Monday, March 10, 2014

Our General Plan’s Housing Element

On 2/27/14 the stakeholder’s group for our General Plan’s Housing Element had an open to the public update meeting. What follows is an expanded and slightly revised version of the remarks I made at that meeting. It was preliminary to public hearings in April. I urge everyone to read the relevant documents and to attend the upcoming hearings.

I have read the entire housing plan and will share my observations as both an Amador County resident and a professional planner. When I was in planning school they emphasized that plans should be comprehensive. This one certainly is with what seems like a page for every dwelling unit in the county. And while it doesn’t qualify as a specific plan it is also, as stated in the introduction, detailed. This detail includes statements such as “…households made up of older residents may require smaller homes than families with children” on page H-9 and “…people with lower incomes are also more likely to live in apartments or other multifamily options” on page H-18. Wasting tax revenue to restate the obvious represents the costly growth of government and is one reason that development doesn’t seem to pay for itself. The plan documents fees such as the land development fee of $2,010 to $2,792 to California Fish and Wildlife for a negative declaration to their ever expanding mandates. Yet the plan’s solution is more of the same: increased government coupled with a reduction of government revenues through subsidy programs and creating a redevelopment agency. The traditional planning concept of zoning abundant land for all possible future demand and housing types, which some current critics call over-zoning, is not even considered.

Instead we have, in reality, a social policy plan with many statements that illustrate the writers’ agenda. On page H-2 the plan considers the goal of  “…provision of services in proximity to residents…” This is a bias statement in favor of the town centers and similar concepts that ignores the effect of individual travel patterns, especially longer commutes, upon shopping and other service provision decisions. On page H-59 the plan states, “The intent of local government regulations is… to ensure a decent quality of life for the community.” Note that this is for “the community”, not the individual. And while it probably means things like preventing housing development next to chemical factories, it is a vague statement that can mean many other things. For some,  it can mean church attendance while, for others it can mean “freedom” from nativity scenes, and removing “In God We Trust” from our currency.

Page H-82 states, under programs, “Reduce community opposition to high density affordable housing…” Since when is the role of democratic government to influence public opinion rather than to implement public opinion? “…investigate the feasibility of establishing a County-owned industrial complex, if such a complex is consistent with identified target industries,” on page H-94. So our county is to now develop and own industrial land and decides who locates there, based on the criteria of omnipotent “planners” to employ the existing (frozen?) low income population. Don’t people improve their situation and also move in and out of the county? Page H-95 states, “Identify land available for commercial and industrial development.” I feel absolutely confident that our local realtors would work zealously for commercial and industrial clients without any government imperative. Apparently the plan writers don’t agree. Does the free market exist for them? Do I dare use the s word? Is this socialism?

The plan proposes, and not surprisingly for a planners’ plan, new powers for the planning department. They would oversee code enforcement and public transit among other things. Often the text attempts to rhetorically justify their agenda by various techniques such as word order and juxtaposition of data. Using data from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS) page H-16 states, “…385 (nearly 40 percent) of large family households in Amador County live in housing that lacks complete bathroom or kitchen facilities, is considered overcrowded, or costs more than 30 percent of the family’s monthly income.” This sounds petty gruesome on first reading. The text laments “incomplete” bathroom or kitchen facilities, but does not define them. Is having a shower stall, but not a bathtub, a so-called ¾ bathroom, a severe deprivation? They do, however, define overcrowding as more than one person per room. So a perfectly comfortable, but modest two bedroom dwelling unit with an open space kitchen/dining/living room is overcrowded for a family of four. Are they just promoting their agenda for a legislated and subsidized standard of living? How many people are really in such dire circumstances that substantial new government intervention is justified? And if there are an unfortunate few, why isn’t the existing social welfare sufficiently helping them? Do we want to become a welfare county attracting new dependent residents?

They denigrate the free choice of “overpaying” for the security and freedom of owning one’s own home. How much of our housing costs are the direct result of California regulations and restrictive land use policies? What power does the County have over interest rates and other issues decided in Washington? They also denigrate the free choice of commuting with their intellectual concept of the jobs/housing balance. Seemingly ignored is the reality of residential location made by the compromises within a two paycheck household. But they want to increase housing costs with the additional burden of design review. Related to this is their assumption of the town centers with transit oriented development from the yet unapproved general plan. In Europe people live in towns and farm the land around them. But in America people live on the land they farm. This fundamental difference is why many of our ancestors left Europe and represents the difference between freedom and collectivism.

If someone lives in means tested low income housing they often become trapped there. Rarely does someone go from poor to middle class overnight. They move upward in small steps. If an increase in income cancels one’s housing benefit the bottom line usually dictates maintaining their lower earned income. (I recently spoke with my accountant and heard about numerous people afraid of making a little bit more money and losing a certain means tested benefit). I oppose building a lower income ghetto in Martell. Wasn’t that parcel bought by the county for future office consolation and not for housing? Martell should remain a commercial area and not become our disastrous equivalent of Marin City in Marin County.

The best solution for housing lower income residents is increasing their income through economic expansion. The housing element discusses the need for more farm worker housing. Why not grow grapes on trellises, as they do in Australia, and use far less labor? The trellises would be made in factories by people at a higher skill level making more money than farm workers. We are a traditional wood products area. We also have billions of dollars worth of gold in Amador County. Yet this plan, on page H-85, proposes housing right on top of the Mother Lode between Sutter Creek and Amador City. Why is this area not zoned as a mineral resource area?

The unnecessary controversy over the Newman Ridge project endangers the survival of our freight rail line, essential for both economic stability and air quality. What amazes me most about this planning process is that those who claim to be the most concerned about the ill housed are often those same people opposing the projects that lift people’s incomes above the poverty level. Is this just ironic or something more sinister?

Copyright 2014, Mark L. Bennett

No comments:

Post a Comment