Affordable housing ordinance should remain intact

By Union Democrat staff April 13, 2010 11:41 am

On the books for just over two years, Tuolumne County’s affordable housing ordinance is suddenly in jeopardy.

Otherwise known as the Inclusionary Ordinance, the law provides that those proposing to build 10 or more homes make at least 10 percent of them affordable for families earning the county’s median income or less.The prices of these homes would then be regulated for 15 years.

  In the alternative, developers can pay the county an “in-lieu fee” of $2,190 — or 1 percent of the valuation of an affordable home — for each unit otherwise required.
    Adopted in February of 2008, this so-called 10-10-15 plan was the product of more than four years of intense, not always pleasant negotiations involving the county, the building and development community, and housing advocates.
    But now the Tuolumne County Building Industry Association has asked that the ordinance be either scrapped, suspended pending a study or modified to ease its burden on developers.
    The BIA’s reason? That the declining economy has forced the price of local housing down so far that an ordinance is no longer needed to provide cheaper housing.
    The request, in a debate that was reminiscent of those that came during ordinance adoption, was argued before the Board of Supervisors last week. Then it was sent to the board’s Housing Policy Committee for further study and a recommendation.
  We urge that the committee recommend that the ordinance be left intact.
    Repealing it, suspending it or pulling its teeth would undo nearly four years of work by players on all sides of the debate and undermine a compromise that left nobody really happy, but everybody involved conceding it was probably fair.
    The ordinance has been in force for more than two years. Mountain Springs’ proponents agreed to build 54 affordable units and Peaceful Oak Estates, 40, for a total of 94.
    In-lieu payments on 173 parcels in 19 developments were pledged and now total $324,090. The cash will be used as a local match for federal, state or private grants to fund affordable housing projects.
    The program is effective, said Beetle Barbour, affordable housing advocate with the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency.
    Builders counter that its requirements are yet another burden added to permit and hookup fees that contractor John Feriani said often reach $40,000 per home.
    But in-lieu charges collected elsewhere, like the $20,000-per-unit levy the Stanislaus County community of Patterson adopted, dwarf Tuolumne County’s $2,190. And our fee kicks in only when 10 or more homes are planned.
    BIA also points out that home prices have dropped in the last year. According to the county Assessor-Recorder’s Office, the county’s median home price has  dropped from $270,000 to $219,000 in the past year.
    But incomes and jobs have dropped with prices during the recession. Real estate sales are still low and families below the median still need help.
  The exhaustively debated inclusionary ordinance includes no “escape clause” that would void all rules during housing market declines, and one shouldn’t be inserted retroactively.
    Finally, a lawyer representing the BIA suggested that the ordinance was not supported by facts and opens the county to a lawsuit. He said the housing rules should be put on hold while an extensive study is done.
 We appreciate the importance of the building/housing industry to our community. We also agree that excessive governmental regulatory and permitting fees — and hook-up fees charged by public utilities — should be adjusted in this rugged economy. Cutting costs applicable to the building of all homes — not just those subject to this specific ordinance — would provide across-the-board relief.
    However, we believe it’s unwise and inappropriate for the BIA to seek redress through changes in the inclusionary ordinance.That housing plan was adopted through a lengthy and broad-based community adoption process. The BIA should withdraw its objections and renew its support for more affordable housing in Tuolumne County.