A City, If You Can Keep It: The harsh realities of growth

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A Winters Express op-ed column Data can tell you a lot if you know what to look for. It can show you how dangerous or safe school is for students during a pandemic. It can reveal investment opportunities in a stock that is shorted at a rate greater than the number of existing shares. It can show behavior patterns of customers. And it can show housing trends. Information online shows that 78 percent of homes in Winters cost between $300k and $750k with 64 percent costing between $300k and $500k. Recently two homes within city limits sold for well over those prices. Is this a reflection of the income distribution of people who want to move here, a window into what the market has demanded, both, or something else? The city’s virtual Housing Element Workshop states that the median home price in Winters in 2020 was $467,000, required an annual salary of $100,000 and a $93,400 deposit to buy. Those housing prices have increased 81 percent in the past 10 years. Homes at the prices above are within reach for people in the moderate and above-moderate income brackets. One interesting data point in the workshop is that the household size and vacancy rate hasn’t changed in 10 years. Nearly 200 more homes have been built, but our overall mix isn’t all that different. Winterites (Winteronians?) also own their home at a higher rate than the rest of Yolo County. I draw two assumptions based on those facts: 1. Our population income distribution has been consistent over the past 10 years. (Remember this as you read further.) 2. New residents have a long-term investment in our town since they buy more often than rent. Now the important part — our Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), assigned by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) with the associated income brackets for 2021-2029, are: • Very low income: 125 homes for incomes $0 to $46,250 • Low income: 75 homes for incomes $46,251 to $74,000 • Moderate income: 104 homes for incomes $74,001 to $111,000 • Above moderate income: 248 homes for incomes $111,001 and up Given what the actual housing market has been, where are these allocations coming from? Regional need obviously, but is it realistic to assume that 22 percent of people moving to Winters will be near the poverty line and unable to buy or rent a home here? Census.gov reports 8.2 percent of people in Winters are in poverty. I’m just a dumb Army grunt with a computer but even I can see these numbers at the bottom end don’t reflect reality. The problem I see with the RHNA process is that again, it is an urban centric process being pushed onto rural small towns. Rather than assign housing inventory requirements based on projected growth by municipality, regional growth projections are allocated. This may work for areas that are congruous between cities, like the greater Sacramento area where you cross the street and you’re in a new city. Yolo County is 15 or more minutes between towns and the housing needs of one do not necessarily reflect or affect the housing needs of another. Winters’ population growth is different than Davis. The state is essentially asking rural towns to solve urban problems created by urban policies. (I’m looking at you San Francisco with your rent control and anti-growth behavior.) Maybe SACOG is using “Field of Dreams” logic: If you build it they will come. I can say from experience that it costs about $5,000 a year and 1.5-2 hours per day to commute to Sacramento for work. The commute cost alone is a hardship for someone in a lower income bracket to live here and work anywhere but Davis, Dixon or Vacaville. So, my questions would be: Who are “they” that will come, where are they coming from, and where do they work? Answering these questions is essential to planning for actual growth. All the good intentions and empathy in the world will not change that people in the very low-income bracket and even most in the low-income bracket will not be able to afford to buy a home. Not in Winters, not in California. The cost of living here is too high and the math just doesn’t add up in their favor. So, housing for those income levels must be rentals, and rentals require investors. The Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley published a study in March 2020 that reported, “the costs to develop a new affordable unit under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program have increased to more than $480,000 per unit,” and cost per square foot reached $700 in 2019. Those numbers are likely higher than we see in Winters since they factor in Bay Area and LA housing costs, but we start to see the problem here. The workshop from the city reports that in 2019 rentals in town range from $870 for a studio to $2,150 for a four-bedroom house and are affordable to households earning $43k to $102k respectively. Most rentals I’ve seen advertised in the past year are well over $2,000 a month in Winters. I am sure someone will read this column and write a Letter to the Editor accusing me of being heartless, NIMBY, or advocating for gentrification. None of that is true, this is simply a breakdown of reality compared against the RHNA numbers and the incongruity therein. All that aside, there is a 51-question survey linked on the city website. If the sample size is large enough and reflective of the demographics of our town population, it should provide some insight into our current situation. It is not a complete solution, but the resulting data will be valuable. The video is brief, the survey is quick. Make time to take it and provide your input into how growth will be planned. You can’t complain about the outcome if you don’t participate in the process.

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