|Nov 23, 2015|
Although affordable housing is an issue everywhere in this age of rising inequality it is especially an issue in Napa County where the upper end of the inequality spectrum tends to congregate. Add to that two industries, high end agriculture and tourism, which depend on low wage labor to exist and the disparity of available housing and need is stark.
Affordable housing has always been on the County's radar, particularly the need to accommodate the vineyard workers needed to create an agricultural economy. Much was made in the 1990 WDO and since about encouraging specific farmworker housing on ag land, i.e. the creation of a quasi plantation development pattern. I don't know how much of it actually exists. The three county run centers providing transient housing for 180 workers, recently in the news, provide a glimpse into this previous era of a farm labor housing approach.
The principal means of providing affordable housing in the past, perhaps unconsciously, has been through the permitting of mobile home parks. For several years in the early 2000's my brother lived in Rancho de Napa, Yountville's mobile home park. I was stunned when he bought a unit for $30,000 and paid $300/mo to live at the world's epicenter of the good life. Mobile home parks don't seem to be a desirable affordable housing strategy any more, but they should be, and I wonder why not.
Three trends have changed the demand for affordable housing needed from the early days. The number of farmworkers has increased along with vineyard acreage but farm work happens year round in Napa and the pay is above minimum - so more workers now need permanent low-to-moderate income housing. The rise of the tourism industry has created a new wave of service workers also requiring low-to-moderate income housing. And the rise of tourism, and Napa's manufactured reputation for the good life, has also reduced the supply of affordable housing as homes are sold to become second homes or to be used as short term tourism rentals, and as the former supply of long term rentals is converted to short term rentals. The result has become, predictably, an enormous rise in the commuter traffic into the Valley and a renewed interest in finding affordable housing solutions to counter the traffic gridlock that now occurs.
Affordable housing is generally promoted as a way to reduce traffic by allowing workers live closer to their jobs. It is an interesting argument because commuting long distances has been the chosen alternative for white collar workers for a very long time. The difference, one supposes, is the element of choice. The principal strategies to create affordable housing, since it is almost by definition not profitable to build, are by:
(1) allowing increased density or other zoning leeway to developers who provide affordable housing in their projects. The developer absorbs that cost of below market rents or home prices by increased profits elsewhere in the project. Napa Pipe, approved after an 8 year gestation, is an unfortunate example of this approach: 180 units of affordable units allowed the development of an additional 800 units of market rate housing, plus 200,000 sf of commercial space, plus a hotel, plus a nursing facility, plus a Costco. The obvious disadvantage? The new low wage jobs created by the project out stripped the affordable housing that would be provided. That housing was intended, of course, for an existing housing shortage.
Or (2) for developers of commercial and residential projects to pay in-lieu fees earmarked for contribution toward the construction of affordable units by some nonprofit entity in the future. Napa County has affordable housing impact fees that range from $9 down to $5/sf. One of the few examples of non-profit developed affordable housing is Stonebridge Appartments in St. Helena. It was built 25 years ago before the tourism impacts on the housing market and the traffic impacts of increasing development, had begun to bite. Another non-profit sponsored affordable housing project, Napa Creekside Apartments, has had a very difficult time more recently given the increasing concern that residents now have to all development impacts they are experiencing. Our Town St. Helena, a community group promoting affordable housing construction, has shown how difficult it is to do non-profit developments in the Valley.
Recently the US Supreme Court ruled that communities may mandate the construction of affordable housing as a part of development projects, such is the sad state of affordable housing in a plutocrat economy. It may offer a good tool to create needed housing - or it may dry up development. A combination of both outcomes may be desirable in Napa County.
Housing goals regarding affordable housing are established by a 9-county voluntary Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG, which has developed an apportionment strategy to encourage affordable housing based on the population trends in the cities and counties that comprise the association. ABAG assigns affordable housing goals, known as a Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA).
In 2003 Hector Olvera of Latinos Unidos de Napa, sued the county for its failure to provide an appropriate amount of affordable housing. The lawsuit was settled with the County agreeing to build an affordable housing project (near the Silverado County Club!) and to create a housing element to its general plan that would actively promote more affordable housing by involving the cities to take the county housing allotment. The project was killed when the city declined to provide services. Shortly after, developer Keith Rogal bought the Napa Pipe property.
A great deal of effort was made in the 2008 housing element of the general plan of the hunt for sites and developers to provide the 2014-2022 affordable housing commitment. All of the sites reviewed except the Napa Pipe site were remote from transport. The county took up the Napa Pipe offer as the least problematic of the solutions on the table.
Latinos Unidos (now del Valle de Napa y Solano) again sued the county, in a suit lasting from 2008 to 2013 challenging the 2008 Housing component of the Napa General Plan and its remotely located sites. The county successfully defended its affordable housing goals, but it was a costly process that left it gun shy and seemed to cause a lot of angst as the negotiations between Napa City and the county over Napa Pipe ground to a close in 2015.
In 2012 Napa County set up a task force on Affordable Housing issuing this report. It was an important effort in cataloging potential strategies for affordable housing creation and of weighing them. Is it being used? Can it or will it generate new policies?
With Napa Pipe becoming an ever more real undertaking, the fury around affordable housing seems like it was diminished in the last 2 years. The traffic, of course, has not and now as everyone begins to face gridlock, affordable housing close to work is being promoted to deflect attention from the real cause of the traffic, continuing tourism and industrial development.
During the last two APAC meetings and afterword, the Napa Valley Vintners made a concerted effort to shift attention from their unwillingness to reign in winery-tourism proliferation by claiming that the traffic impacts that brought about the Mar 10th BOS decision to convene APAC were not a winery problem. They proposed an "Our Napa Valley" effort to bring the county and the municipalities together to solve the problems of traffic, and the lack of affordable housing that contributes to it. These are presented as THE problems to be solved, rather than questioning the continued development of tourism venues and new wineries and more vineyards that cause the traffic and low wage workers to continue to come.
The reality is that the amount of new affordable housing likely to be generated through developer perks or in-lieu fees will never keep up with the demand for affordable housing that new development generates as long as that new development is allowed to happen. It is probably the reason that affordable housing is more in demand than ever, despite 3 decades of affordable housing initiatives.
The loss of affordable housing stock to tourism, as the county has continued to encourage and build the tourism economy, has dramatically accelerated in the internet age with the Airbnb ability to turn second homes and spare rooms into mini hotels. The 2013 Task Force didn't pay attention to this loss perhaps because the disruptiveness of the technology, to affordable housing and to communities, wasn't yet apparent. It is quite probable that the loss of spaces previously rented by local workers is many times more than the amount of affordable housing that can conceivably be constructed. But it should also be noted that short term rental of homes and rooms is not just damaging to the region's ability to provide affordable housing, but leads to the disintegration of the very fabric of Napa communities as places to live. This is a terrible loss to a place that has for the last 45 years prospered while maintaining its small town communities.
Non-profits and the governments need to keep up the effort to build affordable housing in the municipalities. But history shows that this process will provide little housing for a lot of effort. When a larger amount of affordable housing is realized, as in Napa Pipe, the collateral impacts may create more demand than they reduce. If there is a place to really begin to tackle affordable housing, I would think that it should start in reducing the loss of existing housing to tourism and uninhabited homes rather than trying to use more new development to solve the problems of too much development. I don't know how. One possibility is that the in-lieu fees or TOT be put into housing vouchers, at the same time restrictions are put on short term rentals. Right now the county gives $6 million in tourism taxes to Visit Napa Valley to attract more tourists - which increases the demand for more affordable housing. Using that money to supplement the housing costs of tourism workers would be a much more sustainable use.
Whatever the solution one needs to be found, because the alternative is that the Valley becomes more like a real Disneyland, in which the rides are shut down, the lights turned off and everyone commutes home for the night.
NVR 6/23/17: Napa’s next experiment: turning bedrooms into mini-apartments
The City of Napa is considering an innovative program to turn spare bedrooms into affordable housing. Being a pessimist, one has an immediate question: How much does the city spend on compliance to insure that the new units don't become much more lucrative short term rentals. Unlike most places, the demand for short term rentals in Napa is also sky high. Still it is the right approach to get at the problem - incentivize the use of existing housing stock for affordable housing, and maintain the coherence of neighborhoods, rather than building a few hopelessly expensive new units that will never meet the need and pit the existing community against residents of the new project.
NVR 6/23/17: Napa’s next experiment: turning bedrooms into mini-apartments
NVR 6/22/17: Napa approves affordable apartments, with builder awaiting state decision on funds
Anne Dunlavy LTE 6/14/17: A new idea for Old Sonoma Road
NVR 6/14/17: Napa County takes pause on Old Sonoma Road project
NVR 6/12/17: Napa County to help pay for 2 affordable housing projects
AmCanEagle 5/3/17: County supervisors shift affordable housing funds from Napa to American Canyon
Weekly Calistoga 4/25/17: Ceremonial groundbreaking at Turley Flats apartments
NVR 2/17/17: City planners turn down apartments near Old Town Napa
NVR 11/30/16: Gasser Foundation buys embattled Napa site for affordable housing
NVR 10/28/16: Napa County housing advocates explore how to increase housing
NVR 9/6/16: Napa County looks at family farmworker housing
NVR 7/26/16: Calistoga looks at ways to encourage affordable housing development
NVR 3/19/16: The high price of housing: One family, one room
NVR 3/20/16: No new Napa affordable housing in 2015
NVR 3/14/16: City to recommend higher fees to support affordable housing
KQED News 2/29/16: U.S. Supreme Court Lets San Jose Affordable Housing Law Stand
SH Star 2/24/16: Council contributes to affordable housing project
Joelle Gallagher LTE 2/15/16: Build the housing we need
NVR: 2/10/16: Developer pulls out of Napa Creekside housing plan
NVR 11/29/15: County wants state subsidy for farmworker centers
NVR 6/3/15: Napa seeks to boost building fees for affordable housing
NVR 9/7/14:Vintners want to raise development fees to support affordable housing
Bohemian.com: The 2003 Latinos Unidos lawsuit
Napa County 9/6/16: Farmworker Family Housing Study
Our Town St Helena State of Housing PDF
Our Town St. Helena website
St Helena Window housing page
Napa County Affordable Housing Multi-Year Action Plan
County's Affordable Housing Task Force Page
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