Wildfire in California and Economic Development

With a blanket of smoke in the air from multiple fires raging across California, policy-makers, investors and the business community gathered together to have a conversation. I was in Santa Rosa last week attending the California Economic Summit. I was inspired by the message of inclusivity and resiliency.

The location of the Summit this year was not an accident.  After devastating fires in the Sonoma region last year, Sonoma County wanted to highlight the region’s destruction and their subsequent fortitude.

As a rural Californian and as a progressive, I have high expectations for my peers. I attend these conferences in order to serve as a voice that demands inclusivity for under-served communities. Our issues need to be a distinct part of the conversation.

I came home inspired.

In spite of the rhetoric coming out of the national conversation, this year’s summit unabashedly focused on some of the most pressing issues facing California today: climate change, income inequality, workforce development, watershed restoration, affordable housing, and elevating rural California—including wildfire prevention, forest management, and rural broadband.

After attending the conference, I know that one thing is clear: key players understand that economic development in our Golden State will continue to rely on whole-systems thinking that must address all aspects of our economy. Where there were gaps, I raised my hand and stood as a voice for rural California.

Policy makers, investors, and businesses are weighing in on how to move forward with our advantages, while mitigating our risks in order to make our communities sustainable for everyone. This was an underlying current throughout the entire conference.

Given the recent events in our own community of the Sierra Foothills, I have found hope in the spirit of the people of Santa Rosa, who suffered last year from the Tubbs fire which burned more than 36,000 acres and destroyed over 3,600 structures, changing the landscape within the city limits of Santa Rosa and destroying landscapes inside Sonoma, Napa and Lake Counties.

Seeing the devastation of the Camp Fire has been terrifying and overwhelming.  This cannot be understated. Our friends in Butte County are on all of our minds. The relief effort is proof of that.

The heart-felt relief effort has been nothing short of an out-pouring. Our neighbors and all surrounding community members stand with Butte County in their time of need.

The people of Grass Valley and Nevada County know that what our communities to the North are facing today, is the terrifying possibility that we might face tomorrow.

What I didn’t realize until last week is that fire danger is on the forefront of the minds of everyone up and down California. We are not alone.

As wildfire is becoming more and more common, and as more communities are effected by crumbling infrastructure and increasing risk, the conversations about prevention and resiliency have shifted. This is no longer a rural conversation.  This is a California conversation.

In Santa Rosa, just a year later, neighborhoods are being put back together, houses are being rebuilt, burnt hillsides are cleared of dead trees and brush. The grass has come back green.

The natural world is resilient and so are the people who inhabit it.

The folks in Sonoma County have a saying: “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”

As our neighbors continue to rebuild, and as we continue to help, let us hold that saying in our hearts. Let us bring that sentiment to community gatherings. Let us show up with our best selves.

To donate to the relief effort in Northern California click here.

Increasing Affordable Housing

Question from Brent Phillips, college student: “What methods of increasing affordable or low income housing supply do you support or propose for Nevada County? I would imagine it’s very complicated, considering space currently rendered off-limits due to historic landmark status, reserved for forest or park space, rendered unsafe by past mining, or just already occupied by high-priced housing and businesses.”

My answer:

Housing is complicated but the restrictions you point out are actually less of a prohibiting factor than some might think. Relatively, there isn’t much land that is zoned for housing that is “rendered off-limits” due to historic landmark status, reserved for forest or park space, or rendered unsafe by past mining.

Nevada County is having trouble enticing builders and buyers due to cost-prohibitive regulations that make building new home structures or residential communities not competitive.  Current permits and regulations dictate small, single family homes at a starting selling price of nearly $400,000, even in Nevada County where property is still relatively affordable in the California market.

The rising cost of building new housing is complicated by state regulations and current property codes. The legacy of Prop 13 has made it difficult for communities to make ends meet and this phenomenon disproportionately effects rural communities.  While some communities might be able to wiggle incentives into a budget for builders to provide affordable housing, communities like western Nevada County do not have excess spending to provide any offset.

In her column published on April 9th 2017 in The Union, local Financial Adviser Mary Owens summarized Prop 13 by saying, “The basic premise of Prop. 13 was relatively simple. The maximum tax rate that could be assessed was limited to 1 percent of the value of the property. The real property values were set to the 1975/76 levels as the starting point. Thereafter, the only increases that would be allowed without substantial improvements or resale were further limited to a 2 percent maximum annual increase, and any special taxes needed to be approved by two thirds of the voters.”

Since Prop 13 passed, many communities have realized that the tax break benefits big businesses in a way that affordable housing for single family homes cannot compete with.  Sadly, overturning Prop 13 would require navigating an incredibly complicated initiative process. Any attempts to create community balance through incentives or public-private partnerships are non-starters because there isn’t enough money to get projects off the ground. Recently, the OC Register, noted that if the Disney company were assessed a fair and current tax rate, the company would be paying Orange County $4.6 billion more annually.  Underfunded coffers from legacy tax legislation like Prop 13 perpetuate the housing shortage and communities are going to have to get creative.

But there are other setbacks. Local tax codes also make it difficult for cities to find incentive to build new housing because often the services needed to support more housing (police, fire, etc.) are not supported by property taxes within the city limits. Property taxes largely go to county coffers and so enticing Grass Valley, for example, to build more housing would require investment and collaboration from county government which this community hasn’t seen in any promising way in recent years. I’d like to change that.

I would like to see smart growth in Nevada County paired with walkable neighborhoods and desirable market places that support the talent already in Nevada County.  Retail spaces for big box stores and large retail companies are quickly becoming vacant across our country. This is disproportionately impacting rural communities and we will soon enough see a direct impact of the “retail apocalypse” in Nevada County.

Rather than compromising our rural charm and submitting to suburban sprawl, compacted apartment buildings, and strip malls, we could collaborate with local small business owners to create affordable retail space for local people and build up, not out, to include an affordable housing component with each new business or shopping development where zoning will allow.  Where zoning won’t allow, we may need to rethink current zoning laws and building codes in order to come up with innovative solutions.

Further, we should be holding all landlords in Nevada County accountable to lawful building codes and mandated upkeep, bringing all rentals into compliance with state regulations for rental properties. If incentives are needed, I believe this would be a worthy investment for our community, an investment that would have rippling impacts.

Bringing rentals up to code won’t just improve the living situation for the average renter in Nevada County but could also help expand the Housing Choice Voucher market (also known as Section 8) so that those qualifying for subsidized housing have a larger pool to choose from.  Supporting low-income residents with housing helps to reduce rates of homelessness and homeless-related crime. 

Currently, Housing Choice Voucher regulations require inspections for building owners who need to be up to current code. While all building owners are required to be up to code, in very few instances are the owners ever subject to inspection.  Since so many property owners are not up to code, owners bow out of the Housing Choice Voucher program and Section 8 housing in Nevada County falls far short of supply. This supply shortage puts an unnecessary pressure on certain communities, specifically Grass Valley, to build housing that is designated for Section 8 voucher recipients.

Our approach to housing solutions must include workforce housing, introductory housing for young people and families, housing for retired couples and individuals, housing for seniors and the disabled, as well as housing for middle and upper income people. Nevada County can supply affordable housing. We need to approach the project with the entire community in mind. We must work together as a community to provide diverse and affordable housing with sustainable communities in mind. We can provide solutions without sacrificing our rural values and we can provide solutions with the whole community in mind.

The Economy

The consumer economy is changing.  As millennials grow professionally, we are seeing their spending habits differ greatly from Boomers and Gen Xers.  Some economists are betting that millennials will assume the spending habits of the Baby Boomers once they have the means.  Economic trends disagree.

Online consumer spending is increasing and people are turning to the internet more and more for their shopping needs. Services that deliver food to your doorstep are changing the way families share meals. What does that mean for Nevada County? Our small businesses must adapt in order to attract customers.

If we are going to stay economically competitive in Nevada County, we must move from a consumption economy to an experience economy.  It is not enough to have a restaurant with decent food or a shop with interesting items. Consumers are looking for an experience.

The good news is that Nevada County is already perfectly poised to move into the next era of consumer spending.

Organizations like Grass Valley’s Downtown Association, the Greater Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Center for the Arts, and so many more, are providing Nevada County’s residents and visitors with more than just retail and dining.  With events like the Wild and Scenic Film Festival and Music in the Mountains’ annual Brewfest, Nevada County is already on the map.

The hard work of the Nevada County Arts Council partnering with the cities of Nevada City and Grass Valley to have Western Nevada County granted State Cultural District designations is a great example of how governments and community organizations can partner in order to raise our community’s visibility as both a great destination and a great place to live.

Homelessness

Most Americans are just one paycheck away from homelessness, according to an article published by Marketwatch in January 2016. Citing a Princeton College Research Survey, “Approximately 63% of Americans have no emergency savings for things such as a $1,000 emergency room visit or a $500 car repair.” Many families are teetering on the edge.

According to Sacramento Steps Forward, the agency that coordinates local efforts to aid those without homes in Sacramento, homelessness in our neighboring city increased by 30 percent from 2015 to 2017.

We are seeing similar increases in our own community.  As the director of Nevada County’s Health & Human Services Agency, Michael Heggarty, pointed out in a May 2017 op-ed published in The Union newspaper, “Since 2009 the ‘Point in Time Homeless Count’ has averaged about 300 individuals per year. The 2017 count identified 371 people (though the actual number is likely higher), 15 percent of which were children.”

While the problem is increasing, efforts to combat homelessness are also increasing.  Coordinated efforts between our local governments, our law enforcement offices, and the many nonprofit and volunteer-run organizations have been ramping up.  

In 2016, our local community shelter for the homeless, Hospitality House, placed more than 100 people in permanent housing.  This was after a devastating budget cut stripping more than $300,000 from the organization.  With a budget that is largely funded by individual donors and community members, Hospitality House, like so many of our homelessness advocacy organizations, relies on the community for backing.

As with many issues facing society, we are better able to offer sustainable solutions when efforts are supported and coordinated.

In Nevada County, we have several agencies and organizations working to help people in need of housing in our community.

Homelessness is often a symptom of other issues, or a combination of many factors impacting a family or individual seeking housing.  In order to combat the crisis, we must also work in tandem, combatting some of the other issues that may lead to a person or family becoming homeless.

Kayla grew up in Nevada County with a difficult childhood and a homelife that promoted fear. Growing up in an abusive home, Kayla turned to drugs as a teenager for relief and then as a culture of escape. She came to rely on her fellow drug-users as a makeshift family and eventually as a means of making money as she became a dealer.  In and out of rehab, with failed attempts at sobriety, Kayla found Hospitality House and their support services.  

Hospitality House worked with Kayla and her social worker in order to empower her with coordinated services to help her with treatment and social support, as well as housing.  Hospitality House gave her job training while also providing her with a support system while she spent four months living at the shelter in transition. Today, Kayla has two years of sobriety, is living in permanent housing, and has held a stable job in the foodservice sector for over a year.

We are facing a serious housing shortage in California and housing prices have become increasingly unaffordable.  Many people who suffer with medical complications, mental illness, or addiction are often more impacted by California’s housing crisis and need a whole-systems approach to housing services.

Nevada County is equipped with the talent and the resources to combat the housing crisis both from the ground up and from the top down.  We can help people and families who have fallen on hard times and need rapid rehousing resources.  We can help those in need who are burdened by compacted issues such as poverty, domestic violence, illness or addiction.

We cannot allow the daunting task of combatting homelessness fall on any one city, agency, or organization. Nor can we ask a few key community partners to disproportionately shoulder the costs of services.  We cannot approach the issue of homelessness as something precipitated by a single cause.

In order to continue effective support we must continue to back coordinated efforts and support those already working. We must see homelessness as a symptom of greater issues in our community.  We must see those combatting the greater issues as key players in combatting homelessness and we must ensure that those organizations are supported.

As Nevada County’s District 3 Supervisor, I will continue to support coordinated efforts for sustainable solutions to house-lessness.  I will support community organizations already doing the work on the ground.  I will support infrastructure to allow community organizations to have access to shared information and resources.  When we work together, we work more efficiently and everyone benefits.