In the Greenleaf Guardian‘s pre-Christmas issue, Mayor Joe Vinatieri and his co-author Drew Pryor, founder of the Whittier Consortium on Homelessness, compared homelessness to a leaky pipe: “Until the root causes of homelessness in California – mental health, drug and substance abuse, housing costs, and recent criminal ‘reforms’ are addressed at the state level, local cities will continually be forced to mop up the leak.”
Joe and Drew have some things right and some things wrong.
First, here’s what they have right:
Cities certainly need help from the state to provide adequate mental health and substance abuse treatment. California’s massive mental health system had its good and bad points until the 1970s when Reagan began dismantling it.
Reagan promised to do away with the large institutions and replace them with community-based treatment facilities. These promised replacements never happened. In fact, existing local mental health treatment facilities were defunded.
Although I was only a teenager when this happened, I watched it with more understanding than most. My father served on the board of one of these excellent community-based nonprofits. It was funded by a combination of foundation grants, church support, the labor of conscientious objectors doing alternative public service, and before these changes, support from the state.
The agency where my father served on the board treated both mental illness and substance abuse rehabilitation. Inpatient treatment was available for as long as it was needed. It survived Reagan’s governorship by making some changes, but like many such agencies, it did not survive his presidency. State funding for such facilities is badly needed again.
The state also needs to correct some deficiencies in its criminal justice system. Recent reforms have rightly aimed to relieve mass incarceration and jail and prison overcrowding. However, they have not adequately brought back badly-needed rehabilitation programs in our prisons and jails, preparing people released from jail or prison to re-integrate into society. They also have not properly aligned post-incarceration supervision.
While I have previously found false Mayor Vinatieri’s misplacement of blame for a local officer’s death, Officer Keith Boyer‘s alleged killer should not have been under county supervision after release from Pelican Bay. The level of supervision upon release on parole should be aligned with the level of supervision the Department of Corrections determined was needed while imprisoned, not on the basis of the last crime for which they were convicted.
What the mayor’s column gets wrong:
The city, rather than the state, can take the lead in solving the most important of the four root causes of homelessness our mayor identifies – housing costs.
Whittier has only 624 housing units formally designated for low- and very low-income residents. The Southern California region needs to add 1.3 million units in the next 10 years, and Whittier’s share is just over 3,398.
Of these, 1,012 need to be for very-low-income households, 530 for low-income, 594 for moderate-income, and 1,306 for above-moderate-income households. The state can’t solve this problem without local government help.
The fastest way to add affordable housing at the lowest cost to the city is through gentle densification. The state has helped us by allowing ADUs (“back houses” and “granny flats”) to be added in areas zoned for single-family residences.
The City of Whittier can facilitate homeowners’ adding these units at little or no cost to the city just by setting and meeting a goal to issue at least 100 ADU building permits every six months.
In fact, ADUs can only be counted as part of the 3000+ planned units if the City has a track record showing its projection for a certain number of ADUs is realistic.
In order to meet these requirements, City government needs to take action immediately to begin promoting ADU construction and making it faster and easier for homeowners to get the needed permits.
Whittier can streamline this process by pre-approving a selection of ADU plans, assisting with financing, and promoting the program. Here is my six-point proposal for next steps:
- Set a goal to issue 100 ADU permits in the first 6 months of 2020 and another 100 in the second 6 months to set a track record that can count toward housing element requirements.
- Pre-approve a few sets of plans like San Diego County has done to make the process faster and cheaper.
- Look at the state ADU laws and see whether there are a few places Whittier could loosen them up a bit more for local homeowners, such as raising the 18-foot height limit enough that people could put a unit above their garage with a roof pitch that doesn’t look funny.
- Provide financing with loan-forgiveness incentives if homeowners rent to low or very low-income renters for five to 10 years. The city could work with a local credit union to help make this manageable.
- Waive or reduce fees for permits and make the process fast and streamlined. Train the Building Department staff to find ways to say yes, rather than to say no.
- Immediately begin implementing as much of this plan as possible. Don’t wait until a consultant can be hired and make a report. Put this on the next City Council meeting agenda and order that it be put on the agendas for the Planning Commission’s next meeting, as well as the Historical Resource Commission and any other commission that might have jurisdiction over some part of the ADU permitting process. Order staff to study all ADU incentive and streamlining programs in the state and report back with the measures that will get the most ADUs built in the shortest amount of time.
While the City also needs to provide emergency and transitional housing, this effort can significantly reduce that burden by preventing homelessness through the provision of needed housing.
The Whittier City Council has its first meeting of the new year on Tuesday, January 14. There are things we can all agree on, and one of them is that Whittier needs more housing.
So, Whittier, let’s show up at that meeting and ask our city council to make ADU permits easy to get. If you are able, contact your City Council District representative and ask them if they can get this on the January 14th City Council agenda and the January 21st Planning Commission agenda.
Photo: Accessory Dwelling Unit at the Capitol by Daniel Ramirez.