As the incumbent three-term mayor of San Luis Obispo, Jan Marx’s top priority will be addressing the lack of affordable housing in the city. Working with Cal Poly to develop plans for on-campus housing expansions is at the top of her to-do list as well, specifically because of the role that students play in the competitive rental market.
Moving more students onto campus
Only an estimated 32.8 percent of the roughly 21,300 students live on campus, university spokesperson Matt Lazier said. According to Marx, city residents are frustrated with the amount of affordable housing taken up by students. Increasing the student population living on campus will be vital to soothing relationships between the two groups and freeing up more housing for the non-student workforce.
“Well, the obvious thing is to encourage Cal Poly to build more on-campus dorms, and dorms that older students would enjoy,” Marx said. “I’ve been successful in getting my word across to the CSU, to President Armstrong. That has resulted in the new Dorms South [Student Housing South] and then recently, we heard that there are 1,800 more dorm spaces that are in the planning process, so I think that’s very exciting, and it’s the right direction.”
All housing plans in addition to Student Housing South are still in the preliminary phase, and the university is not able to release additional information at the moment, according to Lazier.
Marx is also in favor of moving greek houses onto campus.
Relocating greek houses would open up housing in neighborhoods for community members, including staff and faculty who commute into the city.
It’s possible that Cal Poly could purchase the neighborhood directly surrounding Campus Health & Wellbeing, Marx said. This area is listed under R4 city zoning, which is high density development of up to four residences per acre. The neighborhood could be turned into the new greek row or village, and current greek houses would then be reincorporated into family neighborhoods, she said.
The availability of that housing would not be the only perk of on-campus greek housing, according to Marx.
Student parties disrupt neighborhoods every year, Marx said. Given that fraternities often host parties, concentrating greek life on campus would help reduce the problem, she said.
So far, policies such as the city’s noise ordinance, implemented in 2015, have been the main way of discouraging students from disturbing their neighbors with large parties.
The city ordinance bans noise that can be heard over a resident’s property line between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. and a violation can lead to a fine ranging from $350 to $1,000, according to guidelines listed on the city’s website. Marx said that she has been pleased with the results she has seen within the community. This year marks the lowest number of noise complaints the first few weeks of the school year that has been seen in more than 10 years.
“In general, I think the noise ordinance, the unruly gathering ordinance, all work together to basically try to keep it possible for our city to have integrated neighborhoods,” Marx said. “I don’t want to have segregated neighborhoods where it’s all one age, or all one anything. And so for people to live together is part of the growing up process.”
On the Rental Housing Inspection Program
The rental community is critical of the Rental Housing Inspection Program. There is concern that the fees associated with inspections will discourage rental owners and that the availability of housing will go down.
The program is being challenged in a lawsuit filed by trustees of the Barasch Revocable Family Trust and the Kokkonen Family Trust. These trustees are property owners who claim that the program violates Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights to privacy and protection from self-incrimination, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Marx referred questions about the lawsuit to the City Attorney’s office. Assistant City Manager Derek Johnson said the city is analyzing the details of the suit, but other than that, the city had no comment.
Johnson also addressed possible concerns regarding invasion of privacy that renters might have.
“One of the issues with the program is about entry,” he said. “There has not been and there will not be entry into private residences without willing consent or valid warrants.”
Marx has put the rental inspection program on the agenda for the new city council for March, she said. Ideally, she’d like to modify it rather than repealing the policy but she says that it’s ultimately up to the council.
Beyond working with Cal Poly, Marx has other plans for development in the city.
Building apartments downtown
Marx is a proponent of transforming the city’s downtown into a more residential area. This plan is still in preliminary stages, but would probably involve higher density apartment-style housing. The basic idea is to add apartment levels to existing buildings where appropriate and compatible, she said.
“Again, that would have to be very creatively and sensitively done so that it doesn’t destroy the charm and the ambience of the downtown,” Marx said. “But we have been putting more and more people into the downtown, and I want it to be a real neighborhood, a real urban neighborhood.”
The city recently annexed two areas outside of downtown which can now be developed, at least in part, into neighborhoods, Marx said. Portions of the San Luis Ranch, behind the post office on Dalidio Road and the Avila Ranch — south of the city airport — must be preserved for agriculture. However, she says that the intention is to build affordable workforce housing in at least one of the areas.
More bike and pedestrian routes
When a larger percentage of the workforce is living in the city, it’s possible San Luis Obispo’s streets will be hit with more traffic. Marx is a major supporter of expanding and improving bike and pedestrian routes in the city, especially those connecting Cal Poly’s campus to the city center. She was responsible for the current bike and pedestrian connection onto campus at Foothill Boulevard. The next step is to take the connection to campus from Taft Street over the train tracks to Pepper Street, Marx said. This path would cross the railroad tracks at a point where they are in a ravine, so it wouldn’t interfere with the trains.
Marx said that she always has been and always will be a great supporter of the relationship between the school and San Luis Obispo.
“I think Cal Poly and the city really are like Siamese twins, and neither one of us are going away,” Marx said. “Without the university, and I’ll have to say, without Cuesta College, this city would be a very different and much more boring place — I think Cal Poly is a real asset, and the students are certainly incredible.”
Long-term local and environmental activist Heidi Harmon, challenging Jan Marx for mayor, plans to focus on issues such as climate change and improving mental health services in the city. Even so, affordable housing is the city’s most pressing issue.
More on-campus housing, in the form of tiny houses
“I think in general San Luis Obispo is really at a crossroads moment where we’re really having to decide what kind of city we want to be, and that manifests itself in a lot of issues,” Harmon said. “But primarily, housing is an issue on a lot of people’s minds.”
Many conversations about housing in San Luis Obispo turn to the issue of Cal Poly’s ever-growing population of off-campus students. It’s important that the city works with the school to get a higher percentage of students living on campus, Harmon said. She would like to look into building tiny house communities on campus, though that would be something for the school to take lead on.
However, the most important piece of centering student life on campus is building more appealing communities there.
“I think that in terms of housing on campus, in my view, it’s not just about building a bunch of dorms and sort of pushing, sticking students or demanding that students live on campus,” she said. “It’s really about building meaningful housing communities on campus that students will want to live in.”
Making Cal Poly a fully “wet” campus, meaning that 21-and-over students can drink on campus, is important for students to have a fulfilling social experience while living on campus, she said.
Cal Poly enrollment cap
Harmon is also interested in placing an enrollment cap on Cal Poly. She cited University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) as an example of a school that successfully employed an enrollment cap. She also noted that UCSC has a cap of around 17,000 students, almost 5,000 fewer than are currently enrolled at Cal Poly, and is located in a city much bigger than San Luis Obispo.
Easing noise ordinances
Tensions over student parties and the city noise ordinance enacted in 2015 are also pressing issues Harmon wants to address as soon as possible. A far more effective method of solving this issue would be building inter-community relationships.
“I’d like to see less ordinances and more relationships,” Harmon said. “I think that if you go into a neighborhood and you try to build more bridges and build those relationships, my hope is that the need for ordinances would be less.”
The key is to create a relationship between students in neighborhoods and permanent residents. The city could create a block-party program, funded through grants or general funds, Harmon said.
Harmon’s idea would include neighborhood block parties on weekends, organized by a “neighborhood captain” appointed by the city. This would allow residents to build the kind of relationships that would lead to mutual respect and understanding between demographics.
Repealing the Rental Housing Inspection Program
Equally controversial in the community is the Rental Housing Inspection Program, which is being challenged in a lawsuit filed by trustees of the Barasch Revocable Family Trust and the Kokkonen Family Trust. The Barasch and Kokkonen trustees are suing on the grounds that the program violates owners’ Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights to privacy and protection from self-incrimination, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to the suit.
Harmon is among those who believe the program should be repealed.
“It’s gotten so far off track that, I guess potentially, you could backtrack it and create something positive, but I think too that the community is really looking for a fresh start with that whole problem,” Harmon said.
Instead, Harmon would like to re-examine the rental standards and policies that the city already had in place, and look into why they were ineffective. The priority should be ensuring that both tenants and owners are educated on standards and their own rights, she says. Additionally, the city needs to make sure that tenants know the city will support them in seeking remedies if there
Building tiny homes for more housing
Another high priority in terms of housing is exploring the possibility of tiny home communities in the city, Harmon said. Tiny homes have a low carbon footprint and are designed to be more affordable, she said. However, according to Harmon, tiny homes can only accommodate a limited number of residents per home, and don’t allow for multi-story housing. Harmon thinks the most space-efficient way to incorporate them into communities would be to place tiny homes in the backyards of larger homes.
Building apartments, offices downtown
The city also needs to look into higher story and mixed use density, Harmon said. Mixed use spaces could be built in downtown, Harmon said. The spaces would have existing retail on the bottom level, a layer of office spaces and then a top level of residential spaces.
“As long as they didn’t take away from the essential character of the downtown, or destroy the view-sheds to the extent that, you know, it kind of ruins a lot of what we like about living here, then I would be interested in looking at those,” Harmon said.
Improve bike paths and public transportation
Bringing a larger population into downtown could worsen traffic, but alternative methods of transportation might offset this. Workers who previously had to drive into town or from other areas of the city could take public transportation, walk or bike instead, Harmon said.
Developments on the outskirts of town could also add to traffic. She would ensure the city is fully informed of any possible traffic consequences before signing off on new development, and that contractors continue to work closely with the city to mitigate effects.
It’s also important that the city improves bike paths and public transportation, Harmon said. Ideally, existing bike paths will be developed into safer, protected paths, and new ones will be built, she said.
The city is more than capable of achieving all this and more.
“There’s no reason that SLO can’t be a city of vision, but it needs a visionary leader to do that,” Harmon said. “Having a clear vision and having a strong leader and someone that is very much community-oriented can get all those voices in the community to the table to have, you know, a consensus around what we want that vision to be.”