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SLO County officials compromise, agree on new construction fees to foster affordable housing

Flickr/Håkan Dahlström

As part of a plan to increase affordable housing, this week San Luis Obispo County officials took some first steps: passing higher development fees on some new homes and streamlining the environmental permitting process in an effort to get homes built faster. Not everyone was happy about it, but did agree the county needs more housing stock. 

The county board agreed Tuesday to make changes to the 2008 Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, a local law mandating developers set aside a percentage of units for low income residents. If not, they must pay into an affordable housing fund, used to to fund low-income building projects elsewhere in the county.

“If I’m going to support [changing the inclusionary housing ordinance] today, which kind of goes against my grain...I want some assurance that in three years we agree it’s going to go away,” said Supervisor Lynn Compton. 

When the board passed a major affordable housing plan in December, Compton was absent due to a family matter. But with the plan back on the agenda, she shared her reservations about proposed fee increases, which now target new single-family homes larger than 2200 square feet. Compton wanted a sunset clause in the ordinance to end the changes in three years, should the new fees adequately support the affordable housing fund, rather the board simply revisit the issue in three years, as it’s currently written.

“It’s like toll road—it never goes away once it’s there...and I don’t want it hung around my neck that I voted for it,” Compton said. “[But] I will today.”

Compton did vote for the changes, along with the rest of the board. The word of the day was compromise. Supervisor Adam Hill summed up the general goal of the affordable housing plan and the changes made this week.

“We have a massive affordability problem here and this county has not been part of resolving it,” Hill said.

Other changes included updates to local guidelines to the California Environmental Quality Act, also called CEQA.

Under CEQA, counties have to consider the local environment before approving new developments. Staff say the changes will increase communication between county departments and builders, finding potential environmental issues before they get tied up in legal battles, which can often halt construction.

Central Coast environmental advocates have expressed concerns the new streamlined process could limit public input on projects.

Others, like Sophie Treder, representing a local landscaping firm, said the board could do even more to simplify the process.

“I think if you’re willing to take a deeper dive into the CEQA guidelines, I guarantee there is a connection between affordable housing and CEQA,” Treder told the board. “You might find yourselves all pulling in the same direction on this.”

Tuesday was the first real action in the affordable housing deal. There remains a fair bit of uncertainty it will work. But the supervisors, including John Peschong, said ultimately, it's worth giving it a shot.

“We’ll make it it work, and if it doesn't work, you have my word that we are going to revisit it,” Peschong said. “The problem has been, in this county, we’re not building houses.”

Up next for the plan: county staff were directed to look for more monetary sources to support the affordable housing fund, which could include new taxes to put before voters in the next election. The board will hear staff recommendations for new funding ideas this summer. In addition, the San Luis Obispo County supervisors will hear the results of a county-commissioned study on vacation rentals, and their associated fees, with the possibility those fees could be increased or augmented.  

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