Developers Talk Affordable Housing Challenges
Mayor Robert Garcia hosted a roundtable with housing developers, the last of a series of three community meetings looking at affordable housing in Long Beach, at the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library on October 14.
In one of the library’s community rooms, the roundtable was open to the public and was attended by more than 50 housing advocates and residents, some of which had to stand due to a lack of available chairs and space. Eleven developers were seated at a horseshoe of tables along with Garcia and former assemblymember and councilmember Bonnie Lowenthal, who has been an active participant in the affordable housing discussions as part of the Affordable and Workforce Housing Study Group.
Elaine Hutchison of Better Housing For Long Beach speaks to Mayor Robert Garcia, former assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal and 11 housing developers during the public comments section of the mayor’s affordable housing roundtable on October 14. This meeting was the last in a series of three community meetings to discuss the affordable housing crisis in Long Beach. The next step is to prepare a set of recommendations to go before the city council. No timetable has been determined as to when that will occur. (Photographs by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
“I really appreciate this opportunity to not only be here today but the opportunity to have a communitywide discussion about housing affordability. This, I believe, is a first for our city,” Lowenthal said. “It’s very public. And you can tell by the number of people here that it’s well received in the community.”
Garcia opened the discussion by asking about barriers that developers face when working on a housing project. Challenges that the group unanimously agreed on were finding available land, attaining funding sources and undergoing the long-drawn-out permitting and entitlement processes.
Another challenge brought up was a need for time to involve the community in the planning process, which can be as beneficial to a developer as getting land at a reduced price, according to Suny Lay Chang, executive vice president of the nonprofit LINC Housing.
Developers said they also need leadership from the city when working on housing projects. They explained that if they have direction from the city and the community as a whole as to what projects are needed and where, their jobs become much easier. According to Kasey Burke, president of META Housing Corporation, if local governments could align with and have a better connection to the state with regard to incentives, tax credits and other development programs, it would alleviate some of the financial burden of developing affordable housing brought on by countless rules, regulations and high cost.
The next topic of discussion was whether or not developers thought it was more beneficial to build projects for people of mixed incomes. Daryl Carter, chief executive officer of Avanath Capital, and Jonathan Newsome of the Long Beach Affordable Housing Coalition, both agreed that a diversity of incomes have lead to stronger communities in their experience.
However, Pat Patterson, a representative of Ledcor Properties, pointed out that while “everybody would love integrated developments,” the government assistance in creating such projects is a long, competitive and an administratively burdensome process.
One of the most controversial topics of the day was parking. Always a hot topic with Long Beach residents, Garcia pointed out that building parking is expensive for developers and noted that some cities in the state have begun lowering parking requirements. He also said he has read that some communities eliminated parking requirements for affordable housing entirely. He added that he was not advocating this in Long Beach, but rather that he found it interesting.
“Parking is very expensive, especially in high-density developments where you have to do underground parking. It could run $50,000 or $60,000 per stall to build parking,” Patterson said. “[But] this is California still. And people love their cars. And people still drive. So you may find that you have an unsuccessful project because you have taken advantage of the ability to deliver less parking.”
Others echoed Patterson in saying that parking depends on the project and the community’s demand. For example, senior housing is likely to need less parking than multifamily housing.
Robin Hughes, president of the nonprofit Abode Communities, explained that for every parking space a developer doesn’t have to build, another unit could be built in its place. She explained this is a constant tradeoff that needs to be taken into consideration when developing housing in dense areas with a high demand for affordable units, and that alternatives such as bike space, shared car space and even working with public transit for resident discounts are options that should be taken seriously.
Other thoughts to alleviate parking were to open city- and state-owned parking garages to residents for overnight parking or merging commercial and housing spaces, which would allow for business parking during the day and residential parking overnight.
Tyson Sayles, a principal with Ensemble Properties, deemed Long Beach’s minimum unit size of around 500 to 600 square feet another challenge for affordable housing. Sayles said he is a believer in micro-units in densely populated areas as long as they are located in close proximity to transit and walking distant to other amenities such as parks, restaurants and entertainment.
Garcia elaborated on the idea of micro-units for residents in the audience who were not familiar with the idea. When he mentioned the size of about 300 to 350 square feet, it sparked a lot of wide-eyed gasps and chatter from the crowd.
While some of the developers agreed there is demand for housing of all sizes and configurations, including micro-units for young, single people, Carter and Newsome pointed out that their experience with affordable housing shows demand is highest for two- and three-bedroom units. They attribute this to families being the group that most needs affordable housing, especially low-income families that might have several generations living under one roof.
After the developers spoke on these topics, the public was invited to comment, and they seemed just as divided on the idea of micro-units. One speaker said he imagined chickens in tiny coops when he thought of micro-units and thinks this living arrangement could have a negative effect on a resident’s mental health. Another speaker cited statistics of the more than 700 homeless students who attend Long Beach City College and how affordable micro-units could be the answer to putting a roof over their heads.
Elizabeth Torres, a Wilson High School senior, spoke about growing up in poverty and demonstrated the demand for units with multiple bedrooms. She told the mayor and developers that she will be the first high school graduate in her family and hopes to be the first college entrant. Through tears, she said she recently received news that most of her family was going to be moving to Bakersfield because rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Long Beach is “too damn high.”
“There are no doubt many pieces to the puzzle of providing sufficient affordable housing,” Elaine Hutchison of Better Housing for Long Beach said. “The mayor’s initiative to address the closing opportunity gap in Long Beach is a big step in the future of Long Beach. We appreciate this very much because there are a number of factors to be considered. Providing affordable housing should be at all levels.”
According to Garcia, there is no timeline as to when the study group and city staff will make recommendations to the city council regarding the affordable housing crisis in the city. He added that when recommendations are made, the decision on what measures to take, if any, will be made by the council.
Copyright © Long Beach Business Journal