What “affordable housing” means for Downtown Stockton

What is affordable housing? With the Cal-Weber 40 project approved for tax credits in late September, there have been some reservations expressed about whether building affordable communities will really bring anything to the table in terms of downtown revitalization. The quick answer is, yes, they will, but some clarification is needed on what affordable housing is and what it isn’t.

Many people and organizations working on low-income housing developments work from the belief that everyone, regardless of income, deserves a safe, quality place to live. Most folks and agencies define “affordable” as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of an individual or household’s annual income. Unfortunately, much of the housing available in California falls on the wrong side of this threshold. Couple that reality with a city like Stockton, where poverty rates are high, and it can be really difficult to find budget-friendly housing – especially for families.

Rendering of the Cal Weber 40 project on the corner of Weber and California Streets in Downtown Stockton (c/o ArtifexWest)

Preliminary rendering of the Cal Weber 40a project on the corner of Weber and California Streets in Downtown Stockton (c/o ArtifexWest)

There is a stigma associating affordable housing developments with infamous mid-twentieth century low-income “projects.” But we’ve come a long way toward understanding that simply providing a dwelling unit does little to assist people and their families mired in the trials of poverty. The approach toward housing over the past few decades has evolved holistically. Nonprofit developers and others dedicated to helping those living paycheck-to-paycheck have worked extensively to incorporate services and amenities into new developments.

It’s now very difficult to build an affordable housing community without ensuring these additional community characteristics are incorporated, such as proximity to transit, schools and libraries; making sure residents have a local grocery store to go to; providing onsite daycare and afterschool activities for children and even computer labs in some developments. These services must be incorporated because it’s now nearly impossible to finance affordable housing developments without the subsidy local, state and federal funding sources provide.

Still, there are some who might say, “But, wait! We don’t want all that crime associated with poor people. We don’t want our property values to plummet!” What this comes down to is management – like any other housing development, be it affordable or market rate. It’s true that some of the low-income housing currently located in downtown Stockton is poorly managed. There are no locks on entrances or exits, allowing anybody to come and go. There are absentee landlords who refuse to address substandard living conditions or enforce rules. There is minimal accountability and the consequences show in blighted buildings and desperate tenants.

It also comes down to a little education and understanding on behalf of naysayers that affordable housing isn’t just targeted toward lazy people who don’t want to look for work and are looking for a handout. This is housing targeted toward individuals and families with real needs. It’s a task in itself to apply for and receive an affordable unit, requiring extensive personal paperwork and documentation. This housing is meant for teachers, service providers and one-income households. As housing prices continue to soar in the Bay Area, pushing people out of their homes, the Central Valley can expect serious population gains over the next few decades and with increasing demand comes increased housing prices.

So, what do affordable developments, like Cal-Weber 40, mean for downtown Stockton? It means people. It means the start of a constant presence our downtown so drastically needs so that when 5 p.m. hits, the area doesn’t become a ghost town.

Downtown Sacramento’s revitalization began with affordable housing projects such as the 7th and H Affordable Apartments

For many other downtowns successfully navigating the revitalization process (Sacramento is a good local example), many of the first developments to hit were mixed-use affordable communities as nonprofit developers were the only ones willing to take that first risky step. These developments provided that 24-hour population presence and encouraged others from around the area to come and utilize the ground-floor commercial uses – things like restaurants, grocery stores and retail. Once you get life back into the lungs of the downtown core, market rate developers and others will come knocking and additional investment will begin.

So, affordable housing in itself does not detract from successful community development. Rather, if constructed and managed appropriately, affordable housing can become a community asset, providing hardworking families and individuals with quality housing and services. When coupled with a commercial component, the development can have far-reaching effects by attracting people from all over the city. Stockton and the rest of the Central Valley need to be progressive in how we plan to house our current and future residents. Everyone, regardless of how much money one makes, deserves a safe, clean, and affordable place to call home and why shouldn’t that be Stockton?

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Categories: Community Commentary

7 Comments on “What “affordable housing” means for Downtown Stockton”

  1. Ned Leiba
    November 13, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Kristine,

    If you want to revitalize downtown, you need invested residents. To do that for Stockton, it is simple. Have the largest downtown employers – the City of Stockton, County of San Joaquin, State of California, and in the past the US Government – provide incentives for their employees to live downtown, and disincentives to commute from areas outside of Mid Town. It can be done. When I suggested that to the Stockton Community Development Director, it seemed to provoke apoplexy.

    The other benighted ideas are too inefficient such as the low income housing credits, below market loans and government gifts aka grants. They are too indirect, complicated, speculative and cursed with Rube Goldbergism to work.

    Direct employment benefits and disincentives will work, and could be implemented if the “government” were viscerally committed to downtown.

    We have civic acts and ceremonies decorated with attractive architectural designs and renderings – they are symbols without substance.

  2. November 13, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    Hi Ned,
    Thanks for your comment. Do you disagree that low-income residents can be invested residents?

  3. Ned Leiba
    November 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Hello Kristine (or Noelani)

    Low income residents can be invested residents and often are. It is more a matter of community which can be very “income diverse” and still very successful. I live in the Magnolia Historic District and work downtown, and indeed there is “income” diversity with good elements of community in my neighborhood.

    What pains me is the development and roll out of elaborately constructed urban plans, complex tax deals etc, which all come with high costs but little empirical benefit. Those plans will not get more residential folks deeply invested in downtown. The direct tool of employer incentives by the government is the one program that has a high likelihood of success. And once there is core success, others will follow the vanguard . And then, the invested community of residents (many gov types) will speak strongly, effectively to receive their fair share of City services (Police and Fire) and commercial services (local grocery stores).

    But government employer incentives will not be tried. And do you know why? The City can conjure up all sorts of cavils, but at the end of the day, well paid government employees may be irrationally scared to live downtown…and they might need some palpable encouragement to overcome those irrational fears.

  4. Jon Seisa
    November 13, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    Well, I suppose if this strategy works properly with close and accountable supervision to “kick-start” infill downtown and economic vibrancy, then it will be absolutely great.

    But if it just reiterates “The Projects” of the 60s as “welfare housing” then we have a problem.

    I just read a first person account of what happened in a community recently where Habitat for Humanity built “affordable housing” condo units for the poor and after the construction crews packed up and went off to their next project and the new poor residents moved in, the new units were incrementally, gradually and eventually stripped of every minute piece of architecture and components from copper wires, faucets, light fixtures, doors, doorknobs, garbage disposals, electrical fixture plates, louver blinds, crown molding, carpets, windows, built-in appliances, cabinetry, and so on, as the resident poor desperately sold fragments of the units for survival money and drug addiction money, piecemeal at a time, until the whole project ended up looking like a miniature reincarnation of abandoned Detroit.

    Hopefully, that will not happen in Downtown Stockton. So I agree, draconian management is not just key, but absolutely critical and vital.

  5. Jon Seisa
    November 13, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    Another augmented approach that may be considered in tandem is exhibited by Downtown St. Louis, along Washington Avenue, which has gone through an amazing and dramatic renaissance and transformation, going from complete commercial abandonment to a vibrant residential population of a healthy 14,000. And the method used was “residential infusion” where empty warehouses, old historic banks and commercial buildings of classic architecture were converted into stunning lofts. I know David and SCL have long been advocating this for Stockton as one approach that City Hall and developers need to seriously consider, and it seemed to work exceedingly well for St. Louis. The area is now highly fashionable, popular and trendy with residents of an affluent income bracket, coupled with trendy restaurants, eateries, nightclubs, boutiques, grocers, service businesses and other urban amenities, creating a high level of robust activity, day and night, for this downtown corridor.

    Stockton needs to develop a focused strategy and exclusively earmark a major corridor downtown (whether it’s Weber Avenue, Main Street or Market Street) having dense mid to high rise vintage structures, and develop new policies and streamlined zoning regulations that will transform this corridor into a vibrant downtown urban living mixed-use community.

    “Residential infusion sparks transformation of downtown St. Louis’ character”: https://www.stlbeacon.org/#!/content/31267/downtown_residential_development

    FASHION SQUARE LOFTS ON WASHINGTON AVENUE: http://www.fashionsquarelofts.com/

    “St. Louis Street Ranks in the Nation’s Top Ten”: http://blog.lindacansell.com/relocate-to-greater-st-louis/st-louis-street-ranks-in-the-nations-top-ten/

    Here’s an innovative retail experience on Washington Avenue called “The Collective MX” that is a vast diverse collection of 50 local vendors and their artisan and boutique merchandise and products of a novelty and exclusivity nature in one strategic and convenient location (instead of hidden away in isolated nooks and crannies of the city) that is more customized and upscale than franchise department store mass retail, and appeals to discriminating taste, cultural urbanites, tourists and the affluent… the concept creates “destination” and a unique experience: http://fox2now.com/2013/05/29/new-shopping-experience-opens-in-downtown-st-louis/

  6. November 14, 2014 at 10:46 am #

    Just found this excerpt in an article I’m reading: “Much has been written about the so-called failure of public housing in the United States, so I won’t take up the topic here, except to point out that a much-ignored cause of that failure was the inability of local authorities to actually maintain and repair their housing projects. While few would blame potholed roads on the drivers who use them, a great effort has been made to attribute the degeneration of public housing in the US to public housing residents themselves.”

    We’re not dealing with hardened criminals. Management policies don’t need to be “draconian.” These are human beings. Lining corridors with upscale development addresses only one side of the issue in revitalizing downtown. I don’t think the point is simply attracting the affluent. Revitalizing downtown is about improving the quality of life for EVERYONE, whether one makes a lot of money or not. Cities are vibrant and successful particularly because they are diverse. I’ve been spending some time in Walnut Creek and while there is certainly a lot of high-scale investment in the area, there is also something lacking in a very deep, meaningful way – diversity. Downtown should not become a play area for the rich, but rather an effective public space where the entire community can interact, even if at random. I really believe that this random interaction with anyone and everyone, even something seemingly small like sharing a bench, creates empathy among us which translates into a more inclusive society.

    I agree there is a perception problem among many of our public staff. A lot of city and state employees working downtown don’t even live in Stockton and I’m not sure it would be possible to incentivize them (or, disincentivize) to get down here. Those minds are already made up. However, younger folks don’t have the same preconceived notions but there are not a lot of young professionals working in city/county/state government positions in downtown Stockton.

    • Jon Seisa
      November 15, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

      Hi Kristen,

      I’m sorry my post caused any confusion and conveyed a 100% takeover of downtown by the affluent ONLY, and implementing “gentrification” of the lower income demographic. That was not my intent at all. I was merely focusing on the ADDITIVE aspect of the VERY INSTRUMENTAL affluent demographic profile (in addition to “affordable housing” for the lower income demographic profile), because more so, this group will quantum leap Downtown Stockton towards positive transformation, due to their higher disposable income.

      Research indicates that the presence of the affluent demographic profile helps to facilitate more robust downtown vibrancy because this sector is more apt to financially invest in the local community for the greater good of others of lesser income brackets and lifestyles, as well as fund community and downtown philanthropy, charity and cultural arts ventures, while their higher disposable income patronizes local merchants and services with an economic trickle-down-affect to lower income demographic profiles resulting in lifting them upward to higher sustainability. This can be better achieved if there is an appealing residential mixed-use corridor for them (as well as others) that obviously would have a positive spillover affect on adjacent and tangent streets and other immediate vicinities, just as this has happened in Downtown St. Louis.

      Also, the affluent have the ability for higher purchasing power, that the financially constrained are unable to do, which becomes more of an economic engine facilitator to drive the community towards better and improved city services (police, fire/paramedic emergency, waste disposal, street maintenance, etc.) via more accrued sales tax and property tax revenue.

      Of course, the affluent demographic profile that I’m speaking of most likely will be the YOUNG HIGH-TECH URBANITES, Silicon Valley transplants, once Stockton realizes it’s very strategic logistic orientation to the eastward-expansion of the high-tech industry and starts to lure high-tech start-ups and second-tiered regional bases and divisions to downtown. It is this group that desires an urban residential/work lifestyle with cosmopolitan amenities. They are the main purchasers of the arts, as well. Thus, local artists would have much to gain if incorporated in the downtown amenities would be artist lofts, internet cafes, bistros, coffeehouses, and night clubs, and hopefully an art gallery row, or mixed-use integration of it, or a tangently integrated arts district and cultural arts museums for the affluent demographic profile to patronize.

      As you can see the desire would be a multi-prawn approach, not strictly an exclusivity target for the rich as you thought, and this approach will have an all encompassing affect that will benefit many of diversified walks in life, increasing better sustainable lifestyles for them. But, if the infill housing in downtown is merely “affordable housing” for those on menial government aid and food stamps then none of this positive robust transformation will happen. So, indeed, a multi-prawn strategy inclusive of all demographic profiles is ideal.

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