With all the time and attention County officials are giving to marijuana one might think that marijuana is the County’s biggest problem. But as Sheriff Allman likes to say, "This is not the County of Marijuana, this is the County of Mendocino."
Probably the biggest problem Mendo has right now is housing. Not only because there is a shortage, and what there is costs too much, but a large part of County tax revenues are dependent on the housing stock and the assessed value of that stock and on people’s ability to pay those taxes.
Clearly, there is no single solution to the housing problem. It has to be approached by nibbling away in every possible area from lots of angles. To do this, Mendo does not need a "pot czar," we need a Housing Czar.
In the wake of the tragic Redwood Valley Complex fires last October, the County appointed Tammy Moss Chandler to coordinate and oversee all of the various efforts of the fire disaster recovery program. And it’s paid off. Progress has been made. She was impressively focused and pulled things together nicely.
A similar effort needs to be made for housing. "The market" is clearly incapable of producing anything resembling affordable housing.
For example, last Tuesday Doug Guillon, of Guillon Inc. whose company proposes to build around 200 housing units at the Lovers Lane property north of Ukiah, described the cost of his “non-subsidized market rate entry-level housing in Ukiah.” (Repeat “entry level.”)
“We just completed building 200 homes in Chico. I would like to describe what it costs to build 200 entry-level homes there and compare that to the same costs in Ukiah. The cost components that make up the cost of a home in a community are local application fees, which are similar between Chico and Ukiah with the exception that in Chico these are about $1700. I put in $500 more here reserved for lawsuits. We had to provide for that. You have to put money in your budget to protect yourself against lawsuits. Unfortunately. Not only do lawsuits add to the cost of a home but they increase the time it takes to bring them online. Which again increases your cost, such as holding costs and interest rates. Land development and the direct cost of building a house in Chico is $241,000; in Ukiah its $285,000. That's the pure cost of developing the home. It is projected to be higher in Ukiah because you have a lack of subcontractors and a lack of active developers and a lack of laborers in the market, and with the fires that situation has only gotten worse. We have impact fees of $17,000 in Chico and about $20,000 in Mendocino County. Then there are indirect costs, financing costs, and so on, plus developer profit. Sales and escrow fees and taxes are another $29,000 in Chico and $35,000 in Ukiah. So we can build a home in Ukiah for $345,000 if our projections are accurate. If you extrapolate that over time and look at a mortgage payment plan, the housing price starts at $345,000. At a 5% down payment of $17,000, the mortgage would be $325,000. With principal and interest and taxes and insurance it ends up to a mortgage of $2052 a month. The median income for a family of four is $71,000. 30% of that is about $25,000. So that's what it costs to build a house and buy it in Ukiah.”
Mr. Guillon’s estimate of “median income for a family of four” is much higher than anything we’ve seen for Mendocino County. Even so, we have no doubt he can sell his 200 Lovers Lane homes when they’re built.
But that high-end market housing won’t solve many housing problems in Mendocino County.
There are plenty of ideas out there which a Housing Czar could oversee and promote if the program was given high priority by the Board of Supervisors.
For example Coast Contractor Ishvi Aum offered a few very practical specific ideas in a letter to the AVA last month:
“Allow higher density on parcels larger than one acre. The current restriction of two dwelling units per parcel regardless of size severely limits the available land for development.
Do not attempt to tax new structures and improvements as they are built. Land is assessed when it is purchased. Allow the purchaser to pay the same tax rate as long as they own the property. When they sell, any improvements will be added into the value of the property and the tax rate will go up for the next owner. This will make it less costly to own houses thereby lowering rents. It will also make people more inclined to pull building permits and lessen the workload for county staff at the assessor's office.
Allow large parcels of flat developable land to be subdivided into smaller parcels.
Reduce the permit fees on all new homes with a footprint of less than 1400 squre feet to a flat fee of $500.
On the Mendocino Coast, remove all acreage from the coastal zone that is not bluff top or restricting ocean access. This would not only save the citizens money it would reduce the workload on county staff and save tax dollars.
Have the building department provide some pre-approved plan sets for modest energy-efficient single-family residences. This could save the cost of design and engineering for many people. Maintain the Class K permit option as an alternative to the Uniform Building Code which seems to get more expensive to follow every year.”
As Mr. Aum noted, “These changes cannot be implemented by department heads or staff without clear direction from the Supervisors. The elected officials in this county must take responsibility for the housing crisis by creating policies that make it easier for their constituents to house themselves.”
We asked Supervisor Dan Gjerde about the possibility of the Supes appointing a Housing Czar.
"I agree, this would be a good project for Steve Dunnicliff. Steve is already working on some parts of this project, but housing is only part of his job as a Deputy CEO. I like the idea of elevating housing as a more prominent part of Steve's job. I do know he already is part of a staff-level recovery team that includes Tammy Moss Chandler, plus staff from planning and building, and likely other departments. The board is interested in pre-approved house plans. After hearing from residents and contractors speak during the Class K discussions, though, I am now thinking it could be even more helpful for members of the public if the County could hire an engineer to provide the County and the public with engineered specifications that would comply with the current California Building Code, but allow for greater freedom to design a home. For example, today's California Building Code requires a four foot sheer wall at the corners and for every 25 feet of a building. When designing a small home, a four foot sheer wall can severely restrict the size and placement of windows and doors. Through an engineer, the County could provide property owners with a design that specifies affordable metal bracing to provide the same sheer strength on a smaller sheer wall, and the engineer's stamp would satisfy the California Building Code. Experienced home builders and contractors could advise the County on design elements, like the sheer wall example, that would be most commonly helpful for homebuilders on a budget."
We also asked Gjerde about giving more attention to modest trailer parks as suggested by former Supervisor John Pinches.
“On trailer parks,” Gjerde replied, “it would be helpful to hear from owners of existing trailer parks why they are not proposing to build new trailer parks. Are the parcels with the proper zoning too small, and they need to work with larger parcels to build a financially viable trailer park? Or something else deterring their building new trailer parks. Why have none of the housing non-profits built a trailer park?”
In conclusion, Gjerde agreed: “I would like to see more focus on housing.”
Will it happen?