Farr Fights Alone
Congressman challenges FORA to act on its promises.
Thursday, December 19, 2002
Photo: Randy Tunnell--Irked: Rep. Sam Farr is losing patience with the Fort Ord Reuse Authority, which he says is not doing enough to promote affordable housing on Fort Ord.
It was Friday evening, Dec. 13, just before what was to be a stormy weekend. As Rep. Sam Farr walked in from the commencing rain to attend a meeting of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA), he had a growling look on his face. He was alone and unsmiling.
Former Marina City Councilmember Howard Gustafson was receiving a commendation from FORA chairman Jerry Smith as Farr took his seat among officials from the various cities and agencies around the troubled, closed army base.
Mispronouncing Gustafson''s name, Smith commended the notoriously intransigent politician for "a subtle manner" and "non-confrontational" approach in his service to FORA. The others seemed to get a kick out the inside joke, but the humor seemed lost on Farr.
It was the regular gathering of FORA representatives: mayors, city council members, county supervisors, aides and stand-ins for politicians with other things to do on a Friday. There were about 15 members of the public in attendance. Some spoke during public comments. One of them-defrocked water commissioner Ron Chesshire-spoke in a rambling, strange string of comments about having a bad year, his family, housing and labor.
At a table near the conference room door were copies of a letter Farr had sent to FORA director Michael Houlemard on Dec. 6. In it, Farr pushed FORA to live up to its commitment to create a trust for affordable housing-in which the agency would enter into an ownership arrangement with homeowners to keep the costs of housing down.
Farr cited an Aug. 14 letter from FORA to U.S. Rep. Dave Hobson, [R-Ohio], chairman of the Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls dollars for building on installations like Fort Ord. The letter to Hobson had backed creation of a local housing trust. Farr quoted FORA as promising: "A housing trust should be pursued."
Farr was at the meeting Friday to see if FORA had honored its commitments. For months now, the congressman has made headlines by demanding that the cities redeveloping Fort Ord-through FORA-provide more affordable housing. For the most part, city officials have responded by claiming they do enough, and complaining that they should be able to enjoy the taxes from higher-end housing, as Monterey and Carmel do.
Despite some vows to provide more than 20 percent affordable housing in new projects, the actual amounts in upcoming projects are paltry. A major development proposal on land granted to the city of Marina, known as Marina Heights, drew angry protests in October when it came out that only 85 of its 1,050 news homes would be priced under $301,000.
Over the summer, Farr threatened to use his congressional powers to halt the transfer of Fort Ord property from the federal government to local cities unless they increased the amount of affordable housing in upcoming projects. He relented when FORA promised to up its efforts.
In September, Farr, along with the county housing authority, released a major report that contradicted those saying affordable housing here is impossible. Using information gathered from developers, builders and others, the report found that a 1,300-square foot house with three bedrooms and two baths could be built for $226,000 on the Peninsula and $180,000 in Salinas. The report showed that the same house could be built on federally-transferred Fort Ord land for $145,000.
But in the intervening months, with major proposals like Marina Heights in the works, it doesn''t look like anyone is listening to the congressman.
As soon as he had the floor, Farr wanted answers. He said his wife has been answering the telephone at home in Carmel, getting calls from people wanting to know where they could get affordable housing on Fort Ord. He demanded to know from those administering the old base what had been done.
He wanted to know what procedure was in place to keep track of projects brought in for review. "Where is FORA''s management plan?" he asked.
A testy one-on-two exchange between Farr and Houlemard and Smith followed. None of the other politicians in attendance showed any signs of supporting Farr''s position. He demanded to know where FORA had followed through with its commitments, especially commitments to Rep. Hobson. He called on FORA to use its authority to create affordable housing.
"You don''t have to transfer that land until it meets the conditions," Farr said. Houlemard protested that FORA doesn''t have the authority to hold up transfers. He said the body has no ability to enforce a requirement ensuring affordable housing.
To that, Farr pounced. "Precisely," he said.
Smith intervened, saying, "Maybe we need to sit down and discuss perspectives again."
The exchanges were tense, with Farr and Smith and Houlemard talking over one another and cutting the other off.
Finally, County Supervisor Edith Johnsen-who had dismissed Farr''s study in September-stepped in to offer a rosier picture of the progress the county has made. She pointed to the nascent project to redevelop the East Garrison area of the base into a progressive, New Urban settlement. She said the collaborative process has been "more productive than trying to fight."
Forty percent affordable housing had been proposed for the site, but heavy subsidies would be required for that, and planners are now pegging the level at 20 percent.
Farr cited examples of a housing project that found it would be able to build 1,500 to 1,700 square-foot homes for $165,000.
Houlemard immediately countered that such a scenario does not take into account infrastructure costs like laying utilities and building roads, fees that many complain drive costs on Fort Ord too high.
Smith also protested, angering Farr, who argues that development can be done cheaply on land transferred from the federal government. "Jerry, you got the land for free," Farr said.
"Sam, the land is not free," Smith countered.
Finally the stormy exchanges were blunted with an agreement to have their mutual staffs meet. Farr warned the board again.
"The rubber hits the road," he said at the end. "You''ve got to take responsibility for a check-off system of the things you''ve said you''re going to do."
Afterward, Farr was still angry.
He said FORA has the ability to set any restrictions it wants, as it does now with fees and the like. About the notion, expressed at the meeting, that the matter merits further study, Farr said: "Bullshit."
"These promises about housing need to translate into using their authority. They have that authority right now," he said. "We are coming into a New Year. This thing could all come grinding to a halt if FORA doesn''t keep the promises it''s made."