The Humboldt County Planning Commission voted 5-1 on July 11, with Commissioner Alan Bongio dissenting and Commissioner Noah Levy absent, to move an ambitious draft Housing Element update on to the Board of Supervisors.
The board is slated to review the draft update — which dubs the local housing situation a "crisis" and identifies drastic solutions, including offering government incentives for building mother-in-law units, sanctioning a tiny house village and even the creation of a county-run development department — at its Aug. 20 and Aug. 27 meetings in order to make any necessary changes and approve the plans ahead of its Aug. 30 deadline to pass the update.
The element highlights the housing needs throughout Humboldt County and lays out a plan to meet them. According to reports contained within the Housing Element, Humboldt County needs to build more than 1,400 units to meet citizen housing needs over the coming eight years. Building desperately needed units, however, has proven a challenge throughout Humboldt County.
"The cost of new housing construction continues to be more than what most people can afford," the element reads.
At the May 16 planning commission hearing on the element, county senior planner Michelle Nielsen said "about 70 percent of Humboldt households cannot afford the median priced home" of $310,000. And most of the local housing development in recent years has been in the middle- or upper-income categories.
According to county data, 205 middle-income homes were built between 2014 and 2019, far outpacing the need of 146 identified in the previous Housing Element. At the same time, the previous element identified a need of 347 new units to meet the needs of low-income residents, but just 127 were built. It's a pattern that has continued since the 2007 Housing Element, likely because developing middle class, single family homes is one of the few areas developers still find profitable.
To help meet the housing needs of low-income residents, the Housing Element is proposing a number of solutions, including easing restrictions on tiny homes and accessory dwelling units and pushing forward an initiative under Article 34 of the California State Constitution.
Article 34 prohibits counties from developing, constructing or acquiring low-rent housing without voter approval, which Deputy County Counsel Joel Ellinwood said is "a significant constraint to achieving affordable housing" during the July 11 meeting.
If voters approved the Article 34 initiative, it would essentially allow the county to start its own developing department that could build or acquire low-rent, multi-family units without the need to turn a profit.
"It just takes an initiative process," County Planning and Building Director John Ford told the Journal. "It takes getting something on the ballot, which is time-consuming and often expensive."
But the planning department has come to feel it's a necessary step, as the private sector for more than a decade now has failed to meet the growing need for affordable housing.
"It currently costs more to construct low- and very-low-income units than the income will produce to repay the loans or pay off the construction costs," Ford said. "So part of what we need to do is to figure out ways to meet that difference."
Not everyone is onboard with the idea of county government getting into the development business.
"The concept being proposed of putting the planning department or a new iteration of planning in charge of actually building something is beyond laughable," former Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Lee Ulansey wrote in a comment on the Journal's website. "While there are definitely notable exceptions within the department of individuals who show great competence and skill, generally the planning department isn't competent to run a food truck much less build affordable housing. ... Government generally wisely stays well away from construction and that particularly applies in the case of Humboldt. Only a fool would stray down that path."
Bongio, the planning commissioner representing the First District, voted against sending the Housing Element to the board of supervisors because he feels it lacks a concise plan to achieve its goals.
"I've been in this for years and we talk about how we are going to do things but they don't get built," Bongio told the Journal.
Bongio said he would rather see a rollback of what he sees as strict regulations and zoning requirements that make building more homes difficult. In 2018, a 2-acre lot was successfully rezoned and will lead to the building of 66 multi-family units in Myrtletown. That's a start but it is still not enough to have a major effect on home prices.
"The only way you are going to get affordable housing is if you knock the cost off and, right now in California, it's so expensive to do anything," Bongio said. "Affordable housing is just done. There is no such thing. You either have market-rate housing or you have subsidized housing."
Ford, however, said zoning restrictions are commonly misconstrued in Humboldt County. Ford said the state is currently rewriting the laws that surround residential builds to do away with discretionary permits and that building in Humboldt, outside of the coastal zones, does not have a strenuous permitting process.
"In the inland portions of the county, there are not discretionary permit processes that a developer would have to go through," Ford said. "In terms of our zoning, it is pretty simple. We just don't have a lot of requirements right now."
Compared to previous Housing Elements, the 2019 draft update has a unique focus on addressing the needs of those experiencing homelessness. It explicitly states that "housing needs of the very low income and the shelter needs of the homeless are not being adequately met." It looks to broaden available shelter options as well as supportive housing programs, or those that have "intensive services promoting housing stability."
The 2019 Housing Element also seeks to address the effects of the seasonal "trimmigrant" population by projecting the number of seasonal workers and their housing needs. Four of the public speakers during the July 11 meeting were from Southern Humboldt and spoke about the problems caused by the influx of seasonal workers combined with the lack of available housing. Second District Planning Commissioner Robert Morris asked if composting toilets would help with fast-tracking more housing in Southern Humboldt.
"In the last 15 years I've been around or longer, there has been a tremendous concern about unpermitted or illegal rural housing and a lot of that has to deal with septic," Morris said, wondering whether the use of composting toilets instead of septic systems might reduce costs and expedite permitting.
The housing element also points to cannabis legalization as having created problems in the housing market, as it has created "volatility" in local labor and real estate markets.
After years of housing elements that have taken what Ford previously referred to as a "zone it and they will build it" approach, it's clear the one currently heading to the board of supervisors is "thinking outside the box," a phrase repeated frequently by commissioners and planning staff. It remains to be seen if the board will get behind the new approach.
"This thing is pages and pages of stuff that sounds really good," Bongio said during the July 11 meeting, shortly before voting against the pushing the element forward, "but we have to start thinking outside the box because what we've been doing for the last 60 years hasn't been working."
Freddy Brewster is a journalism student at Humboldt State University and enjoys covering breaking news events, public records and holding those in power accountable. He has received multiple Presidential Honor awards for his academic achievements and in his free time, you can find him rock climbing, surfing or attending local art events.