An Affordable Housing Gold Rush

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

July 31, 2023

Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo [HASLO] Construction Director, Mike Burke and HASLO Executive Director Scott Collins, overlook the courtyard of the Rockview at Sunset apartments in Morro Bay.

Like a modern gold rush, applications are being accepted now for 35 low-income apartments nearing completion in Morro Bay, and from the early response — it truly will be a rush for housing gold.

Scott Collins, the former Morro Bay City Manager and now Executive Director of the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo (HASLO), along with HASLO Construction Director, Mike Burke, gave a reporter an early peek at the town’s newest and most visible affordable housing project.

Project Description

Located at 405 Atascadero Rd., (at the intersection of Sunset Avenue), the “Rockview at Sunset in Morro Bay” is a 35-unit 3-story development at the main entrance to Morro Bay (Hwy 41), from the east. 

Of the 35 apartments nine are 3-bedrooms, Collins explained standing inside one of those 3-bedroom units. Nine are 2-bedroom units and 17 are one bedroom.

“That’s what we have the most demand for,” said Burke, who was also on the tour, “one-bedroom units.”

This is the first project that HASLO has ever done in Morro Bay, he said. 

“It was approved probably because it was an affordable housing project,” Collins said. He was the boss in Morro Bay when the project was approved and it will be the first one completed in his tenure at HASLO.

Housing Vouchers Limited

Here’s a look at the kitchen of a 3-bedroom unit, sans
 major appliances.

The people who eventually occupy the units will have a chance at a limited number of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “vouchers” used to help pay the monthly rent. Collins said there are five vouchers available for this project. 

“According to HUD,” he explained, “for every voucher available [nationwide] there are four people qualified but can’t get one.”

But voucher or no, Collins said the apartments will be priced for low and very-low income people and families. 

The standard is 30% of a person’s gross income for the maximum they can charge for a unit, so everyone who lives there will likely pay a little different amount. Burke qualified that as “30-percent of an area’s median income and it depends on the size of the family.” 

Collins added, a family of four could have a gross income of about $67,000 a year. 

Simply put the rent charged is decided by a formula and based on the Average Median Income (AMI). There are four units (12-percent of the total) that are reserved for 30% AMI; nine (26%) at 45% of AMI; 13 units (38%) at 60% AMI; and eight (24%) at 60% AMI. 

As to who can get one, Collins said in their Coastal Development Permit, the Coastal Commission preferred they first be chosen from among local residents — Morro Bay residents specifically — and then from the greater San Luis Obispo County, Collins said.

Demand is Great

Here’s a look from the second floor at the courtyard and 
unfinished playground.

The City sent out a press release on July 14, announcing that HASLO was now accepting applications for the units. 

Collins said on July 18 that they already were nearing 200 applications. “Forty percent of them have been Morro Bay residents,” Collins said. He added that he wouldn’t be surprised if in the end, they have over 1,000 people apply for the units.

To land a unit, Collins said applicants will have to show proof of income, like a tax return, and you’ll have to re-qualify every year.

That could be a Catch-22 for someone who has a chance to get a better job, a promotion or a pay raise, because Collins said it may be possible that someone improves their lot in life to the point “they may have to leave.”

HASLO Busy

Across SLO County, HASLO has over 500 units in some stage of development but this is their first in Morro Bay. 

These types of projects are not easy to get built, as in order to even begin to offer affordability, they had to tap into various available monies from the government. 

For example, with this project, the City Council awarded a $150,000 loan out of its housing in-lieu fund, paid by developers instead of providing affordable units as required by the City Municipal Code. 

The Council also deferred some $350,000 in permit fees, also in the form of a loan. These loans don’t have to start being repaid for 55 years when the “affordable housing” deed restrictions expire. Until then, no payments will be made on the loans, which carry a 3% interest rate once repayment begins.

Of the 35 units, 26 are for “very low income” people and eight for “low income” folks.

Buildings Moved Back

The development, which has an bright, colorful paint scheme with light greens and blues, trimmed in white (picked by the planning commission), changed quite a bit from the original renderings designed by the architecture firm, Arris Architecture of San Luis Obispo. Abbott | Reed is the contractor for the project.

Burke said the plans changed after consulting with local Native American groups, who were concerned about a lot of digging close to Atascadero Road (State Hwy 41) because it is a known archaeological area. 

“The site was challenging to build on,” Burke said. “We had limits on the depth we could dig because of cultural requirements.” 

So they had to use shallow foundations, and move the buildings around on site, massing them further away from the roadway. 

The original design had one building fronting Atascadero Road and the parking area in the middle of the buildings. Now the parking is out front by the roadway. 

That meant building a massive retaining wall to the rear of the buildings in order to reinforce Rockview Street, which runs from Sunset Avenue to Mimosa Street. That retaining wall stands over 20-feet tall and spans the property.

Burke explained that they had to make sure Rockview stayed up and they also put in some barriers to make sure cars can’t fly off the high street into the apartment building.

The final layout has a central courtyard surrounded by four, 3-story buildings. There are no elevators, just stairs, and Collins said all their handicapped-accessible units are on the ground floor. 

Burke said they decided to move everything back and off the south side of the property along Atascadero Road to minimize ground disturbance. 

Still, the hilly property needed a great deal of grading to flatten out for building.

Low-Income ≠ Low Cost

It may be for low-income residents, but building it wasn’t cheap. Burke said it cost $471,000 per unit (with 35 units, it comes to over $16.5 million). 

“That was before construction costs went through the roof,” Collins said. 

Finding land at a reasonable cost is a big part of these projects, and Collins added that there are costs for design and entitlements (permits), and funding is another big part of the picture.

“You can’t apply for funding without entitlements,” he said. “There are a limited number of funding sources and a lot of competition.”

Nothin’ Fancy

The unit on the tour was pretty barebones, with wood flooring, and laminate kitchen counters, though the kitchen was about typical for apartments. The bedrooms are a bit small.

The units only have one bathroom, including the 3-bedroom ones. That likely cut some of the costs for those nine apartments, but with up to six people living in them, it might be problematic, especially with teenagers in a household.

Collins said the single bedroom units could probably have two people, the 2-bedroom units four and six in the 3-bedroom ones. 

There is one aspect of the development that you probably wouldn’t notice, even though it’s all around the courtyard. That’s a storm water retention/treatment system that, because of the archaeological restrictions, couldn’t be buried in the ground like a normal development.

Instead, all the rain gutter downspouts empty into several cement planter boxes that will filter the water before it drains out into the City storm drains. 

“You have to treat the runoff before it goes to the drains,” Burke explained. The planter boxes work similar to a City-built storm retention basin on the Embarcadero by the boat wash station. The buildings also each have rooftop solar panels.

Supply Troubles

The development isn’t completed yet, as Burke explained they are awaiting some key electrical equipment needed to step down the voltage from the power pole to be used in the individual units. 

Collins said the delays were “industry-wide. Part of the delay is because of the global supply chain disruptions and part is the high demand from the all-electric construction requirements.”

The State is pushing to make all new construction use only electricity in order to help meet the State’s climate agenda goals in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So none of the units have natural gas service.

There’re also electric vehicle chargers, which Collins said could be used by any of the residents regardless of income levels.

As for how it’s been working on a big project in this town, Burke said the City has been really good to work with. From the Building Department, to Public Works and the Fire Department, they’ve all been very good to work with “through the preliminary punch list.”

How to Get One

According to the City’s news release, if you are interested in renting and want to learn more about the income qualifications, call HASLO at 805-594-5347 or email: rockview@haslo.org. Applications are now being accepted. To check it all out, see: www.rockviewmorrobay.com. 

So when will people move in? Collins said they anticipate sometime in November. He’s not sure at this point if it’ll be a gradual move-in or like Cal Poly every fall when new students all move into the dorms at the same time.

And while it may not exactly be like the Great California Gold Rush of 1849, it certainly is in that spirit, as a limited number of lucky people will get the chance to strike it rich in terms of finding rare, affordable, housing in Morro Bay. Good luck to all who try.

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