Opinion

By Bill McEwen

I feel Steve Brandau’s pain.

The Fresno city councilman has sticker shock over the cost of a proposed Blackstone Avenue affordable housing project. Upon doing the math, Brandau announced to the world that the per-unit cost for the 88 apartments was more than $430,000.

The city could go out into the private market and buy 88 pretty nice homes and have money left over, Brandau said. Why not do that instead?

Let’s consider his idea.

The biggest hurdle, as pointed out by affordable housing experts, is that the state of California doesn’t fund a program that attempts to address the state’s housing crisis in this manner.

However, Preston Prince of the Fresno Housing Authority and Jake Lingo, vice president for the Blackstone project developer, said in interviews with GV Wire’s David Taub that there is merit to Brandau’s idea.

Another consideration: Buying up existing housing stock in sufficient numbers to dent Fresno County’s affordable housing shortage — estimated at more than 41,000 units — would significantly raise home costs for families with the means to purchase one.

Let’s Try This Instead

A better idea might be to have the state provide funding and low-interest loans that help affordable housing developers buy and rehab a significant portion of Fresno’s “slumlord” housing stock and make neighborhood infrastructure repairs.

In addition, Brandau doesn’t credit the Blackstone project for eliminating blight and for providing relocation costs to the businesses that occupy the ground where the four-story, multi-use project is proposed. Nor does he address the positive impact that the $38 million project would have on an area begging for investment.

The project also includes 2,000-square feet designated by the developer for $1 annual rental as a senior center. That isn’t big enough to accommodate Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier’s vision for a senior center, but it is a start.

Finally, Brandau hasn’t surveyed Fresno residents about how they would feel about homes in their neighborhood becoming subsidized rentals. History shows that many Fresnans object vociferously to affordable housing projects in their neighborhoods.

Other Cities Would Love to Have This $38 Million Project

Both Brandau and District 6 Councilman Garry Bredefeld have publicly voiced opposition to the project. I ask them: You would rather see this investment go elsewhere in California? Believe me, other cities would embrace and pass a similar proposal in a heartbeat.

There’s something else to consider, too. As “clicks” increasingly win the war against “bricks” for consumer spending, Fresno and other Valley cities may very well be saddled with a glut of retail space. Converting strip malls and other blighted retail space to affordable housing could be a viable strategy for fixing California’s housing shortage and skyrocketing costs.

Team With Developers and Lawmakers on Innovative Programs

Government works best when it uses a wide array of tools.

It behooves Brandau and Bredefeld to work with affordable housing developers on proposals to renovate Fresno’s and the state’s blighted housing stock. Once they have teamed up on a solid proposal, they could talk to state lawmakers about starting a pilot program.

Over time, we would learn what approaches deliver the best bang for the buck.

There is no shortage of bumper-sticker ideas for fixing what’s wrong with Fresno.

Perhaps if more politicians put down their talking points, rolled up their sleeves and did the hard work of finding workable solutions, residents would benefit more often.

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