Affordable housing projects may have to cut parks

Smee Homes says it cannot afford to add a park to 400-home subdivision in Goshen and County says it can’t afford the cost to maintain it

By Reggie Ellis

TULARE COUNTY – Affordable housing is expensive to build. According to some industry experts, affordable housing can cost as much as 30% more than a similar sized home not eligible for affordable housing. As of Jan. 1, 2020, the cost will increase again as all new homes in California are required to have solar panels, a cost that developers can’t pass on to low-income residents applying for affordable housing. Something has to give in order for developers to find profit margins in affordable housing, and in the case of a new subdivision in Goshen, that means getting rid of open space.

At its Dec. 11 meeting, the Tulare County Planning Commission discussed a development that will provide a significant amount of the county’s supply of affordable housing. Smee Homes, Inc. is planning to build a 400-lot subdivision of affordable housing on 69 acres at the corner of Avenue 308 and Road 64 in Goshen. The homes would be built in four phases and it would also include two commercial lots and a ponding basin. 

With just over 1,000 households in Goshen, the project would represent a significant increase in available housing. The projected housing need of Single-Family Housing Units in Goshen is 2,541 by the year 2040, according to Tulare County’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). This project’s 399 single-family homes will provide approximately 16% of the projected housing need for the Community of Goshen by 2040 and 6% of the need for the county’s unincorporated areas.

Aaron Bock, chief planner for Tulare County’s Resource Management Agency (RMA), said the rising cost of affordable housing and the infrastructure required on this particular project meant it was not feasible to add the cost of a park. More importantly, Bock said the county did not have the resources to fund the ongoing maintenance of a park. He said all of the county’s parks have been built with grant funding but there is no grant funding to cover the cost of maintaining them. Most cities use landscaping and lighting districts to assess homeowners for the cost of maintaining parks or common landscape areas but the County of Tulare does not currently have an ordinance allowing for that type of property assessment in unincorporated areas.

One commissioner suggested creating a homeowner association for the subdivision but Bock said that could increase monthly payments by as much as 20%. 

“I expect these people can’t afford any more than what they pay for the house [payment],” vice chair Bill Whitlatch said.

Ken Turner, who represented the Porterville-based home builder, said the homes were all single story between 1,200 to 1,600 square feet and had four bedrooms and a two-car garage. The homes would have small yards, a 20-by-30 foot patch, and with a five foot setback would be just 10 feet apart including a fence.  

With such small lots, tight quarters and little lawns, planning commissioners were a little surprised there was no park included in the 69-acre subdivision.  

“You are putting in four bedrooms for families with kids,” Commission John Elliott said. “Are they supposed to just play in the streets?”

RMA Planning Director Mike Washam said the solar panels alone will add $75 to $100 more per month to house payments in the subdivision and that most of the federal subsidies go to the homeowner, who may not be able to navigate applying for those subsidies themselves.

“This might not be the preferred housing that some people in room would like to live in themselves, but we need to provide housing for all facets of society,” Washam said. 

Submitted site plan.

Randy Forester, project engineer for Forester Weber and Associations, said the developer is already bearing the burden of being one of the first major developments west of Highway 99 in Goshen. He said Smee Homes is providing a 15-inch sewer line that connects to the Goshen Community Services District and is drilling a new well and turning that well over to California Water Services, which provides water to Visalia and Goshen. Smee will also be charged a fee per property to offset the cost of road maintenance.

Bock said there is significant cost for Smee being the first homebuilder in the area, but future developers, who can piggyback on some of the infrastructure of this project, may be able to add parks as part of their subdivisions.

Commission Maria McElroy agreed.

“One of the things I’ve seen in north county, when one development goes in then others will want to start building. We may have other developments that will want to support the parks infrastructure.”

McElroy suggested setting aside open space around the subdivision and then having staff find grant funding to add a park nearby, which was agreeable to the rest of the commission. 

“We are asking for trouble in creating a ghetto here…at some point down the line we need to address the parks situation. If the county ever wants to add on to housing there, they may have to foot the bill for a park,” chair Wayne Milles said.

Whitlatch asked if something could be worked out with the schools to allow kids to use the playground at Goshen Elementary School after school and on weekends. 

Washam said he was already in talks with Visalia Unified School District about allowing children to use the playgrounds and fields at both Goshen and Ivanhoe Elementary schools. He said the schools are excited about the Goshen project and may be open to the idea. 

Whitlatch motioned to approve the environmental plans, subdivision map, zone variation with the added recommendation that staff investigate land in area for future community park. The motions passed 5-2.

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