Community: General plan must address affordable housing

Anyone who pays attention to the doings of the Costa Mesa City Council knows that our city is busy updating its general plan.

The press has covered the many public meetings, creative outreach efforts and road shows aimed at getting Costa Mesa residents involved in this communal act of visioning future development in the city.

But, sadly, scant attention has been paid to a crucial part of the general plan update. With little press coverage or public input, the City Council is currently reviewing proposed revisions to the city's housing element, the road map for meeting the city's housing needs for the next seven years.

Looking through the Draft 2014-2021 Housing Element, one thing is clear: The housing market is not meeting the needs of large numbers of Costa Mesans. Housing prices simply do not match most people's wages.

This is the result of the steep increase in home prices and rents over the past decade and the relatively modest growth in wages. Although the collapse of the housing market in 2008 caused a significant drop in home prices, from a median of $750,000 for a single family home in 2007 to $530,000 in 2012, that 2012 median price is still $300,000 higher than it was in 1997.

The housing element explains the affordability gap: "To afford a median priced single-family home in Costa Mesa, an annual salary of $107,360 would be needed, and a person has to make approximately $67,080 to afford a median-priced condominium. Most occupations in Orange County offer much lower salaries. Similarly, most occupations offer wages below what would be needed to afford an average-priced three-bedroom apartment in Costa Mesa."

Orange County is the fourth most expensive metropolitan area in the United States. In order to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment, an individual needs to earn an hourly wage of $31.17. But economists project that seven out of 10 job openings in Orange County this decade will be in jobs earning less than $12 an hour.

When the majority of jobs in a region do not pay enough for workers to afford housing, the problem is not a personal one but a challenge the community must tackle together.

What does it really mean to be unable to afford housing? Housing is not a luxury good. People need housing whether they can afford it or not. This fact forces thousands of Costa Mesans to live under great financial stress.

They have less money for healthcare and transportation and for paying down debt. And for those households struggling under a severe cost burden –– hundreds of Costa Mesa households pay more than 50% of their income for housing –– the situation is even more painful.

Growing up in Costa Mesa and attending local public schools, including Estancia High, I watched many of my peers struggle with the burden of high housing costs. For one friend, high mortgage payments meant her parents were unable to buy health insurance for the family. Sadly, this meant my friend has had to fight her undiagnosed depression alone and without the option of medication.

One guy I knew had to move three times during high school because his family's rent kept rising.

Another friend of mine lived during most of high school in a single room at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, along with his parents and siblings. Recent articles in the Daily Pilot have highlighted the inadequacy of the motels for the hundreds of long-term residents, like my friend and his family, who live in the motels as a last resort, one step above homelessness.

The motels are expensive, but at least a family can get a room without putting up a security deposit and first and last months' rent. Most rooms have nothing but a sink for a "kitchen," and many of the motels have long-standing complaints of unsanitary and unsafe conditions, not to mention crime.

My friend's family eventually saved up enough to move out and get an apartment, making them unique. Most motel families are unable to save enough to move someplace better.

While the high cost of housing in Costa Mesa causes financial strain for many, including thousands of middle-income earners, the predicament of the poor, especially "very low" and "extremely low" income families, demands immediate action. By acting on a few crucial initiatives, Costa Mesa can improve life for countless families that face the threat of homelessness and the deprivations caused by paying unaffordable rents.

First, the city needs to do its best to renew the affordable housing agreements with apartment owners that are set to expire. We can't afford to lose what affordable housing we have.

Second, we need to consider how to provide better housing for those families trapped in unaffordable, squalid, crime-ridden motels. The city should use its savvy, clout and existing pot of "motel money" ($500,000 allocated this year and next) to assist a nonprofit developer in acquiring a motel for conversion into an "FRO" (family residential occupancy) complex that would provide two- and three-room units with real kitchen facilities for small families, at rates affordable to the extremely low-income.

With the help of grant money, the nonprofit could offer on-site supportive services like job training, child care, after-school tutoring and enrichment classes, and mental health services, to help the families build a better future for themselves, especially the children.

Third, the city should encourage the state to proceed with the long-promised affordable housing project for low-income families and for the developmentally disabled on 10 acres of the Fairview Developmental Center property. The project stalled in Sacramento this year, but Costa Mesa can encourage the development by rezoning the site to high-density residential and communicating its support for this important project to state officials.

Finally, the city should use the many tools at its disposal to encourage builders to develop outstanding, attractive rental housing that is affordable for low- and very-low-income working families. For example, the city should create effective incentives such as density bonuses, "by right" development, and the deferral of fees for affordable projects.

The city could really spark some action by donating a city-owned site to an affordable-housing land trust and issue a "request for proposal" (RFP) to developers for an affordable project to be built on the donated site.

There is much Costa Mesa can do to address its critical lack of affordable housing for low-income families. A strong first step would be for the City Council to revise the 2014-2021 Housing Element to include the four strategies suggested here.

RYAN ESFAHANI is a Costa Mesa resident and a college senior at UC Berkeley. He spent part of the summer as an intern with the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition, studying affordable-housing issues.

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