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Can Manteca led by Cantu & Nuño solve the Rubik’s Cube?
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Affordable housing is the Rubik’s Cube of civilization.

While a rare few can master the puzzle in less than the time than it will take you to read this column, most of us can never solve it.

The reason is simple. If you move one row of the cube consisting of 26 boxes trying to line up colors you will inadvertently throw others out of alignment. Those that can master it in minutes are essentially the equivalent of think tank experts whipping out solutions for affordable housing in a vacuum. In the real world those trying to address affordable housing on a scale to have a fairly significant impact are like the masses trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube puzzle. The odds of it happening, or making much headway, are about as good as Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump divorcing their spouses and eloping to North Korea.

After a good 40 years or so of talk and worthless posturing in mandated general plans designed to serve as blueprints to guide the growth of cities in California have helped pay the housing costs of endless consultants but haven’t made much headway in the world where people don’t live in colored maps, Manteca might be ready to try to forge the quicksand of solutions to make a run at finding effective workable solutions and actually implementing them.

That’s because the current council counts among its ranks Mayor Ben Cantu, a planning policy wonk, as well as Jose Nuño who has more than a decade in the affordable housing trenches.

Both are fairly well versed in all of the known affordable housing concepts and what is needed to make them work. Nuño through his work with Visionary Home Builders of California — a successful non-profit — has helped develop and manage affordable housing projects. Many of Visionary Home Builders’ endeavors look like at-market housing. 

No one will argue what affordable housing is being built is a drop in the proverbial bucket of a tsunami of rising housing costs. And in the spirt of giving the devil his due to those that believe Manteca is completely incompetent when it comes to affordable housing, the city via partnerships has created almost 500 quality affordable housing — about half for low-income seniors —- during the past 30 years. While most of that consists of apartments it also includes the 60 plus single family homes in the Cedar Glenn neighborhood in east Manteca off Vaconcellos Avenue, The city has another 54 senior units now being built on Cottage Avenue nestled against Highway 99 but that will be the end of the road. That’s because what solid affordable housing Manteca has been able to create was done by leveraging redevelopment agency funds that the state took away during the recession instead of cutting back spending at the state level as local governments were forced to do in order to stay afloat.

There have been rare successful private sector efforts to add to lower priced housing since 1991. One was manifested in Walnut Place at Walnut and Alameda avenues in the early 1990s by Florsheim Homes and the other was another Florsheim development southwest of Airport Way and the 120 Bypass built during the Great Recession that provided the affordable housing break that Nuno and his wife Gabriela needed it buy their first home. In each case the developers involved went through a bureaucratic review process that was less than friendly because it deviated from the Third Rail of community development departments — the general plan — and involved things such as significantly smaller lots, front-loaded garages and other thrill-free designs that triggered the Spanish Inquisition when it reached the council level.

A more recent project beaten back by protesting neighbors was a bid by Richland Communities to incorporate more lower-end housing that entailed smaller homes on smaller lots as part of a mixture of price-level neighborhoods on land where the ultimate McMansion — the 30,000-square-door Hat Mansion — stands decaying in southeast Manteca. In fairness to those essentially playing the NIMBY card, the developer as well as the city planners advanced a plan that was designed to fail by forwarding a subdivision layout that put the proposed sub-4,000 square-foot lots next to existing 3,000 plus square foot homes on lots in excess of 8,000 square feet. Did anyone really expect a different reaction and outcome than the one that led to the endeavor to build at-market affordable housing to be plummeted to death?

The affordable housing Rubik’s Cube that Cantu, Nuno, and their fellow council members have to wrestle with is a series of connected issues. Each  move in a bid to create more affordable housing impacts something else and has the effect of constituents tied to each and every one of those  “something else” to react impulsively like hornets who have just had their nest whacked.

Reduce fees and then there is even less money to build roads and such. Make lots small enough to have an impact on costs and you trigger uprisings in adjacent neighborhoods. Try to do simple things such as make streets narrower to cut costs both to build and for long-range maintenance and the resistance runs the gamut from public safety personnel worried about response times to those that act as if 60-foot wide streets are an American birthright. Try to mandate the intermixing of duplexes and triplexes in new “single family home” subdivisions or even attempt to build apartments next to an existing neighborhood and you will unleash a torrent of protest that at the argument’s end are all deeply rooted in NIMBYism.

Yes, there are little tweaks the city can do to whittle costs slightly for new housing but why bother? Sacramento — which mandates affordable housing — also mandates other things that drive up the price of housing. The coming solar mandate is an example. Touted as a way to reduce ongoing home ownership costs although that has yet to be seen, it most certainly will make it more difficult for people to qualify to get into a home to begin with.

Regardless of what you think of the politics of Cantu or Nuño — and the rest of the council for that matter — you should be cheering them on to try and tackle the affordable housing puzzle in a meaningful way that will produce more than token gains.

At the same time we need to understand affordable housing doesn’t mean buying a home per se nor does it mean a traditional one-family per dwelling approach nor does it eschew the idea of what would essentially by modern-day boarding houses or a government run initiative like Ride Share that connects commuters but instead connects people needing housing either to rent a place or for one who has a room to rent with one that needs a room.

One thing is for certain it’s time to not only have a serious conversation but to actually walk the talk.

Grab the Rubik’s Cube known as affordable housing and let the games begin.