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Going for broke

Who will speak up for the working poor?

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You may be wondering why, in the midst of the worst housing crisis in state history, our local Home Builders Association (HBA) has decided to lobby its three beneficiaries on the Board of Supervisors to scrap the county's inclusionary housing ordinance (IHO), as reported last week in the New Times ("Homebuilders Association to oppose county's affordable housing policy").

If you concluded it's simply a shabby, cynical political calculation, you'd be correct.

If you concluded HBA members are simply seeking to get what they pay for (in large campaign checks of $5,000 each), you'd also be correct.

While it is true that most homebuilders generally dislike this ordinance that requires them to include affordable units in their projects or pay a fee to be used for such projects, it is also true that it works. Even the relatively small sum of fees collected in the county have been combined to fund necessary projects in a few of our cities and towns.

What is not true is that our ordinance drives up the cost of home prices. Our fees continue to remain frozen at year two in this ninth year of the program. Last year was the first year the fees went up, thankfully, due to Frank Mecham joining Bruce Gibson and me in supporting this.

During the recession, the Board of Supervisors, sensitive the industry's struggle, agreed to a fee freeze in exchange for the HBA's public promise to support the commensurate increase once the economy improved. Not only has the HBA broken its promise, but it is now going for broke with a board ruled by a majority that has yet to disappoint its campaign donors.

Well aware that John Peschong is no Frank Mecham (Frank cared about governing and was willing to compromise) and that he's now ensconced among two other supervisors who only occasionally impersonate reasonable people, the Home Builders Association sees this as its best chance to kill one of the few mechanisms we have to fund affordable housing. And it knows it can rely on that seething respirator of hot air, COLAB's Mike Brown, to keep his trio of supplicants tending to the whims of the wealthiest donors.

To show how far our local politics have regressed, it's worth noting that the inclusionary housing ordinance was adopted in 2008 by a board including three Republicans in its majority.

But those now seem like the good old days, when, regardless of party, some elected supervisors could still be counted on to put the community's needs above their own political self-interest. When important policies were still debated and developed without a blind allegiance to campaign patrons. When rolling back programs that affect those with the least money and clout hadn't yet become essential to the agenda of those with the most power.

That's where the Home Builders Association comes in. The HBA is essentially using the support it's gained in the community for work force housing as cover, while it seeks to crush the requirements that help create lower-income housing. This is not how politics should be done. It is trickery that has brought the Economic Vitality Corporation and the SLO Chamber of Commerce along as partners in the overall housing agenda on which the three groups have been collaborating.

Are these partners willing to speak out against this, or will they go along, quietly, because let's face it, the people who most need the affordable housing have no group to lobby on their behalf? They are the working poor, too often championed in the abstract but ignored in the particular.

This ordinance fee review won't come before the board until November, but it is critical that the community engage now. There are several local homebuilders and developers who know how to work well with this ordinance even if they dislike it. Some of them are members of the HBA and we need to hear from them.

Instead of pushing to repeal a tool that has proven to actually get affordable housing units built, the HBA, the EVC, and the SLO Chamber should put their muscle where their mouths are and support the affordable housing funding proposal that Bruce Gibson and I offered during the county budget hearings.

When our proposal to create a $5 million revolving fund that would go directly to pay for deed-restricted affordable housing was offered, it was flatly rejected by the board's majority. It was also criticized by some in the media (such as the New Times' Shredder, "The housing trap," June 15) as a political ploy, as if the issue of affordable housing hadn't been discussed and written about ad nauseam. (And as if somehow helping people who can't afford decent shelter is a new, uncharted path to electoral success.)

So this is an opportunity to revisit our proposal with the full support of the HBA and all the other business community leaders. It's a chance to rise above the rigidly divisive politics that have become our new normal, and do something that we all know will have a positive impact on one of our most intractable challenges.

If the HBA and its allies choose this broader commitment to the community—to those who work here but can't afford to live here—we can make some real progress and demonstrate the ability for the public and private sectors to work together on this problem that affects all of us. Δ

Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the Board of Supervisors. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or respond in a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.

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