A pair of interconnected issues will likely take center stage at City Hall in the coming year. That should be welcome news, and possibly relief, for residents struggling to keep up with the cost of living in a tourist town growing more popular every year.
Addressing the high cost of housing — for both renters and potential homeowners — is crucial, city leaders said during interviews last week. If they can make progress, they added, it could help make a dent in the city’s unhoused population.
Unlike more visible work to address the homelessness crisis, including the opening of a planned “navigation center” offering temporary housing and services for unhoused residents, much of the work required to increase the amount of affordable housing will be done behind the scenes.
Updated software that will help speed permitting of all types, the addition of crucial employees to fill soon-to-be built offices, and hours spent listening to the priorities of elected officials and turning their thoughts into policy isn’t as noticeable as lower home prices. Still, making it easier to build housing of all types is an important first step in increasing the number of units deemed affordable.
The other steps are more complicated.
Palm Springs has a lot of vacant land, and much of it is ripe for development. While it’s easy to focus on multiple stalled hotel projects that have become fodder for social media debate, hundreds of units of housing were actually started or built in the city in 2022. That trend shows no sign of letting up in the coming year, but city leaders acknowledge they need to do more to assure a percentage of that new housing is below market rate at a time when the average-sized home sells for well over $1 million.
To do that, city staff in 2023 will explore creating inclusionary housing policies. If adopted, they would require developers to set aside some new housing units for lower-income residents. Also on the drawing board is land banking, which could see the city step in to purchase vacant lots and work with a nonprofit agency to build more affordable housing.
That idea is frequently mentioned by Mayor Grace Garner, who has been unable to purchase a home in the city and whose district includes many vacant lots in the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood that could hold affordable housing units.
“Housing is always going to be the issue,” she said last week. “It’s going to be the issue for the next decade.”
Garner will likely have multiple allies on the City Council working to help make life more affordable for residents. Among them is Councilmember Ron deHarte, who took time to mention the issue immediately after he was seated.
“I will lead the effort to build workforce housing so that our residents can work in the city and live in the city,” he told the audience gathered in Council Chambers after he was sworn in Dec. 15.
While city staff and councilmembers can’t do anything about $15 cocktails or $25 a plate meals at downtown restaurants, Garner said she will focus on efforts to assure all residents, regardless of income level, get to enjoy their city.
“We can make more affordable things,” Garner said, referencing improvements to parks and other city facilities that residents use. “You can’t just go out and enjoy a night out without spending a lot of money here. I don’t want this to be a place where only rich people can live.”
Garner’s predecessor in the mayor’s role, Councilmember Lisa Middleton, used her passion for infrastructure and transportation to deliver multiple improvements in the city — including lower speed limits — with many more, such as bridges and rail, possibly coming. Garner said her passion for community development will factor into her year as mayor.
“Community development means listening to residents and improving their quality of life,” Garner said. “There are lots of ways to do that, and that’s what I would like to see us focus on in the next year.”
THIS WEEK: OUR YEAR IN REVIEW SERIES
WEDNESDAY: Palm Springs in 2022: A town in transition
TODAY: Palm Springs in 2023: A focus on affordability
FRIDAY: Meet our 2022 Palm Springs Person of the Year