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Ventura looks to jump-start building projects, disperse low-income housing throughout city

By Rebecca Wicks
Ventura Breeze
Oct. 3, 2012

Last month the Ventura City Council made the decision to look into temporarily ending an ordinance that makes downtown developers include affordable housing in all new projects. The rule, which will suspend the law for five years if approved, is the city’s “downtown inclusionary housing ordinance” which currently requires 15 percent of all new units be affordable residences – for both rental and for-sale properties.

A similar ordinance – applying to for-sale units only – for other parts of the city would stay in place. The move is being made in an effort to jump-start building projects downtown and, in part to push affordable housing to other parts of the Ventura. The council voted 5-2 to have city staff develop a program for later approval after council members Christy Weir, Cheryl Heitmann and Brian Brennan proposed the idea.

City staff was also directed to make recommendations on creating a “rapid rehousing” fund and program that developers would contribute to in lieu of including low-income housing in their projects.

Council members who proposed the modification cited a weak economy as a main reason for the ordinance change.

“The cost of building downtown is a lot tighter than it used to be just a handful of years ago,” said Community Development Director Jeff Lambert. “A condo that might have sold for $600,000 may only be worth $350,000 in today’s market – this means the developer needs to reduce costs.”

According to Lambert there are a number of approved projects downtown that won’t be built until developers figure out a way to cut costs.

Lambert admitted this change won’t solve every problem developers face.

In their proposal, council members Weir, Heitmann and Brennan argued that downtown has more than its share of affordable housing with 38 percent of current downtown units falling in the affordable housing range. Housing Authority CEO Denise Wise understands the city’s need to rethink its strategy in the face of a changing economy and is interested to see how the recommendations and programs will unfold.

Wise pointed out that affordable housing has traditionally been concentrated downtown because it is where the majority of services and transportation hubs are located.

“The further you push [affordable housing] out the more difficult it is to get to services many low-income residents need,” added Wise.

Wise is also concerned about the fact that with this change there will be no requirement for low-income rentals anywhere in the city.

“The 15 percent requirement outside downtown applies only to for-sale units,” said Wise. “And, let’s be honest, very few people who are looking for low-income housing are in a position to buy today.”

Wise acknowledged developers are currently stretched but believes there will always be complaints from these groups when it comes to costs.

“A developer will always make the argument that it will ‘cost me more’ to do this,” said Wise. “I submit it’s the cost of doing business.”

The second component of the proposed change includes creating a pool of money to help with homeless issues that plague downtown.

“We are at the very beginning stages of developing what a rapid rehousing program might look like for Ventura,” said Lambert. “But the idea is to get people off the streets and into housing faster.”

It is common for rapid rehousing programs to provide monies for deposits and first and last month rents for individuals and families. Programs can be tailored to target specific groups of homeless people. For example, some are designed to help the working homeless others for families in particular.

The proposed ordinance would apply to projects that received a building permit after Aug. 1. City staff is expected to come back to the council next month to gain permission to hire a consultant. Final plans aren’t expected to be voted on until the new year.

Lambert said a consultant would help determine how much of a fee should be accessed from developers for a program like this. Lambert also said the process for developing recommendations and a rapid rehousing program will include input from a number of city stakeholder groups.

Wise is eager to participate.

“This is definitely an opportunity for a more comprehensive strategy,” said Wise. “As long as everyone understands while the economy may have changed, the need for affordable housing is still there.”