SLO Loses Another Opportunity for Affordable Housing

May 2016, SLO Tribune Letter to the Editor by John Fowler

Once again, it’s one step forward, two steps back as San Luis Obispo loses another great opportunity to ease the critical affordable housing shortage.

While we are used to the usual concerns about viewshed, water, traffic and noise, this time development processing time and its associated cost and risk delivered the fatal blow. A project that received great comments from the city’s Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission and City Council during concept review couldn’t overcome city staff’s pessimistic protracted timeline to review and approve a development plan.

The casualty this time was the Santa Rosa Street and Monterey Street development, which could have provided not only downtown commercial space, but also up to 60 affordable and 30 workforce housing units, as well as a much-needed parking garage and transit center, something the city has wanted for 20 years. It also would have fulfilled the city’s priorities to promote housing, as outlined in its General Plan.

While the County of San Luis Obispo is collaborating with the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast, the nonprofit Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County and the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce to come up with suggestions to facilitate affordable housing in the county, the city of SLO could benefit from participating as well.

Currently, solutions and models are being formulated for presentation to county staff, which could eventually turn into concrete actions the county can take. One such suggestion being circulated are changes and assurances to the path for development plan approval, during which applicants can have some reasonable reliance as to when their projects could actually be approved — the idea being that we can do better than a 10-year timeline that Hamish Marshall had to endure during the Garden Street Terraces project. That represents the all-too-normal processing time it takes for a larger development.

As I have indicated before, we have many tools in our toolbox to address the critical affordable housing shortage, starting with processes and steps that don’t cost anyone anything, such as moving potential developments through the approval process in a reasonable time frame. That is a biggie!

It’s time we made this a priority, especially for projects that will bring so many benefits to the whole community — not just to the developers. Those priced out of the market who are forced to commute daily to town have waited long enough for us to find solutions, and letting yet another project slip through our fingers is not stepping up to address our housing problem.

John Fowler is president and CEO of Peoples’ Self-Help Housing.