Town Hall prompts inquires on affordable housing, homelessness
Available housing supply, homelessness and “inclusionary zoning” were some of the big topics up for discussion in the last of two Town Hall Meetings led by members of the Merced City Council and department leaders at City Hall on Feb. 18.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the event was broadcast live on the local government access TV channel and through the city’s online portals. Questions from residents were sent in via email, voicemail and a survey on the website cityofmerced.org.
The term “inclusionary zoning” has made its way into City Council meetings in recent times, sometimes by activists urging city officials to consider more affordable housing options in Merced. The Town Hall last Thursday was no exception.
Scott McBride, the city’s director of Development Services, explained to residents that an “inclusionary zone is a concept where you ask the private market to assume a responsibility for providing affordable housing. Typically the way its done is you’ll set a goal, say a 10 percent goal, and private development has to meet that goal up to that level. So if it is a 100-unit development, 10 percent would be 10 units. Very often it is done in ways where it is a benefit to the developer so they can get a density bonus or a fee reductions. There’s typically some transaction involved that makes it marketable or something that makes it palatable economically for them to do it.”
There are also opt-out type options, McBride said, or pay-in-lieu where the inclusionary zone is done off-site or at a separate location, but that it should be noted an important distinction exists between allotting land for a type of housing and the actual development of the homes.
The City of Merced is “not really in the business of producing housing units,” McBride pointed out. “We don’t have construction teams. We don’t do that. We rely on partners to do that for us.”
Mayor Matthew Serratto weighed in on the topic. “The more I dive into it, it seems like it would be a difficult fit for Merced,” he said. “It might cause more problems than it would solve.”
Council member Delray Shelton echoed these sentiments, saying that while he is all for affordable housing and committed to do whatever he can to see that through, he is also on the fence regarding inclusionary zones.
“I’ve had a few conversations with some advocacy groups regarding that and they’ve been a wealth of information, but I’m still on the fence about what it will accomplish as a whole, and if government should be forcing people too. … People should have the right to live where they want to live. I don’t know if government has a place in that, but I do believe that we need to support affordable housing.”
Currently, the city of Merced is meeting the requirements set forth by the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which requires cities to plan for the housing needs of all residents. City leaders pointed out that quick process is being made, as in 2018, the city brought in 581 new single family homes and 16 new multi-family, which increased in 2019 to a total of 668 single family homes, and last year increased again to 723 single family homes and 389 multi-family homes.
McBride also spoke about the city’s continued pursuit of grants to help fund the First Time Home Buyer program that helps assist local citizens make their first home purchase. The most recent grant application, if approved, would help bring in $1 million for the program.
Speaking to the issue of affordable housing, Council member Jesse Ornelas touched on the subject of homes in Merced being affordable to those who are working in Merced, and referenced a figure provided by McBride during the earlier conversation about the price of new homes in Merced.
“Mr. McBride has given a number of 280,000s to low 300,000s,” Ornelas said. “My question really is: Do we have the economic development in Merced for the people that live here to buy the houses or are we developing houses for people out of town to come and by them.”
City Manager Stephanie Dietz responded: “I know there are houses that are being built in that range, but I also know that we have new homes that are lower than that too, so I just want to be clear and give you all the facts. So do I think that these new houses are pricing our residents out of the market? I can’t answer that question.”
As the exchange continued, Dietz noted that additional information would need to be gathered in order to fully answer the question posed by Ornelas, and further look at if the prices also lend themselves to affordable rent prices within the City of Merced.
Mayor Serratto noted that in addition to new homes being built, the city has approved a number of apartment complexes. “We have probably approved, I would guess, close to 1,000 apartment units that haven’t been built yet. So when those get online that is going to affect the price. We’re seeing Yosemite Avenue shape up like a good student housing corridor, and that is going to relieve a lot of the stress from the neighborhoods where there is a mix of students and families next to each other. And again that puts pressure on the neighborhood and puts pressure on the rents going up. So having that and having the students with a better student housing corridor is something that the market is kind of coalescing around, and were working on as well as a great avenue for the city for affordable housing.”
Serratto went on to outline a rental registration program, which would see those who own rentals register the units for a small fee. The revenue would go to funding rental inspections as a way to ensure that both renters rights are secured and that the stock of housing in Merced remains in good shape.
“It’s something that I think the last Council endorsed and it’s something that will come back to this Council with specifics,” Serratto added. City Manager Dietz said the draft ordinance would hopefully arrive in front of council members within the next two months.
Crosswalks for students
One resident asked leaders when a crosswalk would be added to Child’s Avenue near Golden Valley High School where students are known to cross the middle of the busy street.
Ornelas, who represents the District 1 area in question, spoke up: “We need to complete the neighborhoods we have now before we start adding on to them. I feel that is disrespectful to the people in my district to see that the city and county and other agencies are willing to put up other types of buildings in District 1, but they won’t finish the sidewalks.”
Dietz elaborated on some of the logistical constraints along this particular stretch of Childs. She noted that one of the big obstacles preventing the construction of sidewalks in the area is the nearby canal owned by the Merced Irrigation District, which would have to be moved underground at a considerable expense.
Additionally, once underground, some homes in the surrounding area would be too close to the sidewalk, possibly displacing some resident’s property, which would require county buy-in for the project.
Nonetheless, the City of Merced has put in for a grant to cover the project, according to Dietz. She also said the addition of crosswalks not located at established intersections oftentimes creates a false sense of security for residents, and that the city would likely look to work with the school district to provide crossing guards to help staff crosswalks for students.
One question had to with a a homeless encampment across from Golden Valley High School located on private property. City leaders turned to Merced Police Chief Thomas Cavallero to speak about the current state of the encampment.
“This particular situation actually involves three private property lots, and we started working on this in January and have been revisiting it as recently as this Tuesday,” Cavallero said. “We’ve issued citations and received a considerable amount of compliance, but the final property owner is having some trouble removing the debris, and we’re now in a situation where we’re helping her find a way to do that efficiently.” He went on to say that he thinks the question is currently being addressed and would imagine that the resident who inquired about the camp would be happy to see the way that the issue is being handled.
Council member Fernando Echevarria spoke up about his idea of creating a permanent encampment inside of city limits. Echevarria started by noting that the city and local law enforcement agencies are prevented from removing homeless people from their encampments until the city has enough beds to supply those who are displaced.
“The solution is we have to have a legal campground, and it has to be spread out, maybe two or three of them,” he said. “That is the only way were going to enforce the laws that are already on the books. We can make enough spaces with tents, provide some type of security, maybe a S.W.A.T unit with some type of camera, or have somebody in charge that will call in when there is some type of problem, but we have to think out of the box now. We have to come to a solution, and it has to be that we have some type of legal campground so that we can get the homeless that are causing nuisances, or that are causing damages and vandalizing and engaging in criminal activity out of the area.”
Multiple council members also questioned the role of Caltrans and the areas surrounding local highways, on-ramps, and off-ramps. “We have been working with Caltrans on several encampments over the last year,” Dietz explained. “We do need them to be more engaged, and the last time we did a massive cleanup was in council member Ornelas’ district, and it was city and county. Caltrans offered approval, but really we had to do the front-loading of the work including housing individuals.”
Other issues discussed and addressed during the meeting included beautifying local parks, the cleanup of bike paths throughout the City of Merced, creating additional lighting along the McKee to G Street loop and along the Bear Creek Bike Path for those utilizing the path at night, cleaning up the banks along Bear Creek, abandoned vehicles in south Merced, the creation of an outdoor local business market, the dedication of the downtown Farmer’s Market to the late Susie Rossi, creating a second day for the Farmers Market in north Merced, increased activities and education for the youth of Merced, the return of a Thursday night Farmer’s Market on Main Street, increasing the number of events in downtown Merced, increased presence of food truck courts in various areas around town, and more.
To view the entire meeting, a recording of the Town Hall is available online at the City of Merced’s official Facebook page or on the website, cityofmerced.org.