No more lip service and NIMBYism. It’s time for St. Helena to get serious about workforce housing.
The Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) are so concerned about the lack of reasonably priced housing that they’ve formed a task force headed by vintner Rick Jones to gather data, consult with experts, and explore multiple solutions.
Last week Jones gave our board some sobering statistics. In the last seven years, the county and its cities have created 500 jobs per year and built only 150 homes per year. It costs about $450,000 to build one unit of multi-family housing, and it takes a monthly rent of $1,500-$2,000 to recoup that investment.
Government subsidies can help (see Turley Flats and Brenkle Court), but securing them is complicated, time-consuming and expensive.
The cost of construction isn’t the only obstacle. There’s a shortage of available land, which is an inevitable consequence of the Ag Preserve. There are pockets of appropriately zoned land within the cities, but bureaucratic red tape and NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) drive up costs. According to developer Joe McGrath, a lawsuit from neighbors drove up the cost of his 8-unit McCorkle Avenue project by $500,000. You can imagine how that will affect rents.
We’re starting to see the economic ramifications, with restaurants and retailers struggling to retain qualified workers. Jones said businesses can’t hire talented staff and expect them to commute from Oakland, Richmond or Lake County when they can just as easily find work closer to where they can afford to live.
The business community is acting accordingly, with the NVV convening its task force and hoteliers supporting a 1 percent hotel tax to raise money for housing. We applaud them for their efforts, but wineries, restaurants and hotels only account for one-third of the county’s jobs, so we can’t just blame it on the tourist industry and expect them to solve the problem. We all need to work together.
Jones said there’s no single solution to the problem, so the task force is investigating multiple options that would involve the cities, the county and the community: building on the county’s proximity housing program, exploring family-friendly farmworker housing in the county, creating a clearinghouse where investors can learn about housing projects that are looking for funding, incentivizing accessory dwelling units for seniors looking to downsize, and trying to reduce the stigma attached to workforce housing projects, which at their best are quite lovely — have you ever walked through Stonebridge Apartments?
The state is already taking action by limiting the ability of local governments to block housing projects that comply with their zoning.
At the local level, we’re seeing significant progress in Calistoga and Napa, where city leaders recognize that their communities will die without new housing for the workforce, and in the county, which is financially contributing to housing construction in the cities.
We’ve seen small glimmers of hope in St. Helena, especially with Turley Flats and Brenkle Court. But those are only 16 units. When it comes to more significant projects, NIMBYism still reigns in St. Helena. That has to stop.
As a county, we need to set an ambitious housing goal – say 500 units per year – and then each pledge to do our part as cities, neighborhoods and individuals to achieve that goal.
Without places for our workers to live, we lose our economic vitality. Without middle-class residents to participate in our community, we lose our small-town quality of life. Without neighbors who actually live here for more than two months out of the year, we lose our neighborhoods.
We all value our views of the hills and the vineyards, but what good are those views if there’s nobody left here to enjoy them?
It’s time for us all to become YIMBYs – Yes In My Back Yard.