Tiny houses

Tiny houses, 400 square feet or smaller, are among the topics considered in a city of Tracy housing affordability survey.

A workshop on Monday gave city planners and a consultant advising city leaders a few more ideas for local policies that could close the gap between what people pay to live in town and what local workers can afford.

The two-hour meeting at the Tracy Transit Station involved 14 residents in addition to city of Tracy planning staff members and consultant David Early from PlaceWorks of Berkeley. The workshop was designed to get responses to a series of questions about the types of affordable housing that the city lacks but could create through new city land use and development review policies.

Early started off the meeting by comparing income levels in town now to the income levels needed to rent or buy housing locally. Moderate income, up to 120% of the median income, is about $109,000 in Tracy, about $20,000 higher than the rest of San Joaquin County. Low income in town is considered just under $72,700, about 80 percent of the median income.

Meanwhile, a median-price home costs $485,600 to buy, requiring an income of $127,500, and a median-price apartment rents for $2,350 a month, requiring an income of $104,300.

“When you get to the low and very low income families, they are outside of the affordability game,” Early said. “Even here, where rents and sales prices are significantly lower than San Francisco, Oakland or Berkeley, there is still this disconnect between what people earn and what a house costs to buy or rent.”

Monday’s participants took a survey using electronic voting devices, which translated to bar charts projected on a screen at the front of the room showing how proposed affordable housing strategies rated on a five-tier scale, with responses going from strong support to support, a neutral vote, opposition or strong opposition.

The public can take the same survey through the city’s website, www.cityoftracy.org, until Sept. 27. Those ideas that gain support will become recommendations for the council to consider. Early said he plans to bring those recommendations to the council sometime in October or November.

Ideas that gained support on Monday included revision of zoning laws to allow for “accessory dwelling units,” such as small detached homes or converted garages or outbuildings next to existing homes. That idea gained even more support when such units were proposed as a feature of new development. Monday’s attendees, nearly all homeowners, were mostly neutral on whether they would build secondary units on their own property.

The idea of new development of “tiny homes,” with less than 400 square feet of floor space, also gained support.

One participant, who lives in a mobile home park just outside of town, said his community is very affordable. He pays $650 a month in rent, and some of his neighbors pay up to $1,000 a month. He added that mobile home parks are often characterized by a stigma they don’t deserve.

“It’s the quietest place I’ve ever lived … and there’s no crime,” he said. “The people who live there, they all work. You’ve got like three retired people.”

Another participant said that homes for lower-income residents shouldn’t be segregated into low-income apartment complexes or clusters of small houses.

“It seems to me that what we should be doing is integrating affordable housing in other housing developments, so the kid that might come from a single parent family or whose parents make $60,000 could go to the same school as the kids whose parents make $500,000,” he said. “If they’re going to build Tracy Hills, then why wouldn’t every corner lot be a four-plex? Well, because the other buyers don’t want ordinary people in their community, but that’s what the city should be saying they have to do.”

Monday’s group supported higher-density apartment buildings, especially in the downtown area. Early noted that Tracy’s maximum height for apartment buildings is 35 feet, but that could go up to 70 feet in some cases, resulting in buildings with three or four stories of housing over a ground floor that could include retail shops or parking.

The city could also look at changes to its growth management ordinance, a policy that dates back to 1987 and regulates the number of building permits the city can issue in any single year. Local voters amended that ordinance in 2000 through Measure A to reduce the number of building permits allowed in a year.

Developers gain priority for building permits by applying for residential growth allotments.

“These RGAs are highly sought after,” Early said. “They’re generally used to build single-family homes. In fact, the city exempts affordable units and multifamily units as well, and infill units are exempted, and those exemptions have essentially never been used.”

That means such exemptions are not a big enough incentive for developers to build affordable housing, but Early said other ideas could encourage developers to think about high-density projects.

“What the developers responded positively to was an idea that you could get additional RGAs if you promise that some percentage of those additional RGAs would be dedicated to affordable,” he said.

There was also support for a revision of environmental review policies, where the city could pre-approve some sites for affordable housing before developers came forward with specific projects.

“It would save time. It would save money. It would pre-clear a project so that a developer would know that they have certainty,” Early said. “This is a thing where I’ve heard from several nonprofit housing developers, who have said to me that if cities will do this, it will really make a big difference in the process.”

One idea that was mostly rejected was a proposal to present voters with a bond measure to provide development subsidies for affordable housing. Early noted that such a measure would basically ask voters to increase their own property taxes to give developers money to build homes for low-income residents.

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or 830-4227.

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