Council addresses affordable housing

A two-hour workshop on the increasingly pressing problem of the lack of affordable housing, held during the Chico City Council’s Nov. 19 all-day budget meetings, didn’t cover any new ground. But it did lead to some interesting discussions that bounced between the difficulties of buying new homes and the struggles of some in the community simply to rent a shelter.

Councilmember Steve Bertagna predicted that opening up land to the east, where the city had hoped to expand but federal environmental laws have hampered growth, will be made possible only through litigation.

Realtor Brewster Beattie, a member of the city’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) for affordable housing, told the council that in 1998 the average price of a home listed with the Multiple Listing Service, which does not include newly constructed homes, was $135,000. Two months ago, that average jumped to $205,000. He added that there are 139 homes currently on the MLS in Chico.

This prompted Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan to ask, “How can we get developers to address the need for entry-level homes instead of marketing to people who can afford $200,000 homes?”

One man, who said he was with the local chapter of the Building Industry Association, said there are simply not enough new homes on the market and that, as a 27-year-old, he was ready to “step up” to a more expensive home, but nothing would be available for the next six months. “I have to rent” until then, he lamented. Builders, he said, can no longer build $100,000 starter homes because of a lack of available land.

Local attorney Evanne O’Donnell said the market for seniors on fixed incomes was even bleaker and that there is a substantial waiting list to get into subsidized housing. And those whose incomes qualify them for the city’s first-time home buyers’ program cannot afford the price of a new home.

Tammy Ritter, of the local homeless shelter program, advised the council that rent control may be something to look into and noted that already this year there have been as many as 69 people lodged in the city’s program, the highest number ever at this time of year. She noted there is big difference in need between those forced to “sleep on a cot as opposed to those who have to wait six months to buy a new home.”

Mayor Dan Herbert cautioned that was not a fair comparison, but Councilmember Coleen Jarvis quickly noted there are no programs to assist renters with security deposits. Dale Downey, who works for Independent Living Services, which represents disabled people on Supplemental Security Income, said there is a lack of housing for her clients. Mayor Herbert—who works for Sheridan Real Estate, a major local property management company—said that was not true and noted that rents had actually fallen in the last two years. He advised Downey that there are many houses available for Section 8 (a federal subsidy program) clients like those Downey represents.

Dave Ferrier, who works for the Community Housing Improvement Program, which helps low-income folks get into new houses by building them, said higher unit densities should be utilized to make the most of the land available for housing, which he admitted leads to fights with neighboring residents who live in less-dense neighborhoods. “The highest priority needs to be those at greatest risk,” he said.

Councilmember Rick Keene, who led the charge to lower the densities called for in the General Plan, noted it is a lot easier to get high density in undeveloped areas, like the 12 “study areas” for growth now under consideration. Ferrier, however, pointed out that bringing infrastructure to such land is an expensive proposition and will undo any savings realized by higher densities.

“The council needs to step up and say that this is what’s right for the whole community,” he suggested as a means of battling neighborhood resistance.

The information and ideas brought forth will be passed onto and considered by TAC and the Planning Commission and come back to the council.