Unpacking Tools to Build Affordable Housing

Bette Anderson
Bette Anderson

When Laguna Beach resident Bette Anderson’s husband Ken suffered a severe stroke in 2009, his convalescence involved months in nursing care in San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Woods as well as a stint at home requiring 24-hour help.

For the months her husband, in his 80s, was in the nursing homes, Anderson made the daily out of town trek to visit him.

“I would have gone on that way forever, because I loved him so much,” she said of her husband, who died two years ago. Though Anderson praised Laguna as “a wonderful caring community,” she noted the absence of care options for seniors.

The number of seniors 65 and older now rose by a third over the last decade and now make up 18 percent of the town’s population, a figure predicted to increase to 40 percent by 2020, according to census figures. The trend, coupled with stories like Anderson’s, prompted the Planning Commission last month to recommend that the City Council establish a city task force to investigate housing options for seniors, including low-income units and assisted living arrangements, as well as policies to attract home health care services and transit for the older population

Planning commissioner Robert Zur Schmiede went even further, urging city officials to create a funding mechanism to subsidize the development of low-income housing or an assisted living facility.

Since the beginning of the year, city staff has been working with the Planning Commission and the Housing and Human Services Committee to refine policies and strategies in the city’s housing plans covering the next eight years, a state mandated update due by Oct. 31. Two public workshops provided direction in preparing the update.

Key issues emerged in a report presented last month by principal planner Carolyn Martin: limited housing options and related services for the city’s burgeoning senior population, lack of permanent supportive housing for the long-term homeless population and lack of affordable housing for younger families.

A sense of urgency seemed to coalesce around the dearth of licensed home care options for seniors and low-income housing for seniors, artists and young families alike.

To avoid running afoul of anti-discrimination laws, the few federally subsidized units in town that exist, such as the Vista Aliso apartments, can’t give priority to Laguna Beach residents, pointed out Chris Quilter, a board member of Laguna Beach Seniors, which operates the Susi Q Senior Center.

Locals whose housing needs shift as they age often must move away to find suitable housing they can afford, he said. “How do we serve people who have helped make this town the place we love and who are running out of money?” Quilter asked.

Recent priority shifts responding to the changing demographics and testimony from advocates like himself give him a glimmer of hope. “They are really starting to pay attention to this,” Quilter said.

Even so, the advisory housing plan falls short of proscribing coherent actions to effect change, Planning Commission chair Norm Grossman pointed out, a sentiment shared by commissioner Anne Johnson.

The recommendations require approval by the City Council.

Commissioners, though, seem bent on paying more than lip service to a state requirement. If the community believes in making policy to benefit less fortunate populations, “then I think the city needs to kind of put its money where its mouth is,” said Zur Schmiede, advocating for identifying and growing a local funding source to subsidize development of long-term, extremely-low to moderate income housing. “We own it. We control it. We’re not at the mercy of the state,” he pointed out.

Given the physical constraints of a built-out community, adding affordable housing creates a challenge. Even so, some city policies already aim to create a more conducive environment for would-be developers of affordable housing, such as the recently amended second residential unit ordinance. These units no longer require Design Review Board approval, the minimum lot size has been reduced to 6,000 square feet, and only one on-site parking space is required.

Local governments possess multiple tools — regulatory, administrative and financial — to encourage the development of affordable housing, said housing expert and planner John Douglas, a Santa Ana consultant hired by Laguna to investigate the strategies of other cities.

While Laguna already uses some techniques, such as fee reductions and project fast-tracking, others such as allowable density and building heights remain unexplored, he said.

For example, instead of relying on the current calculation of “dwelling units per acre” regardless of unit size, city policy could use the “equivalent dwelling unit” or “EDU” model, Douglas said. Here, an average size unit would count as one EDU, larger units would be counted as more than one EDU, and smaller units would be counted as some fraction of an EDU. For example, such a system might allow three affordable studio apartments to replace one pricier large apartment.

Downtown resident Michael Hoag suggested an unusual idea: allowing boarding houses that share some facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms, which could provide developers an incentive as they would be less costly to build.

Mixed-use zoning is another affordable-housing tool, which some planning commissioners favor.

Promoting residential use on the second floors of commercial properties, perhaps through relaxing parking requirements or allowing studio apartments to replace larger ones, could help boost more affordable housing stock, pointed out realtor Bob Chapman, a former commissioner.

“Now is the time to review this with everything that is going on,” said Chapman, referring to city policies on parking, transit and downtown development also under review.

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