I've lived on the Central Coast for more than a decade now. In those 10 years I can count on one hand the number of friends and family who've been able to stay and raise their kids in the community we all know and love.
And yet, in all the meetings I attend about SLO County's economic recovery, job development, declining school enrollment, and growing traffic congestion, the need to address our housing shortage has faded into the background. I feel as though I'm standing in an elevator with three dozen elected officials, and we're all hearing the background music, but no one is listening. The constant drone of "the rent is too high" has become the metronome in our city councils, chambers of commerce, and election cycles. We've become inured to home prices doubling in 10 years, dozens of applicants for each apartment, and rents that claim half our wages. Now, more than a year after the lockdown started and thousands of us lost jobs and loved ones to the pandemic, housing is even further out of reach than it was before.
I can't be the only frog feeling this pot get warmer.
There are hundreds of new homes coming online in SLO County, from income-restricted apartments to luxury McMansions. While the latter is not exactly my favorite, I'm still glad to see them built. Yet the need for more homes at all income levels is so dire that I feel I must stress to you, my neighbors: We still need more.
Despite what may feel like a building boom to many of us, the number of new home constructions—especially new multi-family homes—is still less than half what it was before the Great Recession, having been eclipsed by sleepy sunbelt towns like Akron, Ohio, and Mobile, Alabama. More than 80 percent of those homes at our peak building rate in 2004 were single-family houses, which remained largely out of reach to most of the folks working on the Central Coast. Even at that pace of new construction, there were few options for those who couldn't afford the $400,000 median sales price of the day (a nostalgic thought when compared to today's eye-popping list prices). Thus rents have continued to climb. As retirees and work-from-home professionals seek to relocate here from California's major cities, we're all feeling the squeeze—or, if we're lucky, taking our equity and fleeing for cheaper pastures.
The shortage of places to live cuts into every measure of our quality of life. We sit in traffic for hours each day to get to work and back, snatching time we could have with our families and money we could spend in local shops. We can't find reliable babysitters, who leave as soon as they graduate. Local businesses can't attract and retain talent, stymying the efforts of every jurisdiction to diversify our regional economy. We can't get health care because new physicians and nurses can't afford to live here with their student loan debts. Our schools lose funding for every student who leaves for Texas and Idaho. New parents who would otherwise return to work can't float the price of child care, costing families countless dollars in lost wages and productivity.
There's a fairly straightforward answer to this reality: Most lots in our region are only zoned for luxury housing. Our high land prices, rather than being shared across multiple buyers or tenants, are borne by only one. Want to house more than one family on your lot? You can, technically, apply to do that through a complex, time-consuming, and expensive process, known as upzoning, and hope it gets approved, or that the red tape doesn't kill the project or render it unaffordable to those you're trying to house. This makes it so the only builders who can navigate the approvals are those with big financial backers, who don't build homes meant for our low-wage workforce. Small local contractors are priced out of helping our neighbors get into homes that work for them and their needs. The stopgaps in the building process, meant to keep a city accessible and democratic, have in fact done the opposite. And they've done it for the last several decades.
What if we could streamline the system that allows this failure? There are two major bills moving through the Assembly right now that will give cities some tools to house our Poly grads, working families, seniors, and newly retired neighbors.
Senate Bill 9 would permit lot splits, or duplexes, on most lots in California. Coupled with the recent bill permitting ADUs statewide, this would permit up to four homes where previously only one was allowed. These homes, often called "missing middle housing," are critical options for folks who make too much to qualify for vouchers but don't make enough to afford most market-rate housing. Additionally, SB 9 contains strict prohibitions on using this law in fire zones, on historic sites, in rural areas like Harmony or Pozo, or on prime farmland. It also contains tenant protections and anti-speculation rules, so that homes for tomorrow don't come at the expense of evictions today.
The companion bill, Senate Bill 10, would allow cities to upzone urban infill lots, up to 10 homes, without the cumbersome CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] process. Since building housing in these places prevents sprawl and protects our hillsides, this strategy makes a whole lot of sense, especially since the overwhelming majority of CEQA lawsuits are for these kinds of homes in the first place. Once passed, this bill would be an optional tool, rather than a statewide mandate.
It's high time our government gets serious about addressing the shortage of homes causing so much suffering in our communities. These bills are not silver bullets but are important steps in the long process of rebuilding California's much needed housing stock. Please write to Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham today, and ask him to vote "yes" on SB 9 and SB 10 in the coming weeks. Δ
Krista Jeffries is a stay-at-home mom who fights for abundant housing in Grover Beach and beyond. Reach her at email@example.com. Respond with a letter for publication by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.