figure out a way to approach this problem,” Marx said. “I hope we can create some innovative approaches to workforce housing that could include employer-sponsored housing.”

But not all the candidates are so eager to substantially add to the housing supply.

Vujovich-La Barre, a Spanish and social science teacher in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District, has been outspoken in her concerns about water availability. She believes SLO should look long and hard at diving into housing projects, like the 500-home San Luis Ranch project on Madonna Road and the 500- to 700-home Avila Ranch project on Buckley Road, given the ongoing drought.

“It defies logic to me,” she said. “If we don’t get significant rain this year, I’ve been an advocate for having a tiered building moratorium.”

Mike Clark, a retired Army colonel, like Vujovich-La Barre is also concerned about water resources, along with how growth affects traffic and quality of life.

“We have a lot of things we need to be careful of,” Clark said. “I’m not as confident as others about how much water we have.”

Clark, along with all the candidates, views Cal Poly increasing on-campus housing as important for opening up more of the community’s housing supply.

“What it boils down to is that Cal Poly has been very negligent to provide adequate housing,” Clark said.

Harmon, an educator, environmental activist, and the lone challenger to Marx for mayor, is concerned about the city’s current approach to housing—but more for aesthetic and cultural reasons. She’s still wants to find ways to make housing more affordable but isn’t crazy about current developments like Avila Ranch and San Luis Ranch.

“The sense of sprawl that those projects create is my biggest concern,” Harmon said. “I would rather see more infill and more places for folks to live downtown.” 

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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