It may seem odd to say this about a city of 500,000 people, but Mesa is grappling with what it wants to be when it grows up.
That emerged as the basic question when the City Council heard an update on Mesa’s efforts to revise its housing master plan.
That slow-moving, largely bureaucratic procedure will soon produce a document aimed at guiding the development of Mesa’s housing stock over the next 20 years.
What city staff sought in the study session was endorsement of five overarching principles that have been hammered out as a result of community meetings and discussions with council members over the past several months.
Those principles embrace the idea that Mesa will need to work with governmental and private partners to ensure the city’s housing stock is adequate, diverse and safe.
Council was fine with that. But in the process, members raised a multitude of worries about the city’s huge stock of deteriorating mobile homes and its longstanding image as a bedroom community that serves as a dumping ground for the East Valley’s low-income residents.
Raw data from the U.S. Census Bureau underscored that concern.
According to Ruth Giese, Mesa’s community services director:
Mesa’s median income, which in 2000 was 5.6% higher than the statewide average, now stands at 4.5% below the statewide average and 12.2% below the average for Maricopa County.
About 38.5% of Mesa’s population is classified as low- or moderate-income, earning substantially less than the area median income.
More than 81,000 Mesa residents and nearly 14,000 families are considered to live in poverty. That’s 17.2% of the population and 12.7% of Mesa’s families—the second-highest percentage among cities in in Maricopa County.
Homeownership in Mesa has declined from 66% of its households in 2000 to 58% in 2015, a lingering effect of the devastating Great Recession.
Despite all that, Mesa is still growing at a robust pace. It’s expected to add 60,000 people and will need 30,000 additional housing units by 2030, Giese said.
It may need more than that, however, if some way can be found to move people out of an expanding stock of manufactured homes that have sunk into decrepitude.
Manufactured homes represent 10% of Mesa’s existing housing stock. Unlike brick-and-mortar homes, they depreciate over time and in Mesa, nearly 40% of them are at least four decades old.
Councilman David Luna described the problem.
“You drive through many of these parks—they’re in deplorable condition, almost Third World,” he said. “So, we’ve got to do something to correct that.”
He referred to Mesa’s controversial efforts to correct slum conditions in the downtown Mesa Royale trailer park—a problem that was fixed when the nonprofit Chicanos Por La Casa bought the property last year with plans to build condos on the site.
“We don’t want to repeat what many of us experienced” with Mesa Royale, Luna said.
“To me, this will be one of the biggest takeaways in this (housing plan) document,” Mayor John Giles said. “What is the plan for dealing with the deteriorating quality of manufactured homes in our city?”
Giles suggested the city might eventually require such homes to be removed and not replaced except with traditional structures.
“I’m not convinced that manufactured housing is a sustainable way to go,” he said. “Maybe we need to engage with the manufactured housing industry to convince us otherwise.”
Apart from that concern, council members fretted about Mesa’s history as a magnet for lower-income residents.
And while acknowledging that low-income people need housing, council members fear that an inordinate focus on that end of the housing market will entomb the city in mediocrity.
The upside, City Manager Chris Brady said, is that “we’re the most affordable community in the Valley.”
But he said if the council is worried about too much low-grade housing stock, it can say no when unacceptable projects come up for rezoning.
Councilman Kevin Thompson, who represents southeast Mesa, said unfavorable demographics can have a devastating impact.
In regular meetings with the management of Superstition Springs Shopping Center, Thomson said company executives will ask him, “How can you decrease the average age (of people in the area) by 10 years and the average income by $10,000?”
If too many low-income people pile into one area, he said, businesses will leave, and the poverty cycle will spiral downward.
Councilman Jeremy Whittaker, representing south-central Mesa, said Mesa could be bearing the costs of neighboring communities’ focus on more upscale housing.
“It would appear to me that if we build a bunch of low-income apartments and housing that we’re just going to draw that population away from neighboring cities,” Whittaker said.
Thompson echoed that concern.
Mesa might complain about the number of low-income residents, he said, “but then we invite that in our housing stock. … We either have to stop complaining about our median income and just live with it, or we have to do something about it. You can’t have it both ways.”
Mesa shouldn’t have to bear the burden alone, Thompson said.
“What’s the tipping point where we force our neighboring communities to do more?”
The housing master plan, which is to be a component of Mesa’s 2040 master plan, is in late stages of preparation. Giese said a final draft should be in the council’s hands by January.