What are the requirements?
In 2013, Placer County and the municipalities within the county updated their Housing Element, a state-mandated component of the General Plan. The Housing Element examines current and future housing needs and identifies public and private solutions to increase safe, decent and affordable housing and housing choices in our communities.
The State does not require cities and counties to actually build the housing necessary to meet the community’s needs. However, it does require that each community adopt policies and programs to support housing development, as well as designate adequate land at appropriate densities to meet the housing needs.
Current policy allows different options for affordable housing, including the payment of in-lieu fees, the dedication of land, construction of affordable units or a combination of each.
With nearly 60 thousand more homes projected to be built over the next 20 years, it is important for municipalities to develop policies, incentives and creative ways that help developers construct the affordable units. We only have to look to the eastern part of our county and to other parts of the state to see that failure to do this has even more serious and expensive implications for the community.
As new commercial development projects are being proposed, consideration should be given to the jobs-housing balance. Ideally, that is when the jobs available in a community need to match the skills of the workforce, and housing should be available at prices, sizes and locations for workers who wish to live in the area.
For example, in 2007, Placer County Economic Development Office commissioned the North Auburn Market and Commercial Study. One of the key challenges identified for economic development was a lack of workforce housing for area employees. Now, ten years later, substantial retail development has occurred — producing many more lower wage jobs and yet more new commercial developments are still being approved without including a conversation about the need for available affordable housing.
The county and each city need to adopt policies and programs to support housing development, as well as designate adequate land at appropriate densities to meet the housing needs.
What is the Housing Element?
The Housing Element is the main document that establishes the County or City housing policies. It is intended to ensure that decent, safe, affordable shelter is provided for all residents. The Housing Element Update covers an eight year time period, from 2013 to 2021.
Every city and county in California is required to have a Housing Element. State law defines the specific topics that must be covered. These include:
- An evaluation of existing housing policies and programs
- A needs assessment, based on data on demographics and housing conditions
- An analysis of any obstacles to affordable housing production in the community
- An inventory of all potential sites where housing may be constructed
- Goals, objectives, and policies, defining the community’s position on various housing issues and setting measurable targets for meeting housing needs
- An action plan identifying the specific steps the community will take to implement its housing policies.
IDEAS: AN ON-GOING CONVERSATION
We know that there’s not one silver-bullet solution. This is not simple. But to begin building a brighter future for all in our region, you have to start the discussion. We don’t have all the answers but here are some common points to consider.
No single policy action—from new tax credits to streamlined regulations—can produce the amount of affordable housing needed. What will be required, instead, is an “all of the above” strategy — supported by the broadest possible coalition, with leadership at the highest levels of city and county government. We need to look at removing local policy barriers standing in the way of building below-market homes. But for the broader market to benefit—and for home prices to come down for the rest of us—we also need to speak up for policies that improve the climate for market-rate housing.
Invest more in housing production trust funds. This money is used to help developers finance new buildings that include units for low-income and working-class residents.
Reduce the number of exemptions from inclusionary zoning laws. Some municipalities have laws on the books requiring some sliver of units in any new development be affordable. Still, there are myriad exemptions. Tightening these laws to prevent so many exemptions, while extending the period that affordable units must remain affordable (something like 30 years) would be a positive move forward.
Make more land available for housing. Preferably land that puts low- to moderate-income people near opportunities. Siting affordable housing on the outskirts of town runs the risk of cementing poverty, rather than alleviating it. And pursue development near good public transportation while, where possible, open up unused public land, and have policies designed to get development started quicker.
Local governments also need to review and revise their zoning ordinances. This provides more flexibility, allows mixed uses where they were previously prohibited, and encourages the development of more affordable housing. When plans, zoning, and development applications align, it reduces costs and timeframes for development. This provides some margin to reduce housing prices.
Educate people about what affordable housing is and who lives there. When some people think of affordable housing, they envision barracks-style apartment complexes, rampant crime and drug deals taking place on stairwells and street corners. The reality is that your son’s college professor or the barista who served up your coffee this morning may well live in well-managed affordable housing units, which often blend in seamlessly with other homes.
Fear of change is natural and understandable. To educate people, leaders and developers need to share information about successful projects, defuse fears of traffic impacts by making data on traffic counts widely available, and document environmental and lifestyle benefits of this form of development. Financial and economic data exist too, but tend to be less persuasive to current residents. Education, information, and understanding won’t happen overnight, but it is important to have an ongoing conversation.
“Inclusionary planning.” This allows developers to build more densely in return for commitments to make more affordable housing available. The county and cities in the region need to get ahead of the demand by preparing master plans and sector or neighborhood plans that allow mixed uses, higher densities, and transit infrastructure in certain areas where jobs and housing will concentrate. Once the right plans are in place, it is much easier for developers to tailor their development plans in the desired direction and also easier (in terms of time and money) to get plans approved.