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Affordable housing: Time to get real
Dennis Wyatt

Let’s drop the charade. If we are serious about “real” affordable housing and not just shaving off a few dollars in costs it’s time to open our eyes.

Do you think we can build our way out of our never ending housing crisis? Even if you took away all artificial government restraints such as the torturous approval process there are still issues such as the price of land, labor, and building materials that keep going up.

Do you think you can reduce growth-related fees for building and still provide the infrastructure and amenities needed to support growth? If you think cities have a miserable record of maintaining streets now and providing other government facilities just wait after a few years of intentionally building homes with reduced or no fees given that currently between  the city and school district the fees alone are in excess of $50,000 per housing unit before you even turn the dirt. And do you think we’re keeping up with things by collecting “just” $50,000 per living unit?

Do you think rent control will do the trick? Answer honestly to the question if you were an investor or a developer and whether you would build something that you are likely not to be able to make much money on, if any at all, in the long haul.

All the little tricks cities are doing now such as inclusionary zoning, smaller lots, and even smaller traditional homes are barely making a ding let alone a reasonable dent when it comes to creating affordable housing.

And even those gains are being wiped out by misdirected edicts from Sacramento such as making solar energy systems mandatory on new homes even though out of the gate it will raise the cost to buy a home by $30,000 effectively reducing the pool of eligible buyers.

Then there is the hidden conspiracy that drives up the cost of housing. Developers need to borrow money to build subdivisions. That typically involves borrowing money from a bank. Banks tend to like to invest in things that have less risk and a higher rate of return. They know three to four bedroom homes with a couple of bathrooms and a two-car garage tend to sell well as opposed to a two bedroom and one bathroom home with no garage. Yet it is clear the smaller home would be more affordable.

Banks are not lining up to loan money for such a project. Cities prop up that position by requiring homes to have garages or car ports instead of simply mandating off-street parking in the form of a driveway of some sorts has to be provided for two cars per home. This is California, not the Midwest. Cars aren’t going to deteriorate in the elements. If it’s aesthetics, then what is more visually appealing for a city — cars parked in the open on residential streets or vehicles converted into mobile homes jammed with personal belonging as last resort shelter as well as homeless tent cities dotting a city?

A solution that would not only provide reasonably priced affordable housing but also would help others — particularly those homeowners in retirement to keep their homes or be able to live fairly comfortable — is to allow garage conversions.

This would not be your father’s garage conversion. An average two-car garage is right around 650 square feet. That is enough room for the floor plan for a fairly spacious one bedroom apartment or a more cozier two bedroom apartment complete with kitchen, bathroom, living area, and dining area.

To address aesthetics such conversions would require the outside to look as if it is part of the original home design and may even require some alterations to the driveway.

If the homeowner had to borrow $60,000 to make a top notch conversion using a home equity loan at 6 percent for 30 years they would be paying $403 a month.

Given there would be no additional outside watering, the city’s water connection fee could be reasonably reduced by perhaps 50 percent. The same argument for a reduction somewhat in the sewer connection fee could be made. Similar downsizing could be argued for other fees such as major streets based on areas where conversions take place given major arterials may already be in place.

If the homeowner needs some financial assistance whether it is via fee reduction or other consideration, in exchange for such measures the rent could be capped at 75 percent above the monthly mortgage cost for 15 years. Based on the example earlier the new apartment unit would have a max rent of $705 for 15 years. Depending on the age of apartment you are comparing it with that is a $300 to $1,000 reduction in monthly rent and is certainly more affordable.

That extra $300 a month could make a big difference in the quality of life of the homeowner especially if they are retired on limited income.

They could also have the option of renting the original home space and moving into the apartment to further enhance their financial situation.

Some may not be wild about such an approach but it isn’t simply moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. It actually can make a difference in affordability.

Besides making it possible for more people to be able to secure affordable housing it also could help either prevent people from becoming homeless and/or address the financial squeeze that many older people are facing.

But why do something innovative when it might be an affront to our collective fairytale notion of housing and cookie cutter planning that keeps both bureaucrats and bankers happy?

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.