Lawmakers mull downtown housing rules

As housing advocates celebrate the opening of downtown’s newest all-affordable apartment complex, leaders are grappling with ways to make sure that low-income residents will have a place in downtown’s redevelopment.

Villa Montgomery, the 58-unit apartment building at 1540 El Camino Real that is hosting a grand opening this month, is one affordable-housing project at the center of a debate between Redwood City lawmakers about how to include affordable units in plans that will add up to 2,500 units of housing.

By state law, 15 percent of housing units built in the city’s redevelopment zone — which includes downtown and some areas nearby — must be set aside for lower-income tenants.

Local policymakers are divided on whether to require that same ratio for each project, or whether to let projects such as Villa Montgomery offset the construction of buildings full of market-rate condos.

For-profit developers often balk at building large amounts of work force housing because the workers can’t earn any money, said Kevin Bondonno, chair of the Housing and Human Concerns Commission. Redwood City residents earn 20 to 60 percent of San Mateo County’s median income, roughly $100,000 for a family of four, said Marty Keller, director of construction management for First Community Housing.

However, nonprofit agencies have trouble coming up with the money — and land — to build projects like Villa Montgomery.

“It’s very hard [to build sites like Villa Montgomery],” Mayor Rosanne Foust said. “Especially in terms of the amount of dollars that have to go into it — the city subsidized a significant portion.”

Some City Council members support downtown housing that contains a mix of affordability levels, but others — such as Jeff Ira — said they would like to see high-end condos.

“We need a jump-start, and for that, we need market-rate housing,” said Ira, who hopes residents flush with money will visit downtown businesses and restaurants. “We’ve already got affordable housing credits built up, so it’s not like we’re ignoring the issue.”

While low-income housing projects can offset market-rate ones, going down that avenue could get the city into trouble, Bondonno said.

“If the first dozen or so developments don’t have any affordability requirements, we could … be in a world of hurt trying to play catch-up,” Bondonno said.

Bondonno said his commission hopes to develop some recommendations for the City Council in early 2008. The council is likely to set affordability rules for downtown housing before the summer, Foust said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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