Hiring a housing coordinator a welcome move

By Margie Thompson December 08, 2008 01:49 pm

Tuolumne County supervisors last week voted to hire a housing coordinator to oversee a new Community Development Department division dedicated to bringing more affordable housing to the community.

The board should be commended for its decision, one of the final steps in a long and often frustrating process that has spanned many years. Although the board vote was, no doubt, gratifying for those who have worked tirelessly to assure that low- and moderate-income residents Tuolumne County have a chance at finding reasonably-priced homes, it didn’t come without a scare.

Supervisor Mark Thornton voted against filling the position, which has a salary range of from $68,000 to $83,000 a year, and urged his colleagues to join him in delaying the move for six months. A foreclosure-laden, “upside down” housing market and severe cutbacks in government spending, he said, made the coordinator’s position something the county simply cannot afford.  

Housing advocates, who had waited years to see adoption of a comprehensive general housing plan element and an inclusionary ordinance that requires developers to make 10 percent of their homes affordable by low- and moderate-income families, no doubt, greeted Thornton’s arguments with disbelief.

After all, wasn’t this like buying a locomotive, then refusing to hire an engineer to run it?

Fortunately, the board voted 4-1 to advertise the position. Already allocated seed money totaling $300,000 will cover two years of Housing Division operation and, said County Administrator Craig Pedro, expected federal stimulus packages should supply more funding.

The coordinator, who will oversee the inclusionary ordinance, seek federal and state housing grants, work with other agencies and departments, handle low-interest loan programs and help residents find housing —  will be the final piece of a puzzle which took more than five years to put together.
 Actually, the need for reasonably-priced homes for low-income families and seniors was pointed out in a 1992 Union Democrat news story. At the time the county staff listed an inclusionary ordinance as one of several possible solutions.

But the 1990s came and went without adoption of such an ordinance, and the housing element went largely unchanged.

By 2003, however, the crisis had worsened. No longer were only seniors and the poor outside looking in. Now young couples and those beginning careers found themselves priced out of the market. Teachers, police officers and other young professionals were finding themselves in a jam, and businesses were having trouble finding workers who could afford to live the Sonora area.

This spurred the Tuolumne County Board of Realtors and Chamber of Commerce to form a Housing Affordability Task Force to address the problem. But it was not addressed quickly: More than1,500 days and 200 Board of Supervisors’ meetings passed between the first county pledge to adopt an inclusionary ordinance and actual passage this February.

But the job was not done: Creation of a new Housing Division to handle the inclusionary ordinance and other housing programs was part of the strategy, and last January supervisors included hiring of the new coordinator in a unanimously-approved set of 2008 goals.

Yes, the economy has changed profoundly since the year began. Home values have plummeted, but credit is extremely difficult to secure and housing, an essential part of a healthy economy, remains problematic.    

Delivering on the pledge it made to constituents, supervisors have done the right thing.