Housing and homelessness are two major challenges the city of Merced will face in the next two years as Mayor Mike Murphy finishes out the remainder of his time in office.
Murphy says those issues are at the top of his priority list.
The 39-year-old mayor spoke to the Sun-Star this week about his goals and the city’s challenges through 2020. Murphy’s term also lines up with UC Merced’s 2020 Project, which in itself provides the city with a slew of opportunities — and also challenges, as the student population rapidly grows.
“In the city of Merced it’s two two-year terms, which is really short,” he said. “In 2020, I’ll be done being mayor and I look forward to passing the torch to whoever that next person’s going to be.”
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Merced has seen an influx of investment that leaders say is in large thanks to the University of California’s pledge to pour $1.33 billion into UC Merced’s expansion. The system spent another $45 million on the Downtown Center in what leaders have said is an effort to further entwine the city and the school.
Since those announcements, the city has seen investors looking to refurbish and otherwise upgrade Hotel Tioga, El Capitan Hotel and Mainzer Theater, among other interest.
“Folks that follow what happens at City Hall know that I have a real focus on our downtown,” Murphy said. “A healthy, thriving city needs to have a strong, vibrant downtown. That includes places to eat, places to be entertained, places for art and culture, and also desirable places to live.”
Also this month, the nonprofit think tank Milken Institute said Merced took a huge leap up its “best performing cities” list in thanks to UC Merced’s planned growth through 2020.
With all that investment, the growing university also brings hurdles to overcome. UC Merced is making room for 10,000 students, which is double the size of the campus since 2011.
In that time, Merced built very few new homes or apartment buildings until last year, when the city issued 659 permits to build single-family homes. Experts say that continues to drive up prices as the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent.
Merced is not alone in the statewide housing crisis but the perfect storm of few vacant properties and a low median income has led to affordability problems for many families, according to real estate tracker HomeArea.com.
“Our housing stock didn’t keep up with our population growth during the Recession. There was a space where developers weren’t building anything,” Murphy said. “The key to keeping prices affordable is to have more supply. We’re making strides to do that.”
Permits have also been issued for about 800 rental units, but their construction is contingent on developers getting the financing they need, officials say. Merced leaders also approved a program to encourage in-law suites, an effort to make any dent possible into the housing stock shortage.
Also like many cities in the state, Merced faces challenges related to homelessness. The town had 310 homeless people during a tally in 2018, eight fewer than a year prior. Police Chief Chris Goodwin this week said his department’s most common call for service is related to transiency, which could refer to a homeless person, a person drinking in public, a suspicious person in a parking lot or other related reports.
Murphy said homelessness is also what he gets asked about the most when he’s out and about.
“It’s become a statewide epidemic. No city of substantial size has been spared,” he said. “Residents look to cities to address homelessness, which we do, although we need cooperation from other partners.”
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of homelessness. It’s just not a solution. It doesn’t work,” he said. “We’re an important piece to solving homelessness, but it can’t be a city-only approach.”
It is Merced County’s purview — and not the individual cities — to provide mental health, substance abuse and other services often aimed at the homeless, Murphy noted.
The mayor was the first Merced leader to hold a State of the City Address. He’ll present his third State of the City Address at 11 a.m. Friday Feb. 8 at Merced Theatre, 301 W. Main St. Another notable first Murphy made was to recognize Gay Pride Month in his first year in office.
Murphy said a major concern the the council will soon face is ongoing decisions on how to annex north toward UC Merced without encouraging urban sprawl.
In the nearer future, economists predict a cyclical looming slump in the economy.
“The hope is that it is a much more mild setback than what we experienced during the Great Recession, but in any event we’re putting money away for a rainy day,” he said. ”We have a plan to address it. We’re facing it head-on.”