By: Lynn Jensen
The 14th Annual Ventura County Housing Conference, held in October, proved to be timely in light of Governor Brown signing Assembly Bill 1516 in September, declaring: “The lack of housing, including emergency shelters, is a critical problem that threatens the economic, environmental, and social quality of life in California.” The signing was announced at CoLAB’s monthly WHEEL Committee meeting by Lynn Jacobs (former Director of CA Dept. of Housing and Community Development).
The local housing conference was promoted under the Ventura County Star’s “Price of Paradise, Unintended Consequences” project. According to the Star, the “Price of Paradise aims to shed light on the connections between Ventura County land-use regulations and quality-of-life issues that matter to the community.”
The Star asserts, “So many of us decide to call Ventura County home because of its natural beauty, pristine climate and suburban comfort… But many also realize Ventura County’s open space and residential atmosphere aren’t maintained without a price. Expensive housing and the high cost of living are among the top concerns for local residents to retain their current lifestyle.”
The 4 1/2 hour event included speeches, workshops and a closing panel discussion on “SOAR & Sustainability”. Given the “Price of Paradise” theme, the SOAR Panel severely lacked a local economist presenting the impact of 15 years of SOAR on the Ventura County economy.
The keynote speaker was Stuart Gabriel, Director of the Richard S. Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA. Gabriel served on the Federal Reserve Board in Washington D.C. and has a Ph.D. in economics at UC Berkeley. With respect to California, Gabriel reported “terribly unaffordable housing” in communities from the interior to the coasts. He also stated that over 50% of the households in California face moderate to severe rent burdens, with a shortage of 500,000 units of affordable housing.
Closer to home, Gabriel described Ventura County’s land use planning restrictions using urban growth boundaries as creating an artificial supply of restricted land and being “cumbersome”. Such supply constraints benefit the vested interest of owners inside the boundaries. Gabriel pointed to alternate methods to growth boundaries, saying that “SOAR is only one way to get there”.
Being opposed to urban sprawl, he advocated for “growth that is densified” as being more efficient and affordable, pointing to Millennials as gravitating to cities with walkable environments. Pew Research Center characterizes Millennials as ages 18 to 34 and it is not clear whether this trend will hold when they start raising children. And, Gabriel, while advocating for density, admitted that he, himself lives in a suburban sprawl neighborhood. Such is the contradiction of high density development advocacy, relegating a different lifestyle for others than is practiced by many advocates.
Workshop #3 entitled: Infill in the Marketplace: Alternatives to Sprawl, was moderated by Sandy Smith, Land Use Planner for Sespe Consultants and an educator in Urban Planning and Civic Engagement at Cal Lutheran University. Quoting Smith’s opening statement: “Ventura County is the 8th most expensive place to rent an apartment in the U.S.”.
Presenting the ultimate contradiction, Smith related, “To not embrace sprawl requires infill and higher density development which the public does not support”. The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) effect pushes back against the political will for infill projects. Neighbors will say they like the project, “just not here”.
The four workshop panelists representing Thousand Oaks and Oxnard related stories about high density, mixed-use projects that face more and more organized community opposition. These projects already suffer from high fees and construction costs. And, as city governments continue to inflict more onerous regulations on development projects, the housing crisis will only worsen.
The conference ended with a closing panel discussion on the proposal by SOAR to renew their ballot initiative to 2050. SOAR stands for Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources, restricting most urban development, without a vote of the people, to within urban growth boundaries (CURB’s) drawn by SOAR around 8 major cities.
County Supervisor and SOAR Board Member Steve Bennett was given the first word of the panelists, making the case that “paving over farmland” would not solve the affordable housing problem. Pointing to other coastal counties, he stated that they all have a severe affordable housing crisis. He credited SOAR as saving the critical mass of agricultural land in Ventura County.
Christine Rangel of the Building Industry Association (BIA) countered with a map from the SOAR website showing red “at risk” parcels in the City of Oxnard, WITHIN the CURB. Rangel pointed to this as being disingenuous and counter to SOAR’s appeal to voters to trade protection of open space for development within the CURB boundaries.
John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, downplayed the role of SOAR in saving farmland, pointing out statistics showing that more land has been converted from farmland per year AFTER SOAR was passed than BEFORE. He also stated that SOAR’s new 35 year planning horizon is presumptuous and that with or without SOAR, “we don’t know the future of agriculture in this county.”
With respect to the extension of the SOAR Initiative to 2050, farmer and rancher members of CoLAB are generally skeptical. Agriculture was a pawn in the original ballot measure which contained no language helpful to the industry, while extracting development rights from farm owners without compensation. This is not surprising considering the SOAR Board of Directors has no respected farm industry representative.
CoLAB believes the impacts to housing and economics from 15 years of SOAR need to be fully analyzed and presented to voters to make an informed decision. This was missing in the housing conference’s calculation of the “Price of Paradise”.
To that end we will be a sponsor and participant in Mark Schniepp’s, California Economic Forecast conference entitled: “The Economic Impacts of SOAR on Ventura County, Present and Future”. The conference will take place on: February 5th, 8:00 am to 12:30 pm, at the Westlake Hyatt.
Panelists will include Matthew Fienup (Cal Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting), Bruce Stenslie (Economic Development Cooperative – Ventura County) and Lynn Jensen (CoLAB, Ventura County). The panel will be followed by Schniepp presenting data on the Ventura County economy which is clearly lagging its peer coastal counties. Email invites to members will follow – STAY TUNED!!