Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Does “Universal Housing” Work Better?

Modest housing near London
When I cautiously ventured into the topic of affordable housing with my previous post, I expected feedback from readers and also some education.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The best response was an email from Clayton Engstrom, a North Bay real estate broker who I’ve occasionally encountered over the past decade.  But until I received his email, I didn’t know that he read this blog regularly or that his land-use philosophy largely aligned with mine.

My favorite excerpt was “I take the position that our local government is wasting our land by doing a poor job planning our community.  Housing densities should be at the top end of General Plan guidelines.  It is good sport for the Planning Commission and City Council to eliminate units with the expectation of a better project.  All that is accomplished is fewer fees for the City and a built project that doesn’t maximize the precious land.”

(General note: People are entitled to the expectation that their lightly-proofed emails aren’t going to be copied for wider distribution.  Engstrom gave me permission to use his name and email, but I’ve still taken the liberty of making minor grammatical and syntactical edits to his words, both above and below.)

I think Engstrom nails the problem on density.  Our usual reaction is that reducing the unit count reduces impacts, but the reality is that it facilitates sprawl and often leaves us with infrastructure that lacks a sufficient tax base to maintain it.

It’s a subject I addressed long ago regarding a proposed single-family subdivision in Petaluma.  In a post that remains one of my favorites, I argued that compromising between the project as proposed and no project by permitting a project with fewer units is often the worst result.  (Regarding the subdivision, I hear rumors that the entitlement process will soon be reactivated.  And that the unit count will have been reduced in the exact manner against which I inveighed three years ago.   I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed.)

And yes, I do note the problem of a real estate broker arguing for greater density and unit counts, thereby creating more properties to sell, but I give the benefit of the doubt to regular readers.  The folks who want to build for the sake of building have given up reading this blog long ago.  Also, I believe that there are some in the land development business, whether real estate brokers or civil engineers, who give weight to the public good in their personal land-use philosophies.

Despite expressing general support for the thrust of this blog, Engstrom remonstrated with me on how I presented several points in my previous post, starting with my use of the term “affordable housing”.  In his words, “The affordable housing issue should start with definitions.  The “housing element” and all government discussions on affordable housing are focused on subsidized rental housing (Section 8 or HUD voucher) qualified people.

“Most people with jobs do not qualify for those housing units.  Single working parents or households with many dependents can qualify.  Firefighters, full-time teachers, and many government workers have too much income.  The term “work force housing” is often used to describe housing that is accessible to the masses.”

He’s correct.  I used “affordable housing” to cover a broad swath of housing needs, from those with long-term gainful and essential employment, but at a salary insufficient to find suitable housing, to those who are homeless for reasons of personal finances.  Use of “affordable housing” was logically consistent but, as Engstrom notes, can cause confusion when there is a more restrictive definition often used for the same term.

So I’ll change terminology.  Unless someone makes a good counter-argument, I’ll use “universal housing” to cover the concept of providing all people with a safe roof over their heads.  Although I generally agree with the concept of universal housing, with a few caveats and conditions, I’ll acknowledge that some may not agree.  But I can still use the term to capture the concept.

Furthermore, because folks with median and higher salaries generally have few housing problems, I’ll note that most of the challenges with universal housing come in the areas of work-force housing, affordable housing, public housing, and homelessness.

Engstrom also took an alternative perspective on comments I reported from the rent control advocates at the Petaluma City Council meeting.

“Your post referenced the speakers at the City Council meeting speaking on health and safety issues.  This is a code enforcement problem.  All housing should be up to standard, housing should be maintained.  Code enforcement officers who cannot bring landlords into compliance should red tag the units as unsafe.  Landlords faced with the loss of income will upgrade.  Tenants must be displaced if the landlords are unwilling or unable to provide safe and habitable units.”

It’s a good point that code enforcement has a role.  I’ve known a few code enforcement officers during my career and have generally found them to be good folks, especially after some of the idealism has been knocked out and replaced with a sense of proportion.

One of my favorite memories of public service was neighborhood improvement project undertaken by a non-profit I chaired.  The project was instigated and directed by the local code enforcement officer.  I thought the effort was a smashing success, with a renewed sense of pride evident in many of the residents.  And I remain disappointed that the project was never repeated because of politics that gave the few naysayers a disproportionate voice.

But with that said, it’s also true that code enforcement departments are often understaffed and overworked.  They can’t be expected to respond effectively and expediently to every housing situation, especially when emotion and language barriers come into play.

While code enforcement should have a role, a tool that should also be available to aggrieved residents is a credible threat to take rent money elsewhere.  But that option is often not available.  There is a paucity of housing for lower income folks.  In the Petaluma situation, the daughter of one of the unhappy renters said she might take a semester off from college to help relocate her parents, a threat that may have been overstated for dramatic effect, but nonetheless illustrated the extent of the problem.

Thanks go again to Mr. Engstrom for his thoughtful and useful email, particularly on the subject of “universal housing”.

Next time, I’ll take a short break from the question of universal housing to ask a favor and to announce a pair of upcoming meetings of interest to Petalumans.  In the post after that, I’ll look at data on the under-availability of housing and how walkable urbanism can help.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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