23 Jun 19
This is the second part in a series on the local post-Camp Fire housing crisis.
CHICO — On Nov. 7, 2018, the housing vacancy in Chico was at nearly 1 percent. By 9 a.m. the next morning, the town of Paradise — just up the Skyway — was facing a wall of flames. By nightfall, the entire town and its surrounding communities had evacuated into the city, and more than 15,000 homes were destroyed.
This tragedy came after years of an already-growing housing crisis in Butte County. Overnight, Chico had absorbed most of the population of Paradise and much of those from nearby Magalia and Concow.
Now, despite months of varying efficiency proposals, Butte County has few clear options available to Chico and the surrounding communities trying to address their immediate housing crisis.
Recommendations for change
In a memorandum to the city after the Camp Fire, Brendan Ottoboni and Brendan Vieg of Planning Services recommended several projects in response to the current housing crisis and identified a variety of building obstacles that face Chico.
Their memorandum, released in March, referenced the tentative development map from Chico’s planning services department.
Their concerns were in response to how much has changed since the fire, and the outlook has hardly improved.
Chico’s 2016 Five-Year Plan originally proposed that: “The potential for 8,689 single-family units is based on an assumption that 50% of vacant land designated Medium Density Residential… will be developed as single-family residences.” Medium Density Residential typically has 7 to 14 units per acre.
According to this report, however, single-family residential development in the city mostly occurred on land designated as Low Density Residential, which has a density range of just 2 to 7 units per acre.
But the outlook for building interests in Chico has drastically changed.
For example, in 2018, a total of approximately $88,500 was approved in residential permits for a total of 448 houses and more than 350 buildings. Non-residential permits totaled nearly $23,000,000, and 750+ lots on 213 acres are under construction, with nearly 400 proposed units.
In May, a total of $9.5 million was approved by the city for both residential and non-residential permits. Of that, $7.7 million was for residential projects.
In fact, between January and April, a total of $43.1 million was approved for all permits. The total of residential permits increased from $7.5 million to more than $9 million in January and February alone.
In his opinion, Brendan Vieg said, the push for development has dramatically increased since the fire by necessity.
“Projects approved before the Camp Fire moved forward, faster, afterward,” he said.
But the problem of supply and demand is also at play: Butte County’s workforce may not be capable of handling enough projects to meet demand. And infrastructure projects for some of the largest building zones approved in Chico must still be approved to get those pending developments off the ground.
Crisis in county building
Other communities have openly declared their support to try to ease the pressure on the housing market. Orland Mayor Peter Carr said he has been waiting for years to fulfill much-needed housing projects in his town.
“We’ve had a number of new employers coming in … but there’s no housing to support the new employees,” he said.
He faces the same problem as other communities surrounding Chico — a lack of new infrastructure to accommodate the overwhelming demand for more houses, and a lack of options for funding those infrastructure needs in order to attract more builders.
The city would welcome more housing, particularly lower-priced houses, he said. Market listings for homes in Orland are often $100,000 less than similar listings in Chico, where bidding wars have driven prices above $350,000 on average.
But, Carr said, the workforce isn’t here to build them.
In this kind of crisis, builders look to the hottest prices on the market, and those all belong to Chico. Lots that were approved in Orland years ago still stand ready — zoned, but with no streets built yet. The town is left waiting for funding from the state in order to improve its infrastructure, as more and more builders look to Chico, where the profit margin is higher than the promise of savings from lower building fees in Orland.
Based on current legislative trends, many Californians who have gone to the government for aid to help with building developments are likely to be disappointed.
A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 57 percent of possible voters now favor policies that would allow local governments to build denser housing developments near mass transit and job centers. However, the loss of the controversial housing bill Senate Bill 50 — which would have stopped many cities from their habit of banning four-to-five-story apartment buildings around public transit and ended zoning rules reserved for single-family homes — is another roadblock for housing-positive movements across the state.
That’s why the Chico Planning Commission recommended changes to streamline the process of developing infill housing as well as increasing approval of accessory dwelling units. The Council considered the amendment to a standing building code that called for the removal of an owner-occupancy rule, requiring landlords to also occupy the residences they are currently renting out an ADU on.
Some of the more conservative councilors expressed concern that new state legislation will reverse this type of law in the near future, but ultimately the amendment passed 5-2. For now, the reversal of this rule could help to add varied housing options onto already-existing structures, outside of building costly new homes.
City councilman Karl Ory addressed why Chico has had difficulty moving building projects forward.
“How do we measure whether Chico is doing ‘our share?’” he said.
Even for a 30-40 percent development increase, he said, “No one could do it overnight.”
He also said that the memorandum, while comprehensive, is “only an initial report.”
“We need additional reflection on what we have now,” he said, referring to projects that have moved forward since the memo’s release in March.
He said that the process of reviewing what is possible for development will have to be done “holistically,” but would not elaborate on what that means for local legislation at this time.
The decline in projected affordable housing production in 2016 and 2017 coincided with severe cuts in government housing subsidies. That’s why, Ory said, he hopes for more money from the state level to help fund bigger projects. But the approach for Chico to get that money, he said, has to be “clever, and aggressive enough.”
Meanwhile, the number of approved permits in Chico continues to rise, but many of these sit waiting for city approval to use the land they would sit on, as well as other concerns for spending, like expanding infrastructure to accommodate several projects at once.
It is possible, as opportunities open up in Oroville and in other communities than Chico, that builders and prospective tenants will increasingly look further south for permanent housing options. [related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-tag”]
This series will continue next Sunday.