Communities in south Siskiyou County are wrestling with a severe shortage of affordable housing, but, as Dunsmuir Mayor Bruce Deutsch puts it, “solutions so far have been extremely hard to find.”
The problem is not just limited to our area: Communities across the country are grappling with a problem that, at its worst, is adding to the legions of homeless on city sidewalks or living in cars – and to the numbers of 20- and 30-somethings still living with their parents.
Here in Siskiyou County rental housing is especially hard to find. Sandra Haugen, who manages 210 rental units in the county, currently has only four of them available. The 2014 Boles Fire in Weed wiped out 50 rental units, very few of which have been replaced.
Mount Shasta, which launched an ambitious program a year ago to find strategies to add more housing stock for the 1400-odd commuters who drive into the city to work every day, thus far has not been able to add even one more unit of affordable housing.
Outreach by the city to potential developers, though, has produced the possibility of new housing going up on two large city-owned properties: The Landing in the south part of town, and The Orchard off Ream Avenue just beyond the city’s western boundary. Both were previously owned by the Roseburg timber company.
According to Mount Shasta City Manager Bruce Pope, the properties have attracted the interest of two as yet unnamed developers who are considering the sites for mixed-income housing, retail, and, in the case of The Landing, a new hotel. As yet no formal development proposals have been submitted to the city.
Other projects that are part of Mount Shasta’s housing push are currently on hold. Staffing shortages – the city’s Planning Department consists of one overworked employee – have thus far hampered plans to research the impact of short-term vacation rentals on the availability of long-term housing. A long-awaited housing strategy session with county planners is also on hold due to staffing shortages in the County Planning Department. Pope noted that the four city managers of Mount Shasta, Dunsmuir, Weed and Yreka meet regularly and are discussing possible solutions to the housing crunch, although no specific strategies have emerged yet.
Another goal in Mount Shasta has been to look at ways to streamline the permitting process for new housing projects. But that’s been hampered by what City Councilman Paul Engstrom calls a “frustrating, disappointing” lack of response from local developers and contractors when the city asked them how the process could be improved.
In Dunsmuir, there are hopes that the House Of Glass, a former motel on the north end of town, now crumbling and in disrepair, can be turned into affordable housing units. But Mayor Deutsch says that the project is currently “stuck in a sort of limbo.”
“The low sales price [for the House Of Glass] has attracted purchasers with enough money to buy it, but without the wherewithal to invest in the substantial work needed to refurbish or rebuild it,” Deutsch said.
He also expressed concern about the presence of an estimated 20 vacation rentals in the town: “Those short-term rentals take away from long-term rentals,” he says. So far, he notes, the City Council has not taken any action to address that situation, other than making sure that the owners of vacation rental properties pay the same taxes that motels and hotels do.
While there’s been little in the form of tangible results, there’s no lack of ideas. Weed City Manager Ron Stock notes that the city of Emeryville just passed a $50 million bond to enable the city to purchase property for new housing development. He thinks Siskiyou County ought to consider putting a similar bond measure on the ballot to help finance affordable housing projects.
Daniel Simon, a home designer based in Yreka, is actively promoting his own solution to the problem. He’s designed a small, 16-foot by 24-foot house that would sell for well under the average home price. It consists of one large room, with a kitchen and bathroom off to the side. The first of these mini-homes is set to go up just north of Montague sometime this fall.
Simon says that anyone who purchases his building plans and gets a little advice from an experienced builder, can build their own small home for around $59,000, not including the price of the land.
Building requirements imposed by the state of California, regulations that add substantially to building costs, have added another hurdle for promoters of affordable housing. Fire safety rules for rural dwellings with a “wildlands interface” now require indoor sprinklers in new homes, as well as expensive, specially treated fireproof siding. To save energy, thicker insulation is now required, as well as motion-activated lights in bathrooms and closets and for outside lighting. And by 2020, new homes in California will have to be equipped with solar panels.
Altogether, the total cost of these state requirements comes to around $70,000. That may pencil out for high-end homes, but makes it all but impossible to keep a new home in the affordable range without some form of government subsidy.
Simon, echoing the views of other affordable housing advocates, says the additional state requirements amount to the “forced purchase of products through the building code, using the excuse of fire, energy, and environmental concerns.”
Whether you agree with that opinion or not, you have to give Simon credit for offering his own solution to the affordable housing crisis, coming soon in tangible form, he hopes, to a small lot north of Montague this fall.