Council has shout-fest, then adopts housing element

It was supposed to be a routine adoption of the city’s Housing Element, a document required by state law to be updated every five years. The element is supposed to make sure there is a variety of housing available for residents, especially low- and very-low-income folks. But finding a means to that end is a prickly proposition for a philosophically divided council.

Interfering with the free-market system by not allowing demand to set the price of housing amounts to social engineering, in the minds of conservative councilmembers.

“Socialism,” cried Councilmen Larry Wahl and Dan Herbert when progressive Councilman Andy Holcombe called for an inclusionary rule, which would require that 10 percent of all new housing developments of a certain size be set aside for lower-income homebuyers.

In December, 2003, the previous City Council adopted and then sent to the state Department of Housing and Community Development its tentative plan. The state sent it back with a couple of programs added to ensure the low- and very-low-income housing sites. The state said the city’s plan fell about 250 houses short.

The council took up the slightly tweaked plan this week. Wahl warned that the state’s demands for more available low-income housing meant the city needed more land to build on—that is, if it was going to take the 750 acres known as Bidwell Ranch out of contention, as many in the community have demanded.

City staff pointed out, however, that the property would not satisfy the low-income-housing requirement. Rezoning some properties to allow higher densities of building would solve the problem, staff suggested.

City Manager Tom Lando, however, said the state was more or less playing a numbers game and the important thing was that the council adopt the plan as the state recommended in order to avoid retribution from Sacramento in the form of less money for roads.

A couple of low-income-housing advocates, including Tami Ritter, director of the Torres Community Shelter, called for the council to adopt an inclusionary rule, noting that more and more communities in the state—as many as 100—have chosen to do so.

Herbert said builders like Tony Symmes have shown low-income housing can be built “without the enforcement of mandates.”

At that point both Herbert and Wahl called the inclusionary rule a form of ‘socialism,” which caused Holcombe, an attorney and low-income housing advocate, to say he was “outraged.”

“We haven’t even started discussions yet, and we are already bashing it,” Holcombe said. “This is very discouraging.”

Wahl said he wasn’t bashing the inclusionary rule, “I’m just calling it for what it is.”

Mayor Scott Gruendl urged the council to move ahead, noting such discussion could take place at a council subcommittee meeting.

In the end, the council voted 6-1 to adopt the plan, with Wahl the lone dissenter.