Opinion Editorial: Flip your housing standards

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Laura Rearwin Ward, Ojai Valley News publisher

The “Haves” have it and those who don’t, won’t. Ojai is a shrinking town, building an average of one home per year over the last 20 years. Even during this season of charity, we've heard the NIMBY battle cry for a building “moratorium” from our mayor. (Because one house per year is too many?)

The state of California is pushing back on cities such as Ojai and Los Altos Hills that for decades have fought against building affordable housing.

Fifty-four percent of Ojai residents qualify for affordable housing because they are cost-burdened (paying more than 30% of their income for housing). Eighty-two percent commute elsewhere to work because of the lack of good-paying local jobs. No need for bricks to build a great wall — it's an economic gate. You can work here, but you cannot live here. And if you live here, you likely work elsewhere. The median home price is $945,000, pricing even the middle class out of the market. The housing policies nurtured by our city officials for decades have born the expected fruit of inequality and class disparity. Ojai is stoking the divide and keeping property values going up as families leave the valley.

Politicians who consider themselves to be “progressive” have been running our city for decades, yet no affordable housing has been built. Now, the state has stepped in with Senate Bill 9 — permission for lot splitting — for relief. Our city grapples with what it means to be truly progressive or to craft instruments to thwart opportunity for all. Will our city be able to do what's right, or will entrenched NIMBYism keep winning?

Local housing promotes sustainability and socioeconomic justice, improves schools, grows diversity, decreases homelessness and lessens rush-hour traffic. It allows the American Dream to exist for the next generation. Social-justice advocates should be embracing SB9.

The nostalgic code words are like a mantra: “small-town character.” What do they mean? Racist policies can be defined as any policy that leads to racial inequity. Abstract ideas such as “sustainability” or “social-economic justice” carry powerful messages on political signs. Symbols are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand — like affordable housing in your neighborhood. The old value of single-family homes surrounded by an Ojai rock wall does not fit the insecure generational reality. How can we intentionally rob the next generation of opportunity?

Environmental NIMBYs use climate change to disguise their self-serving agenda and a rallying cry to stop housing. Residential use makes up 20% of all water use in the Ojai Valley, yet they argue that Ojai water should be preserved for themselves, water-thirsty citrus that is exported to Japan, Canada and La Jolla, and to irrigate local golf courses. Water is on the greatest hits list of the “shut-the-door-behind-me” crowd.

How will the landed gentry stop housing in the valley this time? The city of Ojai is hard at work already. A shameful, discriminatory ordinance was served up to the City Council by staff at the Dec. 14 meeting to keep workers and middle-class families out of the valley for good. SB9 already restricts absentee owners from splitting lots, so that eliminates rental property from discussion. Some classic tactics offered by the city this week were:

1. Getting Ojai moved from a Stage 3 to Stage 5 drought emergency to nullify SB9.

2. Making the SB9 state minimum building size of 800 square feet the same as the maximum. This drives up the per-square-footage price, making loans harder to get, and eliminates family homes.

3. Creating historical designations. That is a tactic being suggested by staff to evade the mandated permission to split lots.

4. Adding zoning setbacks of 40 feet, (a number greater than the current building requirements), and adding a 16-foot height limit to ban second-story units, to vastly reduce properties that can participate.

5. Passing homeowner-deed restrictions to restrict homeowners’ rights and limit their ability to rent to anyone unless they are low or very low income (anyone making less than 50% of the median family income). This would make a division project financially infeasible.

The Ojai Valley News wants to thank the brave councilmembers Ryan Blatz, Suza Francina and Randy Haney who stood up for what is right Dec. 14 and set aside — for now — the embarrassing “Urgency Ordinance.” 

Readers, going forward, listen to the statements at project meetings. They always begin the same way: “I'm all for affordable housing, but I have some concerns about THIS project.” Then out come the reasons, and nothing gets built. 

SB9 is far from perfect. We have brought the hammer of the state upon ourselves through our regressive housing and planning policies. We are also courting a war with the state. (Isn't war with Ventura enough for now?)

We have a moral obligation to be part of the solution and to provide equal opportunity to living the Ojai dream, to improve our infrastructure and diversity. Was Edward Libbey the last person to have a vision for the future of Ojai? Perhaps there is a way to have it all.

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