The 2019-2027 Calaveras County General Plan housing element update is up for public review, according to a Planning Department press release.

The state-mandated periodic update includes goals, policies and implementation programs to address availability, affordability and community needs pertaining to housing.

Based on the update, the county is facing a myriad of challenges.

The 2008 recession threw a wrench into construction plans countywide, and even with the county rebounding from the downturn, rising building costs over the past decade have compounded the issue, according to Planning Director Peter Maurer.

Less than 20 percent of homes destroyed in the 2015 Butte Fire have been rebuilt.

“We’ve got plenty of vacant land – the problem is that no one is building in the county,” Maurer told the Enterprise in a March 21 phone interview. “The cost of construction (generally) exceeds rent or sales value of what can be made for affordable housing projects.”

High construction costs associated with state fire safety and energy conservation requirements present challenges for the county in attracting developers to invest.

Updated in 2008, building code requires sprinkler installation in any new construction, which can cost thousands of dollars for homeowners, according to Economic Development Director Kathy Gallino.

“The developer won’t eat that,” Gallino said. “It has to be passed on to consumers.”

Maurer said that the county is looking at the feasibility of reducing building code standards to lessen costs for new owners, which could mean eliminating the sprinkler requirement for certain-sized homes.

“The trade-off is obviously that the standards were put into place to protect life and safety,” Maurer said. “Can such standards be waived without risking the health and safety of the county’s citizens? That is something that will have to be looked into.”

State policies also have conflicting desires to achieve both affordable and energy-efficient housing, Maurer said. An example is installing windows that reduce heat loss to meet state goals for greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the investment could save money down the road, the upfront costs of energy conservation measures are too high for homeowners to take on.

“While it’s good to make housing as energy-efficient as possible, it’s too expensive (for most homeowners),” Maurer said.

The update also indicated that nearly 50 percent of Calaveras households are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgages.

“When you run the numbers, there’s not that much housing available for people trying to work for a living at the mean salary level,” Maurer said.

Part of the reason for the lack of available housing is that seniors (residents over 65 years of age) make up about 25 percent of the population, more than double the statewide percentage.

In tourism-centered towns along the Highway 4 corridor, vacation rentals are cutting into the permanent housing stock and driving prices up for the local workforce, Maurer said, with reference to Copperopolis, Murphys and Arnold.

Nearly 40 percent (10,180 units) of the county’s housing stock is vacant – a substantially higher rate than the state’s 8 percent – but about 80 percent of the county’s vacant units are classified as “for seasonal, recreational or occasional use.”

The county is reliant on tourism revenues, and “We want to be able to provide lodging for our guests, but at the same time we need to provide housing for those that work in that industry,” Maurer said. “If you’re a tasting room manager in Murphys and you have to commute from somewhere else into the county, it’s not very effective or desirable.”

Maurer pointed to the 2018 voter-approved ban on short-term rentals in South Lake Tahoe – a hot tourist destination with nearly 1,400 vacation home rentals – as an example of how local governments are handling this kind of issue.

For the economic development context, Gallino emphasized the need for a career technical education-skilled workforce in Calaveras County as a crucial factor in achieving a “vibrant, healthy economy.” That wouldn’t be possible without affordable-workforce housing, Gallino said.

“There is a great need for a skilled workforce in the trades, and we don’t have good a set of pathways for kids to find technical career paths to support (the) local economy,” Gallino said. “Not every family can afford to send their kids off to college. They need places to live that are affordable.”

As listed in the update, the county proposes to prioritize “permit processing to development projects that include an affordable residential component,” offer incentives for projects that include units for low-income households and continue to apply for state and federal funding to “support public agencies and private entities involved in the provision of affordable housing.”

Current and future housing projects

Health and Human Services Director Kristin Brinks has been working with the Stanislaus Regional Housing Authority (SRHA) on developing a 23-unit complex near San Andreas Elementary School called Foothill Terrace.

The SRHA is a nonprofit, public corporation that works with various counties to address unmet housing needs.

Located on the same property as the Federal Emergency Management Agency units that housed Butte Fire victims, the site was acquired by the housing authority a year ago with the goal of building up more workforce housing in the community, according to Jim Kruse, the nonprofit’s deputy director.

The one-bedroom units will be approximately 560 to 580 square feet with washers and dryers included. Depending on costs of construction – which will be funded through bonds – the housing authority is aiming to keep rental prices between $800 to $950, Kruse said.

“Our hope is that once we have those developments we can use this same model in other locations throughout the county,” Kruse said.

The project is just one of the county’s numerous undertakings to meet housing needs and align with housing element goals, Brinks said.

“This is one particular strategy that is very much in line with the housing element,” Brinks said of Foothill Terrace. “I’m proud to be a part of the project. I think it demonstrates how collaboration can lead to success, and this will be a success.”

Kruse said Foothill Terrace is slated to break ground between June and August of 2019.

A series of “Copper Valley” projects seeks to bring in 800 new homes to expand the Saddle Creek housing development in Copperopolis.

Those projects are looking at various housing options, from “high-end golf course homes” to multifamily, senior and entry-level housing, Gallino said.

Angels Camp city leaders are tackling affordable housing as well, with pending applications to the Planning Department for 36 units on Murphys Grade Road past Bret Harte High School and 87 Habitat for Humanity units, according to City Planner Amy Augustine.

Angels Camp has its own General Plan with the same requirements and deadlines as the county.

Augustine said the city hopes to get the Murphys Grade Road application to the Planning Commission by June, after which “We’d be working with them to start building.”

As for medium- to high-priced housing, the city has sold 38 of its 55 new lots in the DeNova Housing Development in Greenhorn Creek, and is close to finalizing another five, Augustine said.

In the Valley Springs area, work-force housing demands will likely increase when its new Health and Wellness Center comes online, Maurer said. Slated to open in August, the facility will employ 30 to 35 people.

“Everyone wants to live as close to their work as they can,” Maurer said.

The housing element update will be available for review and comments from April 1 to June 1 at the Planning Department, 754 Mountain Ranch Road, San Andreas, or online at planning.calaverasgov.us/Gen-Plan-Zoning/Housing-Element.

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Reporter

Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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