A community forum called to discuss St. Helena’s housing policies was dominated by critics who said the city has failed to provide enough affordable housing.
Residents chided the city for not meeting its most recent housing targets, for counting second units as full-fledged housing, and for proposing a list of potential development sites that critics say is unrealistic.
“We’ve had numerous proposals presented for (developing) property in designated areas, but the political will has not been there,” Sandy Ericson said.
The more than 40 people in attendance said the city needs more housing for local employees, farmworkers and seniors, as well as young families who make too much to qualify for subsidized housing but not enough to break into St. Helena’s pricey real estate market.
“I worry that my kids and other family’s kids, will never be able to afford to live in St. Helena,” Mark Smithers said.
Tuesday’s meeting was related to the update of St. Helena’s Housing Element, a state-mandated component of the General Plan.
Unlike the rest of the plan, which has to be updated every 20 years, cities and counties have to adopt a new Housing Element every eight years. Like other Bay Area jurisdictions, the city has until Jan. 31 to adopt a new Housing Element and get it approved by the state.
A major component of the Housing Element is a list of “opportunity sites” demonstrating that the city has enough land that’s appropriately zoned and available for development during the next eight-year cycle, said Christine O’Rourke, who’s overseeing the Housing Element update for the city.
“The city is not required to build any of that housing,” O’Rourke said. “The city is just required to make sure that the zoning is in place and that there aren’t any constraints on the development of that housing.”
The city’s goal is to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Since the 2014-2022 RHNA focuses on providing housing in already urbanized areas, St. Helena’s RHNA is just 31 units, down sharply from 121 units in the last cycle.
Of those 31 units, 18 must be affordable for people making less than 120 percent of the county’s median income of $86,100 for a family of four. Those affordable units are split up into moderate, low and very low income categories.
In the 2007-2014 cycle, 77 housing units were developed in the city, 64 percent of the city’s RHNA target. But housing advocates criticized the city for counting 43 second units — also known as granny units — toward that total.
Second units, typically one-bedroom or studio-sized, might be adequate for one person or a couple, but not for families, said John Sales of the housing advocacy group Our Town St. Helena.
When the city surveyed owners of second-units, only four of the 13 owners who responded said their second unit was available for rent, Sales said. The others were reserving the space for family members or guests.
“Aren’t we fudging the numbers a little bit when we start including all these personal use studios?” Sales said. “The intent of the law is to produce livable units that people … can rent.”
O’Rourke said the city can’t regulate who lives in second units, or whether they’re occupied at all. In order to count legally toward the city’s RHNA, a second unit only has to be intended for occupancy, she said.
“Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right,” Smithers said.
Josefina Hurtado said she helped tenants of a condemned Pope Street property look for adequate housing, and second units weren’t feasible.
“In reality they are designated for family or individuals that (the owners) care for, and are not really for our community needs,” Hurtado said.
Mary Stephenson, a member of Our Town St. Helena, questioned why the city was taking credit for working with the owner of Woodbridge Apartments to renew the property’s regulatory agreement to continue providing 50 affordable units for the next 30 years.
Those units were already part of the city’s housing stock, so the city didn’t count them toward their last RHNA allocation. But Stephenson questioned why they were even being mentioned alongside new units.
“You’re saying we preserved 50, but we lost 48,” Stephenson said, referring to the rental units that were eliminated to make way for the Grandview hotel project.
Mike Hardy defended the city, saying it had no control over the housing market crash that occurred during the last cycle.
“If the developer … says. ‘I don’t want to build it,’ then what’s the city supposed to do?” Hardy said.
Future housing options
O’Rourke described a few ways the city could work toward its next RHNA target of 18 affordable units, including eight units approved at the previously condemned Pope Street property, eight second units that are part of the second phase of the Magnolia Oaks project, and a possible nine to 12 units at a half-acre lot on McCorkle Avenue purchased by the city last May.
Calistoga Affordable Housing is overseeing the Pope Street project. CAH President Larry Kromann cautioned the city not to depend on the eight units being developed according to the affordability rates the city envisions.
“Right now, it’s almost impossible to make that work financially,” Kromann said.
When asked about the financial feasibility of the McCorkle project, O’Rourke and Interim Planning Director Greg Desmond declined to provide details.
“It’s in process. I can’t tell you anything more than that,” O’Rourke said.
The city also proposed a list of 12 opportunity sites where housing could be developed.
Stephenson questioned the inclusion of a few sites on the east side of town where development is contingent upon street extensions that the council has removed from the latest draft of the General Plan.
Critics also questioned why the list includes vineyards and other sites that aren’t likely to be developed, especially after the City Council added policies to the draft General Plan discouraging the development of agricultural land.
“We have to cease being disingenuous with our opportunity sites,” said Paul Dohring.
Chuck Vondra recommended removing the 17-acre Hunter property, located past the eastern terminus of Adams Street, from the city’s list. The city is processing an application for 87 housing units on the site, but its location behind the new levee makes it unsuitable for housing, Vondra said.
Taking on the liability of allowing construction behind the levee “would be very dangerous,” Vondra said.