SLO City Council candidates debate housing crunch, bars at forum

The following article was posted on September 28th, 2016, in the The Tribune

BY NICK WILSON
nwilson@thetribunenews.com

In a wide-ranging forum hosted by the League of Women Voters on Tuesday, six candidates running for San Luis Obispo’s City Council and two for mayor differed on topics including housing stock, the rental housing inspection program, desalination, the homeless population, courtesy on the dais and the proliferation of downtown bars.

Increasing the availability and affordability of housing stood out as the most discussed topic of the night, with candidates debating how best to boost the stock.

Council candidates Aaron Gomez and Brett Strickland pushed for more development across the board.

CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATES:

Mike Clark, retired U.S. Army colonel
Mila Vujovich-La Barre, Laguna Middle School history and Spanish teacher
Andrea “Andy” Pease, green architect
Brett Strickland, project lead for an engineering firm
Christopher D. Lopez, Cal Poly philosophy major and community volunteer
Aaron Gomez, co-owner of a downtown jewelry store

MAYORAL CANDIDATES:

Heidi Harmon, office manager and community organizer
Jan Marx, incumbent and retired attorney

Gomez said housing prices have shot up too high for the average worker to afford, and he said fears that building more homes would threaten water supplies were unwarranted.

“We have the best water supply of any city in the county,” said Gomez, noting that recent annual development growth has remained well below the city’s 1 percent cap. “We haven’t grown too quickly. We need a multitude of housing solutions.”

Mila Vujovich-La Barre, also running for council, and mayoral candidate Heidi Harmon called for building tiny homes and pressing Cal Poly to provide more student housing on campus to free up rentals in the city.

“It’s time we stop asking Cal Poly to build more housing and to start demanding it,” Harmon said.

Harmon also suggested encouraging a cap on Cal Poly’s enrollment, saying that thousands of students now live in city neighborhoods, which has impacted San Luis Obispo’s culture as well as its rental market. Harmon cited as an example the city of Santa Cruz, where a 2008 settlement agreement between the city, the county and UC Santa Cruz capped enrollment at 19,500 students by 2020-21.

Vujovich-La Barre separated herself from other candidates by calling for slow growth that makes sure new development doesn’t deplete the city’s water availability. (In answers to questions from The Tribune, she has proposed a “tiered building moratorium” while water availability is verified.)

“While I understand the need for housing, it’s September, and we’ve had 100-degree days,” Vujovich-La Barre said. “We’ve seen record days of heat and wind, and water bills are up 20 percent. We have to act appropriately because of climate change.”

Council candidate Andrea “Andy” Pease called for a mix of new housing types, including more infill, expediting the development of on-campus housing at Cal Poly and encouraging more owner-occupied units.

Council candidate Mike Clark advocated for allowing more mobile homes to provide workforce housing at a lower cost, as well as more Cal Poly campus housing.

“We haven’t had a new mobile home park in the city in decades,” Clark said.

Mayoral incumbent Jan Marx opposed the concept of tiny homes. Instead, she said she favors a cottage ordinance that would allow for modest, smaller homes and zoning to make land available for manufactured housing. Local companies such as iFixit and MindBody could build housing for employees, Marx said.

The candidates were split on whether they’d vote “yes” or “no” on a total repeal of the rental housing inspection program, although all supported at least revamping the law — including Marx, who voted in favor of implementing the program last year.

The program is aimed at enforcing health and safety code compliance through inspections of rental properties, but critics have called it an invasion of privacy for renters that could reduce rental stock. Council candidates Christopher D. Lopez, Strickland and Harmon each support an outright repeal.

“When you have a program that’s not working for landlords or tenants, that means we need to get rid of it,” Strickland said. “The costs are being passed on to the tenants.”

Lopez said his monthly rent has jumped by $300 over the past couple of years and costs need to remain affordable.

Candidates generally agreed on several issues, such as opposition to building a desalination plant because of high cost, the need for more mental health and homeless services, and the plethora of downtown nightclubs.

Harmon said she wouldn’t rule out allowing new alcohol-serving venues that offer “meaningful” social experiences, noting that the local bar scene mostly caters to college-age customers and offers little for older residents like her.

Clark said he believes bars and music venues should be concentrated in the downtown area to keep neighborhoods quiet and safe, and he opposes additions such as SLO Brew’s new concert venue by the airport in south San Luis Obispo.

But Marx said she supports neighborhood establishments like the new SLO Brew facility and Bang the Drum Brewery on Orcutt Road near Laurel Lane, where residents can ride their bikes or walk to a nearby venue to enjoy a drink and social interaction.

On the subject of decorum at council meetings, Gomez and Harmon said the current council at times has embarrassed the city with bickering. Gomez said at times it was “like watching your parents fight.”

Marx, the only incumbent, said she doesn’t believe the new council will have similar issues, noting that the job of the mayor is to keep the discussion on point and to stop a peer on the dais from straying off topic. Council incumbent Dan Carpenter is running for county supervisor and John Ashbaugh has reached his term limit.

Several remarked on the mutual respect that this year’s candidates have for one another.

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