Livable Communities Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 40
November 2016
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Welcome to Our Fall 2016 Livable Communities Newsletter! 
HOME (Housing Opportunities Made Easier) conducted its 15th Annual Ventura County Housing Conference on October 4th.  Held annually, this half-day conference is designed to explore changes, trends, and issues relevant to the housing climate in Ventura County.  This edition of our Livable Communities Newsletter focuses on key highlights of what may have been the best discussions ever in this series.  We have chosen to cover the event through two articles, one by Stacy Roscoe dedicated to keynote speaker Professor Peter Rupert's fascinating look at current macroeconomic issues now at play, and the second by Dao Doan covering the very provocative panel discussion of learnings that closed out the session.

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Stacy Roscoe 

Bad Policies vs. Good Economics
by Stacy Roscoe
The keynote speaker at this year's Ventura County Housing Conference was Dr. Peter Rupert, professor of economics at UCSB.  His message is even more timely today after the national elections than when he first delivered it on October 4, 2016.  He started out by asking himself a question:  "What's keeping me up at night?"  He was quick to answer:  bad policies vs. good economics, specifically international trade, minimum wage, housing, and the Fed.  He sees plenty of unintended consequences because action is not thought through. 
International Trade

Dr. Rupert utilized a graph indicating what is really going on.  Since 2005 real GDP is trailing the linear trend for the first time since 1941.  

Dr. Rupert's asks, "Is this is bad policy or less productivity (has everything been invented)?"

Trade policy is a key issue in this discussion.  We must keep focused on the simple question "Why do we trade?"  Historically, the answer has been that we do what we do well, get money, get what we need with money, and generate competitive advantage.  However, over time, things change. It is obvious to Dr. Rupert that this discussion leads us to the conclusion that free trade is good.  If we get rid of free trade, we shrink the size of the economic pie.  We must stay focused on policies that intelligently split the pie, especially among the unemployed and poor people.

Housing Conference Issues and Perspectives
by Dao Doan

When I was asked to volunteer on the Ventura County Housing Conference Organizing Committee some 12 years ago to represent both my firm, Mainstreet Architects, and  the Ventura County Civic Alliance (of which I was a Chair and am now a member of the Executive Committee), I was hoping that I wouldn't be there very long. I had wished to work myself out of that position, for I thought at some point the conferences would end if their objectives had been met. What's the point of the conferences if there is n o longer any issue with housing, or so I naively thought.

In prior conferences, the messages were pretty consistent and clear: yearly data showed that housing supply fell far short of the demand. At the time, shortage numbers in the 30,000 units were presented, with a projected County population in the early 1960 ' s General Plan of a maximum 1.5 Million by about 1984. It is now still only about 850,000. Yet as years went by, housing needs kept growing at a faster pace than the County was able to produce units. This created a supply-demand imbalance that contributed to an artificial housing cost inflation which put homes further out of reach of people of various income levels. Despite valiant efforts by local public housing agencies and other non-profit, affordable housing developers, thus far they have not been able to create enough affordable housing units to close the gap.

Hence, I formulate a mental mission to bring to the conferences open dialogues exploring the reasons that cause such shortages and how can we address them. P erceptions vary depending on each person' s perspectives. In general though, they revolve around the following major issues:
  • The emotional hurdle, or often referred to as NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard): many oppose building all the housing units needed based on the perceived threat of "urbanization" of areas . They like to point to villainous examples: Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. They react negatively at the mere mention of proposed housing units.
  • The political hurdle: both elected and appointed City leadership
    naturally responds to the high pressure from the vocal minority that shows up at council meetings to loudly express their opposition to projects of various scales, even if they often do not understand all the fine nuances of community or building design
  • The psychological hurdle (closely related to the two above): At about the
    same time the Housing Conferences started taking shape, the SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) initiative passed in most of the County. This initiative restricts developments outside of the boundaries of 
    the areas already "urbanized" to preserve farmlands and open space . This is not an unworthy cause. However, there have been no provisions to allow  increased density within the "urbanized" area to make up for the loss of the  ability to build more needed housing units. Many people perceive density as "bad" (where  "th ose people" live) , and they refer to LA or the Valley as examples they do not want to emulate in the County. Such sentiments are often expressed without any explanation as to why it is "bad" or what they mean as "bad . " Often people confuse overcrowding with density and lump the two together without any differentiation. Intermingled with all that are more complex and controversial issues of race, gender, age, etc.
This year saw the 15th conference. Fifteen  years later, I couldn't help asking myself, what has happened?  Many of the take away messages from the various speakers and local planners were similar to the ones before. The issues:
  • As long as NIMBYism remains strong, efforts to meet housing
    demand will be an uphill challenge. Everyone concerned should step up and attend city council meetings to voice support of deserving projects, rather than leave it all to the naysayers.
  • While development demands certainty, local politics can be baffling to those not familiar with the area. This discourages even savvy developers from proposing projects in the County.
  • Many consider Ventura County a "paradise," but culturally and geographically it is fairly isolated. It is not always " in sync " with concepts explored in neighboring communities such as LA or San Fernando Valley where density is better tolerated. Change is not an operative word here. The outside world has to conform to the County, not the other way around.
  • The Federal tax deduction for the housing mortgage is the biggest subsidy to all homeowners and adds to the artificial housing shortage as well as to an imbalance between rental and ownership units. Homeowners perceive that additional housing units lower the value of their own properties, which have reached artificial highs thanks to the artificially created shortage. Thus a never ending vicious cycle is created. Talk of removing the deduction has been around for years with no sign of any progress.
  • Lack of political courage from government leadership to push the housing agenda.
  • Sadly, in the last 10 years, 11,000 units have been entitled and permitted, but not built. There are several examples of sites readily available for higher density mixed use type housing, such as the still vacant old "Top Hat" site in downtown Ventura , which would add considerably to the
  • The big recession has further dampened development activities, whereas  before it, developers just said yes and hoped to figure out how to make it  work later. All the added time has made many projects no longer viable.
  • It is too easy to sue a project; even after years of processing have gone by and a project has been approved, it can be brought to court. The CEQA  process encourages this approach.