Tom Durkin multimedia writer-editor-photographer
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We need ADUs, not excuses

What was a local, affordable housing emergency this summer has now become a regional, public health and housing crisis. Thousands and thousands of people, our neighbors, are suddenly homeless. What was a disappointing decision by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors this summer has become regrettable in the face of the catastrophic increase in the need for affordable housing because of the Camp Fire. Late this summer, in response to the critical lack of affordable housing, the Nevada County Planning Commission unanimously relaxed restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and included incentives to build low-income housing. In September, the Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected the commission’s recommendation based on the objections raised by board staff. There was an issue with the septic provisions of the proposal. Allow trailers, with proper hookups, to be designated as accessory dwelling units during this housing crisis. The board unanimously agreed to take up the issue in January when a report on the subject would be ready for … study. And so the board left our homeless folk out in the cold for another year while they went home to their cozy warm beds. (To its credit, the county has thrown some money at homelessness this year, which is helping local nonprofits increase their services — but the county did nothing about housing.) Because of the Butte conflagration, we are seeing an influx of suddenly homeless people. Many of them older, low-income and/or disabled — people without insurance and no place to go back to. Furthermore, an untold number of these refugees have legitimate ties to Nevada County with a reason and a right to be here. That the Board of Supervisors put off the affordable housing emergency for another year was not a surprise. It was just another bitter example of government inaction. What was a surprise to me was that trailers are not considered ADUs. Why not? They perform essentially the same function as a granny unit. At the Oct. 30 Nonprofit & Housing Resources Workshop at the Vets Hall in Grass Valley, I asked Supervisor Dan Miller why trailers weren’t considered ADUs. He said there was nothing the board could do about it, because it’s a state law. Something to do with septic. I am not convinced nothing can be done. In my experience, it’s when our elected officials — and their staff — commit to finding solutions, instead of excuses, that problems get solved. Of course, septic is a problem — with or without ADUs. And already we have sanitation trouble. Several evacuation camps have reported outbreaks of norovirus, a highly contagious and sometimes life-threatening disease. We don’t have time to study the problem. We have to deal with it. Now. FEMA will come and go, but the affordable housing problem will remain. Now, more than ever, we must commit to relaxing restrictions on ADUs, provide incentives to build low-income units — and legitimize trailers and RVs as ADUs. In fact, trailers are an immediate and obvious solution to this crisis. There must be hundreds if not thousands of trailers and RVs that could be rented out right where they are. There are inelegant but still safe and sanitary ways of dealing with septic waste on an interim basis. Additionally, mobile housing units (maybe donated?) could be placed in pop-up trailer parks modeled after the self-governed Opportunity Village concept with centralized community facilities. Local architect Charles Durrett, Hospitality House and other homelessness stakeholders are already working on this. With compassionate community involvement and shredded red tape by city and county government, we could be housing at least some refugees, especially families with children, in trailer villages this winter — while we wait (and wait?) for the ADUs and low-income residences to be … studied. As I wrote in a July 6 Other Voices, I was about to become homeless this summer. As it turned out, my “village” refused to let that happen. Of their own resolve (not a go-fund-me campaign), they gathered up several thousand dollars to help me buy a trailer. And my peeps even gave me a safe place to park it. I am so blessed. Technically, however, I’m not here. Even though I have potable water, electricity and sanitary access to the septic system, I may not be legal under current county ordinances. It’s not like I’m going to ask. Desperate times, desperate measures. Essentially, I am living exactly what I’m proposing in this column. Allow trailers, with proper hookups, to be designated as accessory dwelling units during this housing crisis. And for all you NIMBYs out there, consider this: Nevada County is not fireproof. We could be next.
Tom Durkin
multimedia writer-editor-photographer