Monday, August 30, 2004

Affordable Housing, or Starter Castles

Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - Eureka Times-Standard
My Word
, by Richard Salzman

As the county updates its General Plan, a small vocal group of developers (HELP) say their Plan H would make housing more affordable in Humboldt. While all proposals deserve careful consideration, the Alliance for Ethical Business finds HELP's claim overly optimistic at best -- and perhaps outright dishonest.
These developers and Realtors want the county to assume a 2 percent annual population growth as an antidote to rising housing costs. Plan H calls this a "conservative" rate of growth -- even though it would quadruple the current county target. What's more, it neglects to mention that all of California has a projected growth rate of only 1.19 percent.

When we look at what 2 percent annual growth would really mean to Humboldt County, can we imagine another 80,000 new residents, stuffed mostly between Rio Dell and Trinidad?

In fact, only 18 of California's 58 counties aim for a growth rate of 2 percent or greater. According to HELP's friends at the California Association of Realtors ( these high-growth counties, such as Fresno, Kern and Riverside, also have the fastest-rising housing prices, from 24 to 30 percent in the last year. Meanwhile, slow-growing Marin's home prices increased only 9.4 percent.

Developers in once-rural Sonoma have actively encouraged growth and urban sprawl. The results, aside from notorious traffic congestion? Average home prices now exceed $514,000, up $70,000 in the last year. Greater growth does not automatically lead to affordable housing.

Most authorities agree the California housing market is due to cool off. Mortgage rates are bound to rise as the Fed bumps up the prime-lending rate. Northern California foreclosure rates jumped as much as 26 percent in some counties. And that same California Association of Realtors reports that the statewide Housing Affordability Index dropped to 19 percent in May, its lowest level since 1989. So, depending on your point of view, Humboldt County has reached the top (or bottom) of the housing market crisis.

To grow Humboldt County at anything approaching the rate urged in Plan H, developers would have to keep stoking outside investment -- creating an overheated local housing market. This would cost taxpayers like you and me millions in subsidized infrastructure, while primarily benefiting developers.
Although claiming to be "anti-sprawl," HELP also is demanding that the county set aside more than 40 square miles of what is now prime agricultural or timber production land for housing in the next 20 years. That's an average of almost a full acre per unit for over 18,000 units. What HELP means by affordable housing isn't what the average Humboldter means by affordable -- HELP is more interested in "starter castles" costing a million or more.
Besides, no amount of regulatory reshuffling can alter Humboldt County's geographic isolation or flatten our rugged, earthquake-prone topography to accommodate uncontrolled growth that HELP advocates.

AEB (Alliance for Ethical Business) finds it self-serving, unethical -- and perhaps dishonest -- for HELP to seek an unrealistic, unacceptable level of population growth based on the false claim that it will alleviate Humboldt's current housing crisis. Do we need higher housing costs, increased taxpayer obligations and unwelcome urban sprawl just to fatten the wallets of developers? That's not HELP, that's "help yourself."

Richard Salzman is coordinator for the Alliance for Ethical Business, a citizens' group advocating balance in public discourse on issues of ethics in business and government. He lives in Trinidad.


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