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Affordable housingfight looms

Ripon does it, and many working families are glad.

Patterson is about to do it.

But they are far outnumbered in this area by cities resistant to inclusionary zoning, a strategy to create affordable housing that is catching on elsewhere in California.

More than one-third of cities and counties in the state demand that developers include a percentage of affordable homes in every new project. Studies show California leading the nation in controversial attempts to tweak housing markets in favor of lower-income buyers.

The battlefield moves to Tuolumne County on Aug. 7. Supervisors will weigh whether to join the emerging statewide wave or remain with a strong regional majority siding with builders.

"It's like poking a stick in a hornet's nest," said Beetle Barbour, housing resources director for the AmadorTuolumne Community Action Agency. She and other members of a task force have been pushing the idea of inclusionary housing for four years, and some don't expect to win the upcoming vote.

The struggle exemplifies stubborn resistance in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where politicians rely more heavily on campaign contributions from the development industry than any other special interest.

The debate has never reached Stanislaus, Merced or San Joaquin County supervisors. Modesto leaders ordered studies on the idea more than three years ago, but approved funding for them only three weeks ago. And there is no guarantee that inclusionary housing will find its way into Modesto's upcoming "affordable housing toolbox" recommendations.

Builders say inclusionary housing is unfair government interference pandering to liberal social policy.

"Why tax one buyer to pay for the house of another?" asked Bill Zoslocki, president of the Central California Building Industry Association.

In reality, it's a subsidy, not a tax. Builders say they can offer below-market prices on some homes only by raising prices on others in a subdivision.

Strict rules keep speculators from snatching up cheap homes for turnaround resale profits.

Inclusionary housing advocates say the downside is outweighed by benefits — namely, homes that working people can afford.

"If we didn't have this house, I don't know where we would be," said Susan Herrera, a stay-at-home mother of three. She and her steelworker husband could hardly believe their luck when they qualified to buy an attractive two-story home in a new Ripon neighborhood four years ago.

In six years, Ripon has squeezed 129 affordable houses and 21 low-rent apartments from builders. An additional 80 below-market homes have been approved and should go up in the next year or two.

"We've got teachers, police officers, bank tellers and McDonald's servers in our homes," said Ernie Tyhurst, Ripon's recently retired city planner. "We've been able to help a lot of people."

Opportunities extend to seniors. Of the 99 homes in Ripon's Chesapeake Landing, a recent project restricted to senior owners, 42 were affordable to lowand very-low-income people, according to government standards.

"We were in the right place at the right time," said Gary Buriani, a retired San Jose truck driver who figures he saved $60,000 when he barely qualified three years ago. "We love it here. It's been fantastic."

One couple paid $86,000 for a two-story town house worth about $350,000, said Sheryl Prater, a city development specialist. She has led tour buses of curious dignitaries and has spoken at affordable housing conferences.

"We probably have the most successful program in the state of California," said Leon Compton, Ripon's city administrator.

A key, Tyhurst said, is buy-in from builders.

Mark Wilbur of McRoy-Wilbur Communities, based in Modesto, has built the majority of Ripon's affordable homes in the past five years. He's reluctant to take sides in the debate over inclusionary zoning, but acknowledges that it hasn't slowed him down.

"It's a requirement," Wilbur said. "It's not like I have a choice."

His latest offering: 650-square-foot granny flats over three-car garages detached from $700,000 homes in the new Cornerstone subdivision. Owners can lease out the studios; Prater will monitor to make sure rents stay reasonable. The arrangement is a creative option satisfying Ripon's policy.

Homes that blend in

Wilbur is proud that his affordable homes blend into neighborhoods, including some with views of golf course fairways. Ripon made a wise choice, he said, by sprinkling affordable housing everywhere as opposed to concentrated clusters.

"When we started five years ago, neighbors were up in arms saying, 'We don't want rentals. We don't want those kind of people.' Now it doesn't even get brought up," Wilbur said. "I challenge anyone to point out the low-income housing in the neighborhood. You can't tell."

Gil Delgado said he isn't jealous that the elderly woman across his street paid much less than he did for a comparable home. Her yard is immaculate.

"I don't have a problem with it, and I don't think anyone will," Delgado said. "That house looks great."

The builder in Wilbur still balks at inclusionary zoning, mostly because the concept demands unfair treatment for some to benefit others. He noted that falling home values in the past year have created affordability for many, a market correction that did not rely on government intervention.

Though he's learned to go along with Ripon's demands, "I'm still not convinced it's the best way," he said.

Experience proves that builders adapt to any rules as long as they're clear, experts counter.

Builders in Ripon and Patterson, for example, price projects before buying land and factor losses on affordable homes into the project's costs.

That's another view of letting the market work, said Darryl Rutherford of the California Coalition for Rural Housing, which tracks inclusionary housing statewide.

"The argument is slowly fading," Rutherford said. He said opponents like to scare cities with predictions that builders will take their business elsewhere if communities pass such an ordinance, but history proves otherwise.

For example, Ripon issued 1,391 home building permits from 2000 to 2006, and construction activity — dramatically dropping in many neighboring cities — remains strong today.

Builders are salivating at the recent 700-acre Villages of Patterson annexation, agreeing to make 15 percent of 3,100 new homes affordable to working families. Patterson adopted an inclusionary policy in 1995, but gave developers an "out" with an option to pay modest in-lieu fees before recently strengthening the rules.

A 20-year study of California housing starts published by the National Housing Conference shows that inclusionary policies had no negative effect on home production.

"None of the nightmare scenarios developers are bringing to the table have occurred anywhere else," said Barbour in Tuolumne County.

Inclusionary housing isn't an urban phenomenon, Rutherford added, noting that many rural communities have embraced the idea to help working families.

Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele made it clear to planning commissioners that he's having a hard time recruiting and retaining deputies, partly because they can't afford homes.

When Mele was a deputy 20 years ago, he said, all department employees lived and worked in Tuolumne County. Now, several commute from such places as Oakdale, Riverbank and Calaveras County.

"It's a huge problem," Mele said. "Both government and the private sector need to come together and get some type of plan to come up with affordable housing."

Tuolumne County leaders declared a desire for inclusionary zoning in their official housing element four years ago. But affordable housing advocates are pessimistic that supervisors on Aug. 7 will ignore builders' well-organized and well-financed opposition.

"At least we've had tremendous success at getting this to be part of the conversation," Barbour said. "People listened and now they're interested and they know how to talk about it."

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.