You would be forgiven if, in the last several weeks of pandemic coverage, you had forgotten about the housing shortage that was already crushing the Central Coast. A year before the first shelter-at-home order went into effect, Beacon Economics reported that high housing costs were stalling SLO County's ability to diversify our economy and retain talent. If you took the time to ask a young family, small business owner, or low-income senior about housing costs' effect on their lives, you'd get a much more practical peek into how this struggle is woven into the very fabric of "the SLO life." At least we have acknowledgement from an analyst to back up our anecdotes.
There were three proverbial elephants in the room as soon as the shelter-at-home order was released. First, where is a person without a home supposed to "shelter"? Our county has nearly 2,000 unhoused neighbors, almost all of whom are living outdoors.
Second, how are folks sharing close living quarters supposed to self-isolate? It's kind of hard to quarantine when you and your two kids sleep in a garage, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with three other families.
Last, but far from least, was ... will this finally lower the rent?
I have bad news for those who are hoping this will lower California's high home prices. Costs may dip, as is typical during a recession, but that will only benefit those with steady incomes. With more than 20,000 SLO County residents filing for unemployment thus far, you can bet that incomes are dropping far faster than home prices. And if we continue to refuse to build at the scale and pace that is needed to meet demand, the next recovery period will look just like the last one. Rising incomes will again be eaten up by skyrocketing home costs, and workers will again have to choose between a crippling monthly rent or losing hours out of the week to traffic.
In the midst of the COVID-19 fog, we must not lose sight of what continues to be California's most pressing economic, environmental, and humanitarian crisis. Though COVID-19 has taken center stage for the moment, our housing woes will continue to fester, unless and until we start treating them with the seriousness they deserve. Just as businesses, governments, and schools have adapted and come together to address this outbreak, we should approach our housing shortage with the same urgency, resourcefulness, and teamwork.
SLO County has taken the first important step by having each jurisdiction agree to the Regional Housing and Infrastructure Compact, a symbolic move where leaders have acknowledged the need to address these issues as a team, and that each team member must do their bit for the good of the whole. That's the easy part. The hard part comes when we find ourselves asking the same questions—and fighting the same fights—that we did before the outbreak. "Is this housing too much? Too this? Too that?" The answer depends entirely on to whom you're speaking and for whom you're building.
But these questions have been more or less missing during the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite our collective discomfort with the changes under the stay-at-home order, aside from a few protesters, they have been met with broad community support. From my grocery store's regular announcements reminding guests to wear face masks, to the sidewalks covered in positive messages of support and solidarity, most days, it does feel like "we're in this together." We're maximizing our resources to make it through this. And that gives me hope that, with the right tools and motivation, we can build a SLO County that's sustainable and accessible to more people, where everyone has a place to call home.
COVID-19 is a novel phenomenon, but housing shortages are not. While much of the outbreak response has been innovated on the fly and subject to higher governing authorities, cities are fortunate in that they already have several tools with which to address the housing shortage, not the least of which is near total jurisdiction over their own land use and approval processes. They have a staff of planners who can be let loose in methods of using land creatively. We can look to other successful regions and adapt their strategies for our own use. Local builders need labor, and tens of thousands of residents need work. We have a world-class university full of practical thinkers who would jump at the chance to have a hand in fixing this mess. The only thing left is the political will.
A virus is typically a self-limiting disease; it runs its course and doesn't respond to medicine, so when infection happens, we mitigate the symptoms, and the patient fights the virus. However, our housing and homelessness crisis will only deepen without a systemic treatment regimen, as evidenced by the last several decades. When COVID-19 has come and gone, people will need affordable homes more than ever. Our community is at its best in this pandemic: Strangers helping each other, cooperating, and working together. Just like the healthy are taking precautions to protect the vulnerable, so too should the comfortably housed speak up for the housing insecure. Let's write to our city councils to support more homes in our neighborhoods; ask friends, teachers, and neighbors to lend their voices, too. We're either in this together, or we're not in this at all. Δ
Krista Jeffries advocates for affordable housing solutions in Grover Beach and beyond. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a response for publication and email it to email@example.com.