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Low-income housing must be integrated throughout SCV

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: July 24, 2008 1:12 a.m.
Updated: September 24, 2008 5:03 a.m.
To include or not to include was not the question at Tuesday night’s city meeting on inclusionary housing.

Low-income and very-low-income housing designations are mandated by the state of California. The question was where such housing should go, whether it would really be built and how it would be built.

Santa Clarita used to require a mix of housing products in building approvals. As much as some of us fault the now-publicly traded Newhall Land and Farming Co., when it was still privately owned the family company created paseos and neighborhoods that had a range of housing from less expensive apartments and condos to small starter houses.

But with rising housing prices, builders seemed less inclined to build houses that could be purchased by folks with lower-income service jobs. The profit margin was much better for more expensive housing.

Like the American automakers, whose big trucks made them the most money, builders looked only at the three-month profit line and never saw the downturn and change in housing demand on the horizon.

But while everyone in the audience seemed to have no trouble understanding that we needed to have housing that was affordable for seniors and lower-income people, there was also agreement that merely mandating higher-density housing areas would not get us there and would create unwanted problems.

The reason is that we do not have inclusionary housing rules in our city, which would  mandate a portion of a project’s units be built as affordable housing. So although high density might be granted to a developer to hopefully encourage that company to build low-income housing, it would be granted on merely a wish and a prayer without any guarantee that affordable housing would be forthcoming.

Even if the builder does build affordable units, there is no way to make those units stay affordable in the future. Didn’t rents go up just recently in our senior housing projects, making those projects unaffordable to many residents?

As our population continues to grow — and basic resources such as transportation costs, wood, water and energy become more and more expensive — the cost of housing will continue to increase.

So the city changes the zoning to higher density and all the developers do is build expensive high-density housing.

State law also provides that building affordable housing will allow developers to ignore many impacts that normally must be considered. Thus a developer claiming to build affordable housing gets higher density without worrying about such problems as traffic or water supply.

The very reasonable intent of state law — to provide housing for all economic levels — is not accomplished, but our city has followed the letter of the law.

Great! Just like our ridgeline ordinance. We have a law that is supposed to protect our ridgelines, but look around at all the grading. It is obvious that the intent of the ordinance is not followed.

No one wants high-density housing, with all its accompanying traffic problems, if it merely pretends to be affordable — but like our ridgelines disappears into a developer’s profit margin.

How to address such questions are discussions for future city meetings.

But one issue on which most people in the audience seemed to agree was that they did not want all the affordable housing placed in high-density pockets such as the city seems to be proposing.

And the whole audience certainly agreed that we cannot discuss high-density designations without knowing where such designations are proposed. No maps of proposed areas were provided. Will low-income housing be placed in flood plains as it was in New Orleans? Will it be close to public transportation?

Attendees from Realtors to teachers to SCOPE members worried that the six unidentified high-density areas proposed by the city might end up as merely a road map for the creation of ghettos or barrios of low-income, high-density housing that lacks services needed by these populations.

Rather, a wide variety of attendees concurred that a system of inclusionary housing — for example, having some low-income, affordable units required in every housing approval — was a better way to provide housing for all economic levels.

Such a plan allows integration of all income levels into a neighborhood, rather than isolating those with lower incomes. Let’s go back to a mix of housing in every approval. If the developer doesn’t agree, then the city should just not approve the project.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita Valley resident and board member of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE). Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily that of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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