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Letter: Housing crisis should be acknowledged

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I am writing today as a concerned citizen, not as a representative of any group. As we prepare for the November election, St. Helena is fortunate to have excellent candidates vying for the City Council and for the position of mayor. I am not here to endorse any of them, but to voice a concern that I feel none seem to have addressed sufficiently in their campaigns to date.

There has been a lot of discussion about city finances, infrastructure improvements and the balance between embracing tourism and supporting our full-time residents. What I have not seen or heard is serious discussion of how our critical housing needs fit with the priorities and plans to ensure a functioning and thriving town.

Most everyone, including all the candidates, acknowledges the existence of our housing crisis and is supportive of addressing it, but I am not aware of any specific plan to generate the city funds needed to support a true housing strategy. In the last 10 years, 16 income-qualified residential housing units have been built in St. Helena. During that same time, how many existing, moderate-priced homes have been renovated into luxury vacation homes? How is the city government addressing the need to balance all types of housing in our town so that we do not become a place for the very wealthy to live?

As the candidates talk about the need for more revenue to improve and maintain public services, to combat climate change and to attract tourist dollars to our town, I would like to see them also speak of how they plan to obtain the revenue necessary to assist in developing the housing needed to support all these other endeavors. At the same time, when candidates talk about maintaining our small town character and quality of life, there does not appear to be a plan or vision for adding the housing needed to curb the steady decline in homes affordable for the very people that are essential to either.

By my calculations, our city government will need to contribute approximately $20 million over the next decade to 1) balance our second home residents and tourist-serving functions with diverse housing for those who support our economy and 2) provide the required incremental housing for the approximately 1000 people who will live in the houses we are required to build as part of our RHNA obligation.

Does that seem like a lot of new people coming to town? Consider this: St. Helena lost over 428 residents between 2010 and 2020, and lost another 42 in 2021 (Source: US Census). Given this trend, just to stay even over the next decade will require the building of the 254 housing units that RHNA requires. When working families move out, or can’t afford to move in, it affects our economy not just for low-paid service workers, but also because we can’t recruit medical staff and winery management, let alone teachers and retail workers. A town with a declining population does not operate from a position of strength. We cannot slow this decline without a sustainable city revenue stream earmarked for housing and an aggressive strategy for using those dollars effectively.

If you share my concern for not just the lack of housing, but the presumed lack of thought and action regarding how housing fits into our town’s big picture, please ask the candidates – all of them – how they specifically plan to find the time and raise the city funds needed to address housing as an integral part of our community’s health. We are not faced with an either or situation - economic prosperity or quality of life - we have the ability to achieve both. But I do not see how either can flourish without a sustainable plan to fund, create and preserve diverse housing opportunities for the people vital to our community.

Mary Stephenson

St. Helena

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