How to fix a beleaguered housing market isn’t easyFree Access

In many ways, trying to unpack the complicated issue of housing in Mariposa County is akin to herding cats.

In fact, it may be easier to herd cats.

Despite that, a lengthy discussion was held last week involving the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors, the county’s housing specialist along with other officials and members of the public.

The workshop was held as part of the board of supervisors meeting and featured an overload of information and one conclusion: it’s a difficult problem and there are no easy answers.

Ben Goger, the housing specialist hired by the county about six months ago, led the discussion and outlined the vast array of issues concerning the housing crisis gripping Mariposa County and, in actuality, the entire state and nation.

Goger said the housing market was “steady” for many years, but when the recession hit in 2018, it “tanked.”

It has yet to recover.

Goger called it “quite catastrophic” for the county.

Currently, there are about 7,200 single family homes in Mariposa County. There are another roughly 2,400 mobile or manufactured homes, around 530 duplex units and 309 units in larger apartment complexes.

One of the more confusing parts of the statistics is the “vacancy rate” as determined by state and national organizations.

According to those organizations, Mariposa County has the third-highest vacancy rate in California. It is estimated at around 25 percent.

Those vacancies are categorized as “other” in the information, however, exactly what that means is variable.

Goger said “vacant” can mean homes for sale, homes for rent, unoccupied homes and, the big one, second homes. Those second homes include both houses that are actually second homes for people as well as vacation rentals.

According to Goger, the statistics reveal there are about 700 actual vacation rentals in the county. The other half are second homes, many belonging to people from the Bay Area or Southern California. In many cases, those people buy the homes and continue to work in the metropolitan areas with plans to eventually retire to Mariposa County.

Adding to the housing crisis is the fact new home construction has been weak since the recession.

For instance, in 2017, there were only nine permits for new homes in the county. That swelled to 34 in 2019, but Goger said some of that is because of the new state regulations which went into place in 2020. Those include solar requirements, sprinkler systems and more.

Another factor includes the condition of homes.

But exactly how accurate those statistics are remains in question as the most recent data is from 2003 — 17 years ago.

According to that data, about 65 percent of single-family homes were in “sound” condition. The rest ranged from “need rehab” to “dilapidated.”

Concerning mobile homes, the 2003 stats show almost 40 percent are considered dilapidated. Many of those, said Goger, were built before 1976, when more stringent rules were put into place for mobile homes.

Also discussed during the meeting was affordability of homes, an issue at the heart and soul of the housing crisis in the county.

Because so much of Mariposa County’s economy is based on tourism, it means a large sector of employees work in the service industry. That industry is one of the lowest paying across the nation. There are also many people who work for the National Park Service or the concessionaire for Yosemite National Park, with very few being high paying jobs.

What that means is people who work in the industry, whether as cooks or housekeepers or waiters/waitresses, cannot afford to purchase a home. In fact, many can’t afford rent, meaning in some cases, multiple people live in apartments or rental homes. And that’s on top of the problem there is such a small home rental market in the county.

According to Goger, the median price for a three bedroom, two bath home in Mariposa County in 2018 was $293,000 — well out of the price range of the vast majority of workers.

Statewide, the average price topped $600,000 this year, but that’s little consolation when it comes to finding solutions in Mariposa County. Nationally, the average price is around $200,000.

“The market is active and prices are high,” said Goger of the current housing situation. “We’ve got some challenges.”

That might be an understatement.

To combat the problem, Goger said there are possible solutions, though none of them are easy.

One, he said, is to have a “housing trust fund” established by the county in order to help people purchase homes. Such a fund could be used for down payments or even with help buying land and getting a well and septic in place.

Goger also spoke a lot about obtaining grant money from various sources, though applying for a grant and actually getting the award are two different things. Almost all grant funding is competitive, meaning Mariposa County is competing with locales all across America.

Another possibility is trying to find programs that will give incentives to builders, something that is not an easy task.

“We want to try to help builders build affordable housing,” said Goger.

Affordable, though, is in the eye of the beholder. There are some programs for people in the very low to low income brackets, but for others who make just a little more, the options are limited.

Mike Healy, the director of public works for the county, said another issue, at least in Mariposa, is the fact there has been no expansion of the public utility system. Currently, Mariposa Public Utility District serves Mariposa, but its reach is limited.

Healy said expansion of those utilities would at least open up more possibilities for housing, including home ownership.

“We’re not seeing any ability to hit that homeownership area,” said Goger.

Mariposa County Chief Administrative Officer Dallin Kimble pointed out that “less than 1 percent” of the land in the vast county is served by public utilities.

That means the vast majority of available land is rural, meaning to build a house people have to get a well, septic system and driveway — expenses that are steep and many times an obstacle for people wanting to purchase a home.

Goger said the “biggest problem” for downtown businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, is “not getting employees because of a lack of housing.”

To solve that problem, Goger said it would likely take a variety of initiatives. One might be allowing smaller lot sizes as well as having more townhouses and condos.

Another possibility is modular housing, which generally is cheaper to obtain and, in many cases, does not have to meet state requirements like solar panels and more.

Supervisor Merlin Jones said modular housing might have to be a focus for the county because state building codes are going to get stricter in the future.

Kimble also pointed out that many younger people, including families, are not buying homes and instead prefer to rent. That means looking at the rental market and how to expand it could be a priority.

“There are lots of challenges to tackle,” said Kimble.

Supervisor Miles Menetrey said the “lack of infrastructure” is a major concern, especially around Mariposa. He said any new development would “have to go north,” meaning toward the airport and even into Bear Valley.

“It is critical to affordable housing,” said Menetrey, who is a builder by trade.

Board chairman Kevin Cann said another aspect of the situation is changing attitudes in the county.

He pointed to the 2009 Catheys Valley plan, which, when proposed, would have banned a community water or sewer systems.

Though that was changed in the end after a controversial and long battle, he said “there’s a mentality out there.”

That mentality, he said, is “we don’t want to change.”

But, said Cann, change is almost certain to happen and the county must work on ways to make it happen while also keeping the integrity of the county’s historic nature.

Cann also said manufactured homes are likely to be a big part of the solution because of affordability.

“I think you will see more of them,” said Cann.

There is also the issue of long-term rentals versus vacation rentals. Though there are only about 700 in the county, it does have an impact on the overall housing picture.

But as Jones pointed out, having vacation rentals is a more lucrative market than long-term rentals. He said vacation rentals have a much higher profit margin and fewer “headaches” than long-term rentals.

What the final solution may be remains to be seen. County officials said they will continue to address the issue, including working on zoning regulations to make it easier for housing to be constructed.

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