Speaker: Unemployment at unacceptable levels

SAN LUIS OBISPO — One message came through loud and clear at the annual Central Coast Economic Forecast: the County of San Luis Obispo needs more housing if it wants to prosper. Keynote speaker Chris Thornberg told a room packed with the Central Coast’s movers and shakers that California needs to build for success, instead of waiting for success to build.

According to Thornberg, California’s economy is booming. The state ranks in the top 10 for five-year employment and percent earning growth among other numerous strong indicators. However, like the entire state, the County faces a housing shortage. The jobs are there, but there are not enough people to fill those jobs because people can not afford the rent or to purchase property. Thornberg said that without people to work the jobs, the state and local economy is bound to falter.

Generally speaking, high unemployment is bad and low unemployment is good although Thornberg said that ultralow unemployment causes its own problems. The current unemployment rate for San Luis Obispo sits at 2.8 percent, an unhealthy number in Thornberg’s opinion.

“Your unemployment rate is too low because there is no population growth,” Thornberg told the crowd. “Why is there no population growth? Because people are moving away.” 

Thornberg said the lack of housing supply is driving the California exodus. The problem he said was not an affordable crisis, but a supply crisis

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“We don’t have anywhere near enough housing and because we don’t have enough housing that’s pushing housing costs up,” Thornberg continued. “It becomes a bidding war where only the most high-end of families win and that’s what you’re seeing here, a bidding war that’s pushing out low-income families.”

“I agree with [Thornberg],” Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno said, “that it’s not just about building the lower-income homes, we need to build that moderate-income so people in the lower-income homes need to move up to the moderate-income.” 

Paso Robles City Manager Tom Frutchey said that his City is working to produce the needed housing stock. However, Frutchey said that when the City does build, there is a threat of it being bought up by people from outside the area which continues the housing supply stalemate. He said Paso does what it can to encourage marketing to residents who live or work in the North County when a new development phase opens up.

The answer Thornberg proposed was to stop building outward and that cities need to promote density and start building upward, especially when it comes to downtown SLO.

“We’re not built out, we do have too much sprawl, we need density… we have to go build-up, it’s not complicated,” he said. He also combated the idea that density produces traffic, “You want to know why traffic is so bad it’s because everybody drives an hour and a half to get to work.”

Another major message in Thornberg’s lecture was battling what he calls miserablism, where the press, the public and the politicians focus on a negative message. He said that despite the negative rhetoric, California’s economy is kicking.

“By the way, there’s fast pace of wage growth on the Pacific Coast, great numbers across the board, particularly here in California, people are getting ahead,” said Thornberg. 

He went on to say that comparing 1970s wages to present-day pay is a false narrative when the quality of life is taken into account.

“Today we live longer, we live healthier, we live safer, we live stronger,”  Thornberg said.