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Builder Says Fresno's New Home Space Is Vanishing. Where Will Buyers Go?
gvw_edward_smith
By Edward Smith
Published 3 weeks ago on
June 24, 2024

One major local homebuilder says Fresno's 2014 General Plan has put the squeeze on new home construction, pushing buyers outside of the city. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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A major local homebuilder whose company has stressed affordability since its start says space for new homes in the city is dwindling quickly.

John Bonadelle II

“There’s a dwindling supply of those properties that exist in the city of Fresno without SEDA being available. As a result, you’re seeing home buyers that still very much are in (the market) for that single-family traditional home to raise a family going to where there is an availability of homes.” — John Bonadelle

And, with the demand for homes strong, he fears that homebuyers will turn to Fresno’s surrounding cities for places to live — even more than they do now.

John Bonadelle, director of operations for Bonadelle Neighborhoods, says the city could stop pushing new homebuyers away by implementing a decades-old plan that would bring balance to the housing market and open up opportunities for more families.

Planning, however, is never simple. Landowners in the planned area, as well as environmentalists and farm groups, oppose the proposed expansion in southeast Fresno.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the Fresno City Council put off indefinitely a June 6 workshop to be presented by the Building Industry Association of Fresno Madera Counties on the 9,000 acres of land called the Southeast Development Area.

But the specific plan and environmental impact report for SEDA at some point will still need to be heard by the planning commission and Fresno City Council. The city has delayed that step, too, saying infrastructure costs and population growth have not justified moving the plan forward.

However, builders say without the plan, they can’t calculate infrastructure costs. Additionally, Fresno County’s population growth tripled the low forecasts that Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer used to justify pausing SEDA.

If Not Fresno, Where Will Homebuyers Go?

That lack of movement on SEDA will affect Fresno in the long term, says Bonadelle, whose father believed in building homes that his carpenters could afford.

“There’s a dwindling supply of those properties that exist in the city of Fresno without SEDA being available,” said Bonadelle. “As a result, you’re seeing home buyers that still very much are in (the market) for that single-family traditional home to raise a family going to where there is an availability of homes.”

On the other side of the debate, some property owners in southeast Fresno say the plan would remove over 6,000 acres of prime farmland. Environmental groups agree, saying the impact on air pollution would be significant and irreversible.

“The truth of the matter is that this is the biggest land grab by developers, builders for their own interest and profit at the expense of the current residents of Fresno City and Fresno County,” states a letter acquired by GV Wire from David Ramming, vice president of the Southeast Property Owners.

City Intended SEDA to Mitigate Housing Price Shock

The largely untouched land making up the 9,000 acres of SEDA still needs water, power, and streets — and property owners willing to sell.

The city began considering this land made up of family farms in the mid-2000s. Planners looked to the region as a way to address housing shortages. They intended it to be modern and walkable, with job centers and retail areas built throughout the area.

After housing prices skyrocketed during COVID, SEDA was then seen by the city as a way to address housing prices fast-accelerating beyond the budgets of local families.

“The Plan must address these challenges and more. As a result, this Plan will include a special focus on the creation of mixed income neighborhoods, with a diversity of housing types and a commitment to affordable housing,” the city’s draft plan reads.

Since 2023, Clovis — less than a quarter of Fresno’s population and size — has issued nearly eight permits for every 10 permits that Fresno does.

At a third of Fresno’s size and a quarter of Fresno’s population, Visalia’s 442 permits issued since 2023 represent 3.5 permits for every 10 permits Fresno approves.

With less than a quarter of Fresno’s population and square mileage, Clovis has issued 78% of the permits Fresno has in the same period of time. Data acquired from various cities. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

Fresno Cheap for Other Californians

In five years, housing prices in Fresno have climbed nearly 44%, going from $295,000 in May 2019 to $425,000 in May 2024, according to the California Association of Realtors.

While still affordable in comparison to California’s $908,040 median home price, Fresno’s draft SEDA plan identifies that housing costs are pricing out more and more locals.

“While the Fresno Region is known for relatively affordable housing and rent costs compared to many other cities and counties across California, many of Fresno’s families can no longer make ends meet through rising inflation costs for rent, food, energy, gasoline, and water prices,” the plan states.

Realtors report more and more in-migration to the city as remote work continues to allow people from higher priced California cities to live in Fresno.

But while emigres from other parts of the state can find affordability in the Central Valley, locals have a harder time competing for a limited inventory of homes.

Household income in Fresno County only grew 21% from 2019 to 2022, with the most current data from the Federal Reserve pegging that amount at $68,700.

Fresno’s 54.1% homeownership is slightly lower than California’s 55.5% but is well under the 65.6% national rate, according to U.S. Census data.

Only five other California counties have homeownership rates lower than Fresno’s.

Bonadelle said that opening up SEDA would help balance affordability by bringing new homes on the market.

“If I was a home buyer — that next generation of home buyer that wanted to buy in Fresno and remain a Fresno resident or become a Fresno resident — I would be a little bit discouraged that SEDA isn’t opened up yet because that means I’m fighting over a scarcer amount of supply for houses inside the city,” Bonadelle said.

Eastern Fresno County has some of the most productive ag land in the U.S. (Kings River Land Trust)

2014 General Plan Pits Infill Against Suburban Growth

Bonadelle’s history of building in the Valley goes back 75 years. But in the past few years, the company has looked outside of Fresno for new opportunities. Bonadelle says that’s a direct result of the city’s 2014 General Plan.

He’s gone to Merced, Madera, and Visalia as land opportunities in Fresno shrink.

The General Plan — heralded by then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin — focused on infill development and building up the city’s interior. The goal: place people closer to job centers and mass transit.

The plan requires that infill development be done before suburban growth.

But that focus on infill comes at the cost of building outward, Bonadelle said. He said housing in Fresno has become an either-or conversation, pitting infill development against suburban growth.

Single-family homes on infill land are limited. Bonadelle said infill alone can’t satisfy the housing demand he sees.

“When you look at the global picture, here in our state and the fact that there’s a couple million-unit housing shortage, any housing supply should be considered good housing supply,” Bonadelle said.

Environmental Impact from Building Unmitigable: City

The draft EIR looks at how construction would affect water and air pollution. While city staff say groundwater recharge facilities and additional water sources could mitigate decreasing availability, air pollution would be unavoidable.

The inability to mitigate both short-term and long-term pollution in one of the most polluted air basins in the U.S. created consternation with environmental groups.

Not only would construction add dust and exhaust into the air, but at full build-out, vehicle traffic and household energy demand would increase greenhouse gas emissions in a “significant and unavoidable” way, the city’s environmental document recognizes.

The document also acknowledged that homes and vehicles are becoming more energy efficient, but ultimately, expanding the city’s sphere would contribute to global climate change.

Fresno Attorney Patience Milrod, who co-founded the nonprofit Greenfield Coalition, which opposes the SEDA project, told GV Wire that the purpose of an environmental document is to find a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that the document doesn’t do that.

“Not only does the environmental document not have any straight-faced mitigation, they don’t even try,” Milrod said in a presentation from the Greenfield Coalition to the League of Women Voters.

Loss of Ag Land Permanent: Farmers

The removal of ag land is worrisome for many in the agricultural world. Karen Musson, managing partner of GAR Bennett and board member of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, wrote to the city of Fresno that the loss of prime farmland cannot be replaced.

“Ag farmland is in serious jeopardy — not from drought or climate change — but from indifference, urban sprawl, burdensome regulations, and a lack of understanding on the critical role of food production to our freedom, jobs, and health,” Musson said in an August 2023 letter opposing the SEDA plan. “Agriculture is essential and its destruction should be avoided at all risk.”

Farmland in eastern Fresno County typically has better water availability than in ag land in the western parts of the county.

Building in SEDA would require property owners to sell. The SEDA plan also creates a buffer to ensure urban growth does not extend beyond the plan boundaries.

Darren Rose, president of the Fresno Madera BIA, said considering the population growth in Fresno, building out a new supply of homes make sense.

“People want to move here, people want to be able to buy homes,” Rose said. “People want to get a job at a company and go to school.”

For SEDA to Go Forward, Stakeholders Must Be Engaged

The city’s SEDA plan states that the area could be built out in a way that looks toward the future in terms of environmental impact A variety of zoning would be allow residents to live where they work. Plus, Clovis Unified’s Terry Bradley Educational Center would accommodate thousands of future students.

“The SEDA plan addresses air quality through its unique Mixed-Use District land use pattern, which puts jobs, schools, and housing within walking distance in order to reduce vehicular emissions,” the plan states.

Rose said that building out SEDA requires coming out with a plan that involves all stakeholders.

“We want to see SEDA benefit the city and benefit consumers and residents,” Rose said.

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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