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March 25, 2009 > What is a Housing Element?

What is a Housing Element?

By Simon Wong

The State of California requires every City to adopt a "land use constitution" called a General Plan. Cities and counties adopt and update their General Plans to guide current and long-term growth and land development within their jurisdictions. The General Plan outlines goals, purposes, zoning and activities permitted on each land parcel to deliver compatibility and continuity throughout the community as well as to individual neighborhoods.

A General Plan contains seven mandatory "elements," or local policies, including Housing. Housing element law, enacted in 1969, requires local governments to plan adequately for current and future housing needs for all socio-economic groups in their community.

The law recognizes private markets alone do not address all housing needs, so municipalities must adopt land use plans and ordinances to facilitate residential development. Thus, housing policy in California relies heavily on the implementation of local general plans, particularly the local housing element which guides decision-making by City officials.

A Housing Element must include public input, a community profile, identify existing housing needs, a resource inventory, governmental and non-governmental constraints on housing and evaluate the efficacy of existing policies. It also sets out the City's goals, policies, programs and quantified objectives.

The California Department of Housing & Community Development (HCD) administers a mandated process called Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) that determines the total number of housing units needed and mix of affordability across extremely-low to above-moderate income groups, based on five-year forecasts of population growth and other trends. That figure is divided and sub-divided into regional, county and city allocations and appears in the resource inventory.

For the period January 1, 2007 to June 30, 2014, the Association of Bay Area Governments has an RHNA of 214,500 units, of which Union City has 1,944 units, Hayward, 3.393, Fremont, 4,380 and Newark, 863.

The RHNA is not a production quota, i.e. cities are not required to build the units. The Housing Element must show, however, that the city has identified land that is zoned, or could be zoned, residential to accommodate its "fair share" allocation of regional housing needs.

The availability of affordable rental and for-sale housing essentially rests with a City's intent to provide it, subject to market, governmental, environmental and preservation constraints. Housing programs are a city's tools to conserve the existing housing stock and make housing affordable.

They include renovation, minor repair, special needs, fair housing services, universal design, residential rental inspections, graffiti abatement, preservation of at-risk housing, foreclosure prevention and counselling, purchase, rehabilitation and sale of foreclosures, first time homebuyer programs, mortgage credit certificates, tenant-based rental assistance for certain groups, density bonus, green building ordinances, Section 8 housing choice voucher, provision of adequate sites and inclusionary housing ordinances which requires a percentage of new, market-rate residential units be discounted for low to moderate income households.

Partnerships with private companies and non-profits, such as Eden Housing and Mid-Peninsula Housing Coalition, have provided homes for those unable to afford market-rate units.

"Although there is no requirement to adopt an affordable, inclusionary housing ordinance, about 170 jurisdictions in California have one. Union City felt it was a viable and efficient tool to help develop affordable housing for all sections of the community, though some developers claim it is a 'tax' on housing development. However, as more vacant lands are developed for market-rate units, there is less land available for affordable housing," explained Vern Smith, Housing & Community Development Coordinator.

Unlike other mandatory general plan elements, the Housing Element must be updated every 5 years and cover a 7 1/2 year timeframe. It is subject to statutory review by HCD to ensure compliance with State laws.

Bay Area cities are currently at different stages of the update process. Union City recently engaged with stakeholders. On March 3, Fremont approved submittal of its Draft Element for HCD review. Hayward's will be submitted on March 27, followed by CEQA review and tentative adoption in June. Whilst many cities' housing elements have policies, goals and programs in common, variations reflect the differences between communities, such as a steep rise in foreclosures in the City of Hayward (see related story).

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