Much of the conversation in Tuesday’s county board update on the COVID-19 crisis revolved around permitted housing construction – and whether it should be allowed – during the current shelter-in-place order.
Supervisors held their regular meeting Tuesday, with most participants using the Zoom app to follow along or chime in.
Questions arose out of public concern about construction of six local housing projects being allowed during the order, which deems such activities as “essential” as long as they include at least 10 percent income-restricted units. Developers at those sites are required to come up with a safety plan and follow social distancing protocol as well.
But it hit a sore spot for some officials and residents at a time when many businesses are required to close and people are being required to shelter in place outside of essential activities, such as grocery shopping or healthcare needs.
One county official, Board Chairman Jaime De La Cruz, also broached his own concerns about the top planning official in the county altering language to the housing aspect of the order after given guidance by supervisors. De La Cruz noted how the board at a prior meeting expressed a desire to exclude the low-income element from essential activities, but that desire was lost in translation when the Resource Management Agency Director Harry Mavrogenis consulted with the county health officer on the provisions in the latest shelter in place order lasting through May 3.
Supervisor Peter Hernandez agreed with De La Cruz about the switch.
“I was definitely thrown back a bit when the order was changed,” Hernandez said.
Supervisor Jim Gillio said a 23-unit income-restricted project on Southside Road should go forward because it’s 100 percent affordable. He said even a two or three-month delay could be a strain on families in need of those homes.
With another project, Santana Ranch off Fairview Road, he mentioned how the development is nearing a 500-home trigger, after which it must build an allotment of 55 income-restricted units. Gillio suggested allowing the developer move ahead on those affordable homes now instead of the market-rate homes.
“Is single-family something we need to focus on right now?” Gillio said.
De La Cruz stressed he just didn’t want to see anymore “surprises” like the change made to the order language.
Still, supervisors Tuesday didn’t discuss excluding the six projects at this point. Those sites include two projects in San Juan Bautista and four others in county limits, officials said. The county previously reported two projects in the city, but only mentioned county and San Juan projects Tuesday.
Mavrogenis in his explanation noted how construction jobs have been “hit very hard by this” pandemic, to which De La Cruz later responded by noting that many industries have been negatively impacted – not just construction.
“I’ve come to the point where, to me, my position is about saving lives,” De La Cruz said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Supervisor Anthony Botelho attempted to justify the housing construction allowance by saying he believes there will be a recession around the corner, and that many types of housing will become more affordable over time.
What’s considered ‘essential’?
Also on the business front, county officials mentioned the one previously reported enforcement against a downtown Hollister smoke shop – considered non-essential by the county – for remaining open despite warnings. That is apparently the only enforcement action to this point, but a top county official did point out there are nine cases involving non-essential businesses pending investigation.
That official, Health and Human Services Director Tracy Belton, also noted the county had received inquiries about social gatherings, such as those for birthdays or Easter this coming Sunday.
“The guidance is, you shouldn’t have them,” Belton said, adding that residents should stay at home and use social distancing practices when and if there’s an essential need to go out in public.